“Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Romans 8: 21-23
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.”
I John 5: 9
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.”
John 20: 19-20
I made this point last week at the end of the sermon and I want to underline it again this week: you have what Mary Magdalene did not have – the infallible witness of the Church that the human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised, body and all, from the dead, never to die again (a formula appearing first in Paul’s epistle to the Romans and I Corinthians about 25 years after the resurrection of Christ); furthermore that Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of our own resurrection (again in I Corinthians); and then in 325 the bishops at Nicaea summed up for the Church the infallible creedal declaration that not only was our Lord Jesus Christ “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” but that “on the third day he rose again” and because he rose “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Mary Magdalene experienced a singular intimate event with Jesus the morning he was resurrected and we know from multiple, unrelated sources that Mary’s story was checked out immediately and only part of it verified at first. Each Gospel cites Mary Magdalene as the disciple who first interacted with Jesus fresh as it were from his resurrection. She is the first eyewitness. She was the first to hear him speak and in fact she reported a very real, if short conversation. She also touched his body apparently by taking hold of his feet. It is one thing to have had the experience of our resurrected Lord, but it is altogether another thing, indeed a far better thing it is to understand it. There are clearly many possible interpretations of Mary’s experience as well as the subsequent experiences of the Apostles and even the Apostles themselves reveal some of those interpretations:
“As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.” Luke 24:36,37
“Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”
Luke 24: 22,23
Did Mary experience a spirit? Was Jesus merely alive, which is what the last verse asserts and which word is open to many meanings? It is important for you to grasp that Church’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus is a cardinal mystery of the Faith that came not by blood only, that is not by mere human understanding, but by water, by blood and by the Holy Spirit assisting the mind of Holy Mother Church beginning with the faithful recording of the memories of the Apostles and on to the 1st Ecumenical Council to know the truth of God, the truth that sets us all free.
In other words, the mysteries, the dogmas of the Faith were not discovered and are not demonstrable through human understanding, but God has revealed them to the Church – which is to say that though human understanding does not discover revelation, human understanding does receive God’s revelation. So I mean to say that you have what Apostles did not have that happy resurrection morning: the infallible doctrines of the Church, the Bride of Christ that he left in the world when he ascended back to his Father. And I hope you would not even desire to trade places with Mary in order to experience Jesus as she did because we have the mature fruit of her experience: we have the sure and certain teaching of the Church as well as Christ’s gift of the life-giving sacraments and his life made visibly present in the elements of the Mass every single day.
Now I am very much aware that if we were to put this to a vote: “Who is willing to give up the teachings of Holy Mother Church in exchange the very experience that Mary had that first Easter morning?” Or we could put it another way: “Who believes that actually having Mary’s experience of the resurrected Christ would erase doubt and change your life forever?” most people would go for the gold of experience because our world worships experience. In our times people think experience is everything, experience is the goal and experience is thought to be self-authenticating truth itself. But I am saying that is not true. It is a modern fallacy to live by experience in two senses: first it is mistaken to think that experience is equivalent to knowing, that experience is self-authenticating truth, and secondly associated with that, it is an error to think that there is some experience in life that will make your life meaningful and if you miss out on that experience your world will be meaningless and without value.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story titled A Good Man is Hard to Find is about a family that has taken the wrong road on a trip and ends up being killed by an escaped murderer called the Misfit. The grandmother of the family is the central character and she is also the cause of the wrong turn. Once the Misfit’s two partners kill everyone but the grandmother, the two of them had a conversation. But before we look at the conversation let me say this, Flannery O’Connor knew exactly what she was doing with this story and she did not shy away from using humorous details in the midst of the most horrific events to show where her sympathies lie, as in this description of the Misfit making his first appearance: The Misfit is in the driver’s seat of a black car that looked like a hearse as he pulled up to the lost family. When he got out the grandmother immediately observed that his blue jeans were too tight, he was not wearing a shirt and he was carrying a gun. Then O’Connor made her point: “He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look.” That was no accident – Flannery O’Connor held the opinion that there was something crooked in the world of the intellectual. Now look at this conversation:
The grandmother was praying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” over and over, but according to the narrator it sounded more like she was cursing than praying and with that the scholarly looking Misfit approved.
“‘Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,’ The Misfit said ‘and He shouldn’t have done it.’”
“‘Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,’ the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank in the ditch.”
“‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say he didn’t,’ The Misfit said, ‘I wisht I had of been there,’ he said, hitting the ground with his fist. ‘It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,’ he said in a high voice, ‘if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’”
Is seeing really believing? Who can argue with experience if it is self-authenticating truth? Well, you can and you should because experience is only experience and to confuse it with knowing and understanding will lead only to more confusion in every way one can imagine. You have to keep reminding yourself of this, that experience is only experience. Important, yes. Experience is the beginning of all knowledge, but experience is not knowledge, experience is not equivalent understanding.
The big failure in philosophy, the big foolishness in the mid-1900s and one that has given the West a mighty hangover it cannot shake is logical positivism. Logical Positivism is the idea that only that which is empirically verifiable through the experience of observation is really true in any meaningful way – everything else like ethics, art, metaphysics and religion and of course the mysteries of the Church have nothing to do with knowledge and at best they are only private, emotionally meaningful illusions – the kind of thing you might compare to whistling while you walk through a grave yard at night.
Again, Flannery O’Connor set the matter straight in a Life Magazine interview in 1954 when she was asked why she did not write fiction that was more positive that celebrated American affluence and progress: “Another reason for the negative appearance: If you live today, you breath in nihilism. In or out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”
Our confidence is in Holy Mother Church, not personal experience because personal experience is only the beginning; it is certainly not self-authenticating truth and understanding. Understanding comes as we ask questions about the experience and seek answers by gathering the appropriate evidence. The doctrines of the Church were grasped and understood as the Holy Spirit assisted the Church in her understanding of God’s revelation. What is true for the Church is true for us individually as well: Formation is both a personal event that has a beginning and a personal process that may either succeed or fail. One may say of an athlete: “She was in perfect form on the soccer field.” That means that in her past she was shown how to chip, how to angle a pass and how to cover and she religiously practiced these moves with her team and all that informed, which is to say formed her. The information and her appropriation of the information, her practice over time of each skill, successfully produced in her a recognizable athletic form.
I believe something like that was certainly the case with Mary and it is the case for each of us. Mary Magdalene experienced a singular intimate event with Jesus the morning he was resurrected but over time she must have learned more about what she had experienced and how his resurrection was not merely the resuscitation of a corpse like the event with Lazarus, but something she had never dreamed of, something that no one in the world had ever even imagined. That would take some time. She would also have learned that “Rabbo’ni” was hardly an adequate address for the Lord Jesus Christ who is God Almighty. That may well have taken most of her lifetime. I assume that to be true for her because she remained a member of Christ’s Church and is regarded as a saint.
And now here we are today with death still breaking our hearts and tearing loved ones away from us. Who is not sometime buffeted by doubts and discouragements? Who among us has not wondered about the goodness and meaningfulness of life in the face of suffering and death? Who has not been staggered by human cruelty? The whole matter turns on the testimony and the love of others, namely life in the Body of Christ. My private belief and my private grief find correction as well as succor, a place of rest, shelter from the storm, in the common life and in the infallibility of the Church. No one ever believes perfectly once and for all, never to have a shadow of doubt or discouragement. Common prayer and common belief of the Church correct our private errors of belief that would lead us away from Christ and away from reality.