Recently I was shown some re-tellings of the Easter story written by children in P2. One boy’s account was particularly accurate and vivid. On Easter Sunday morning, two ladies, he said, went to the tomb. The stone was rolled away. They looked in, and what did they see? Just ‘a tea-shirt, a pair of trousers and a pair of socks.’ Jesus had risen!
That makes us smile. But all my sympathy is with that little boy. There is just something about the stories of the empty tomb that carry conviction. Even Graham Greene, with his on / off attitude to faith, said as much.
There is much more than an empty tomb to give a foundation to faith in the Resurrection. And who would blame the cautious theologians for saying that, of itself, the empty tomb is no proof? And yet, says the Gospel, ‘he [the Beloved Disciple] saw and he believed’. There is something compelling here. The fact that a woman went there first – it rings true. Then the running of the two disciples, like excited boys, with one outstripping the other and Peter coming up panting after. The beloved disciple waiting for him, giving way to him, letting him in first. And then the ‘tea-shirt’, the cloths. The larger set, the cloths wrapped round the body, lying on the ground. The other one, a smaller cloth, the size of a large napkin usually, which had been used to cover the head and face, ‘rolled up in a place by itself’. More precisely, neatly folded. Mustn’t Jesus have done that himself, with his own hands? The other cloths simply falling to the ground. This one he taking off, folding and putting aside. It’s such a human touch. How often, as a child, he must have seen his mother fold a cloth! He’d have done it countless times himself. Anyway, it’s enough for the Beloved Disciple: ‘he saw and he believed.’
Of course, it could be fiction. But it convinces me. And the stakes here were too high for fiction. Jesus’ Resurrection had implications for those who first believed it and talked about it. It didn’t bring them an easy life. Most of the apostles came to a blood-soaked end. And when they or their companions wrote down the memories of the beginning, they weren’t writing a short story in a magazine. The stakes were too high.
Such a little thing, that folded cloth, but it tipped the Disciple into faith. Perhaps he recognised the style, the Master’s mark. It’s little things that make us trust or like one another. And so when it comes to believing in Jesus, in recognising him as not among the dead but among the living. Little things leading to a big conclusion – ‘And all the great conclusions coming near’, as a poet put it (Elizabeth Jennings, Answers). But coming near through little details. And these little things, life’s folded cloths, not proofs, but signs. Last night in this Cathedral, five adults were baptised and three more, already baptised in other churches, became Catholics. If you asked them why they took this step, they would probably mention things small in themselves, but coming together, converging, creating associations in their minds, and finally convincing.
Let me mention another sign, rather different, that helps persuade me. In the first reading we saw Peter, just a few years after the Resurrection, telling a pagan soldier and his household that Christ is risen. Today, as we speak, the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, is saying the same thing to ‘the City and the world’ from a window in Rome: Christ is risen! Two thousand years of consistent proclamation of something utterly unprecedented. Not a proof, but to me anyway a sign. It’s not a little thing that’s being said.
Two final thoughts.
First, it really is a matter of ‘great conclusions’. The Resurrection changes everything. It gives our life, human history, the whole universe, a quite new horizon. It opens up the hope of a life stronger than death, of a fullness of life we can hardly imagine. And this frees us. It frees us from that dull foreboding which lurks behind even our most exuberant moments. The Resurrection is a hidden thing – hidden in stories and formulas of faith, hidden in the sacraments, hidden in ourselves – but in this hidden thing a whole new world is coming near, a world where everything wrong is put right, and we’ll have nothing to eat and drink, as it were, but joy: joy in ourselves, in one another, in God. Christ is risen! It means that the great battle between good and evil is already decided, and that the outbursts of evil we experience are really just the death-rattle of a dying world, the squirmings of a decapitated snake. The Resurrection sets us free. It changed the disciples. There is Peter doing the unthinkable for a devout Jew, speaking to a pagan in his house, stepping outside his previous world. The God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has become the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of everyone. The horizon has changed.
And yet, secondly, lastly, it is, again, the small things that bring this great conclusion near, that act as its signs. And we are small things. Our lives, in a sense, are small – but can sign to a great conclusion. We can be the clothes the living Christ wears now. Our faith, hope and love can be signs to others, to the world. If we live simple ‘unleavened’ lives, if we try to take the Beatitudes as our rule of life, we can be signs. If we don’t make gods of pleasure or money or power and position, if we live chastely, moderately, usefully, we can be signs. If we’re generous and attentive to others, if we prefer to serve rather than dominate and forgive rather than resent, we can be signs. If we get rid of ‘the old yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’, we can be signs. If we’re faithful in little things, we can be signs. And Jesus will have risen, not just in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but in us and in our world.