By Father Donald Dilger
Easter Sunday: The Resurrection of The Lord, Year C
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17. 22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9
Background to the first reading – the setting is not the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It is months or even years later. By this time, Simon Peter had emerged as chief spokesman for Christians. At this time, he was staying in Joppa, 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem. In the context of our reading, he had just experienced a vision in which he was commanded to overcome his hesitation about proclaiming the Christian message to non-Jews; that is, to Gentiles, heathens and pagans. The voice in the vision told him to go to the home of Cornelius, a Roman military officer stationed in Caesarea, north of Joppa. Cornelius and his household were devout folks who did a lot of praying and contributed to Jewish synagogues. Cornelius had been told by an angel that his prayers had been heard and to send for Peter. Peter accompanied Cornelius’ messengers. Our first reading is part of Peter’s proclamation in the house of Cornelius. The Lectionary omits the most important part, the headline. “I truly believe that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who reveres him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” In this statement, Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, conveys the revelation that God’s mission through Jesus was destined for all nations.
The sermons attributed to Peter and others in Acts were not recorded on site or at the time of delivery. Luke composed these sermons from traditions handed down in writing or orally, combining them with Old Testament passages and with his own developing theology. In many cases, a sermon attributed to someone would be Luke’s concept of what that person should have said on such and such an occasion. That is no problem for us, once we understand that what the authors wrote under the inspiration (not dictation) of the Holy Spirit conveys whatever revelation God wished to convey. The sermon of Peter in today’s reading is a sample of how Christian proclamation was conducted in the first Christian century. It might begin, as in our reading, with the mission of John the Baptizer; Jesus’ baptism; his preaching and healing; his crucifixion and resurrection. One could add a list of witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection, closing with a promise that those who believe in Jesus and repent will be forgiven. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was simple.
After the first reading, we may wonder what it has to do with the celebration of Easter. The climax of Peter’s sermon was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This became the source of the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 118 responds with joy because God has worked these wonders due to his “mercy which endures forever.” It is through the resurrection of Jesus that “the stone which was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” of Christian faith and life. The people respond with joy, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”
The context of the reading from 1 Corinthians: is a scandal in the Christian community at Corinth. Paul is no longer in Corinth, but across the sea in Ephesus (southwest Turkey today). By letter, Paul excommunicates the offender to warn his “parishioners” from following the sinner’s bad example. He uses an example familiar to his readers. When baking bread, it takes only a small bit of leaven (yeast) to cause the whole mass of dough to rise. It was the custom among pious Jews to clear out of their homes even the smallest crumb of leavened bread to prepare for the feast of Passover, which, by law, had to be celebrated with unleavened bread. Paul applies this homely example to the situation at Corinth, telling them to clean house. “Clear out the old leaven (yeast) so that you may become a fresh batch of dough.” Harsh lessons go better with a compliment, as Paul continues, “which you already are, since Christ, our own Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.” The gospel takes us to the first day of the week following Passover. On that Sunday morning, the first person the gospel mentions is Mary of Magdala. Her hometown was on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about five miles south of Capernaum, which had been the center of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Who was this woman? Why out so early on Sunday morning? All we know about her is from the gospels. According to Luke 8:2-3, she was one of a group of wealthy women who supported Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Luke notes that Jesus had cast seven devils out of her. In those times, a popular belief accepted that unearthly demons were the cause of at least some human illnesses. There is absolutely no evidence in the Scriptures that the seven devils had anything to do with sexuality. So, whence the idea that she was a reformed prostitute? Pope Gregory I, 590-604, called “the Great,” in a series of sermons on Mary of Magdala in 591, sanctioned what had long been a popular belief — that she was the same lady of the night encountered in Luke 7. (Gregory was indeed “Great,” but even the best Greats have bad days. This was one of them.)
That lady of the night in Luke 7 came into a house where Jesus was a dinner guest. She stood behind him. She was weeping. Her tears fell on Jesus’ feet which were propped up on a bench as he was reclining (halfway sitting up) at table according to custom. She wiped his feet with her long hair and anointed them with expensive fragrant ointment. Her name is unknown. So Mary of Magdala was burdened with this defamation up to our own time, and it will probably go on that way. In 2016, Pope Francis tried to make amends to her by elevating her feast day, July 22, to a rank equal to that of the Apostles. Her rehabilitation began even earlier. But even before attempts at rehabilitating her reputation, we can go back to Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), who called her “Apostle to the Apostles.” So here was Mary of Magdala, very early on Sunday morning, drawn to his tomb by love of him now thought to be quite dead. The stone blocking the entrance was rolled back. She ran to report to the apostles, who were hiding out of fear of arrest as accomplices of Jesus, executed as a would-be king. Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” ran to the tomb to verify. It was empty. Peter remained clueless for now, but “the other disciple . . . saw and believed.” Our gospel reading ends at this point. Coming soon — the rest of the story. Happy Easter!