Friday, April 19, 2019

Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way?

Easter Sunday

If you have been faithfully following and attending the masses of the Easter Triduum, you would realise that a liturgical hymn or two is weaved into each day’s liturgy, complementing the readings with beautiful lyrical poetry expounding profound theology. There is the Thomistic Eucharistic Hymn of Pange Lingua and the beautiful medieval Ubi Caritas on Maundy Thursday, the Stabat Mater for the Stations of the Cross and the Reproaches for the  Good Friday liturgy, and finally the extraordinary chant of the mother of all vigils, the Exultet, which you would have heard last night if you attended the Easter Vigil mass in the Holy Night.

But this morning’s liturgy would not be an anti-climax, in fact the hymn that we’ve just been treated to is to be sung during masses throughout the Octave of Easter, the next eight days of the week till next Sunday. Its Latin name is “Victimae paschali laudes”, which is the incipit (opening words) of the traditional Easter sequence, “Christians, to the Paschal victim”. This plainsong chant hymn provides a dramatic celebration of Christ's victory over death in the context of a dialogue between Mary Magdalene and a narrator.

The hymn or sequence is divided into two parts, the first part speaks of the invisible realities which only faith can perceive. But the second part is hinged on the personal eye-witness testimony of Mary Magdalene. The narrator would asked Mary this question, “Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way?” The reason why this question is posed to Mary Magdalene was because she was the first witness of the resurrection. In fact, each of the gospels has Mary Magdalene as the very first to whom the risen Jesus appears, although each describes the circumstances quite differently. Here in the Gospel of St John, both St Peter and the Beloved Disciple having heard the initial report from Mary that the stone which blocked the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, rushes over only to see an empty tomb, whereas Mary alone stayed around long enough to see the Risen Christ, the account of which is not included in today’s gospel reading but follows hereafter. Her testimony, like the testimonies of so many who saw our Risen Lord in the flesh, and the others confirm the central Christian truth that the resurrection was not a hoax, nor was it a purely spiritual reality. Our Lord did indeed physically rise from the dead – not just a resuscitation from a close encounter with death or feigned death.

But what is the true significance of our Lord’s resurrection? To answer this, we need to go to the first part of the Sequence. The second stanza of the hymn goes like this “Death with life contended; combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.” What a terrific image! Most commonly if we speak about people defeating death, we mean that they came close to dying but did not, probably because they fought to stay alive. Christ, however, died. He really died! He did not feign death nor came to a near-death encounter. He truly, really died! But in death, He defeated death by dying and coming back to life by His own power.

So what does the resurrection mean for us today? The Lord’s resurrection proves that once and for all death has been defeated. The resurrection is therefore the story of the outcome of the greatest battle ever fought. Jesus Christ, Life’s own Champion, won the battle that day, and on the first Easter He emerged as victor with great glory. He defeated death’s despair, and transformed death itself: no longer hopeless, it was now, for those who long to see God, the doorway into His unveiled presence and the full realisation of His love and immense goodness. It was the greatest redemptive and restorative act of all history. According to St Melito of Sardis, Christ through His resurrection has “destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven.”

It is true that a large part of society does not fear death anymore, not because of their belief in the resurrection. On the contrary, society often lives as if death were inexistent and the resurrection useless. We toy with the idea of immortality brought about by technological advancement, just like in the movie ‘Transcendence.’ We have sanitised death and have made it the butt of jokes and the stuff of comedies. And yet there is nothing as daunting as the mystery of death. We live as if death were inexistent precisely because the fear of death remains pervasive, particularly for those who are ill or elderly, despite our efforts to defeat it with various methods; it consumes our peace and fills our souls with an unjustifiable anguish, constant uncertainty making it intolerable. To cope with that perennial feeling of listlessness, we live in denial of death. When reality does set in, often too late, we come to realise that death is the one thing we have no power over, despite recent advances in technology.

But our Lord’s resurrection puts an end to our uncertainties.  Death no longer cripples us.  It is no longer the inevitable end of our existence.  The tomb stone no longer covers our existence in an eternal silence.  The massive rock that covered the entrance to Our Lord’s tomb has been removed and Christ has emerged triumphant, victorious over death.  For those who followed in His footsteps, the fear of death disappeared to be replaced with the infilling of joy and hope. Whilst we know that one day we will die, we also know that there is life beyond death.  Because of our Lord’s resurrection we can have the promise of forgiveness, and a fresh start with God. 

We live in the span of history between God’s convincing defeat of the powers of death, and their full and final destruction. The resurrection offers compelling proof that the powers of death are no match for God’s authority. Their weakness has been exposed, their ultimate threat disarmed. While the powers of death have been defeated they have not yet been destroyed. For a time they retain residual power and influence in this world. Indeed, death still stalks all of us and we will have to come to its doors one day. But our situation is no longer hopeless, because we know that death’s power has been diminished by its indisputable defeat at Easter.

Today, in the face of war, famine, dispossession, injustice, the darkness of sin, the loss and death of our loved ones, we cry out to God to act quickly and decisively to destroy what remains of death’s powers. But God waits patiently, offering every opportunity for the enemies of Christ to come to their senses and embrace the ways of God’s kingdom. And we must wait too; but not passively. By our words and actions we boldly announce God’s Easter victory over death – light has triumphed over darkness, truth over falsehood, love over hate, grace over sin. In God’s new order, distress, sickness, death, displacement, sin and violence will no longer hold sway. They will be replaced by joy, peace, hope, truth and love.

And so we ask Mary Magdalane once again, “Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way. And she answers:
“The tomb the Living did enclose;
I saw Christ's glory as He rose!
The angels there attesting;
shroud with grave-clothes resting.
Christ, my hope, has risen:
He goes before you into Galilee.
That Christ is truly risen
from the dead we know.
Victorious King, Thy mercy show! Amen. Alleluia.”

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