Pope Francis displayed St Peter’s bones at the closing mass of the Year of Faith.
These pitiful shards of bone are all that’s left of the earthly body of St Peter. But the Church which Christ built on his efforts is vast and growing.
It goes on all evening, begins in the church parking lot with a tub of lumber set to burn and is full of screaming babies and non-Catholics who watch the rest of us with dazed embarrassment as we kneel, stand, bow, greet and respond.
It is the Easter vigil, and I love it.
The Easter vigil is the liturgy, done large. We plow through the Scriptures, from the Creation to the cross and right on to the resurrection. It is a lesson in where we came from and whither we are tending. It takes us from the garden to the cave where Christ the Risen Lord first revealed HImself.
Jesus didn’t reveal Himself to just anybody that Easter morning. He chose, as He always does, the people who will say yes to Him.
People willing to keep on saying “yes” to Our Lord were few indeed that First Easter. The ignominy of His death hung like fog. He had fallen so low that one of the criminals who died with Him joined the crowds in mocking Him. Crucified — hanging naked between two thieves; tortured, and humiliated on a hill called The Skull — the defeat of their hero seemed absolute.
I don’t think that the women who came that first Easter Sunday were motivated by any residual belief in His messiahship. They came to that grave for the same reason they stayed at the foot of the cross when everyone else ran way: They loved Him.
They loved Him more than they feared the Romans or the Pharisees. They loved Him past any concerns they might have had of being put out of the Temple. They loved Him beyond their natural modesty about seeing a naked man hanging from a cross and right through their repugnance toward what they must have expected to find in that grave: the carrion stink of a body that had been lying dead for three days.
They loved Him with the love of women and they stayed beside Him with the courage of women when the men ran away.
I have worked with 90 men for much of my working life. It has taught me that men have greater physical courage than women. They respond to physical threats more quickly and more aggressively than women. We can do it if we have to, but we have to work ourselves into what comes naturally for men.
On the other hand, women have greater moral courage than men. Women are more willing to stand alone for someone they love than men; much less likely to run away from social approbation and less likely to be bulled by the crowd into going along with something they know is wrong. Men can exhibit the moral courage that comes naturally to women, but they have to work themselves into it.
The women who stood at the cross and who came to His grave were teachers to the men in those days of His death and resurrection. They were showing them the kind of moral courage it would take to build His Church.
It is no surprise that He revealed Himself as the Risen Lord to women first. They were the ones who said yes.
It is also no surprise that the first Apostle was a woman. Mary Magdalene was the one He chose to carry the good news of His resurrection to “Peter and the others.” She was His Apostle of the Good News, signifying forever that women are co-inheritors of eternal life and purveyors and proclaimers of the Gospels the same as men.
The human race is not male. The human race is not female. The human race is male and female, created each and every one of us in the image and likeness of the living God.
Jesus may have created the priesthood male, but He did not put women outside the circle of grace. He did not intend for women to be passive witnesses to the on-going drama of Kingdom building. He meant for them to be at the heart of it.
I was disturbed by the callous misogyny and easy patronizing of women that I encountered in the comboxes of a blog I wrote a few days ago. As usual when something upsets me, I talked it over with my husband. He gave me wise advice that you will see acted out on this blog in the next few days. He also made an observation that I think bears repeating today: People who hate women, hate humanity, he said.
Misogyny is a lie and lies are always the devil’s first weapon against us. Misogyny is a curse enacted on all of humanity. It is the first curse of the Fall. Misogyny is the human race, warring against itself. It is us, attacking our own life-bearers.
Cultural misogyny made Jesus’ choice of messengers a compelling statement. In those days, the testimony of women was not legitimate testimony. Yet the scriptures rely on it in the Gospel description of Jesus’ burial. “Both Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting across from the tomb, watching,” it says. Women are the witnesses cited for this most important event in human history.
Jesus first revealed HImself as the Messiah to a woman, and not just any woman, but a member of the outcast Samaritan tribe; a sinful much-married woman who was living with a man who was not her husband. She came to the well to draw water alone instead of with the other women, probably because they thought her so disreputable that they wanted nothing to do with her. This sinful woman was the first one to whom He revealed that He was the Messiah, the son of the living God.
The Disciples’ reaction was typical then — and now — they “were surprised that He was talking with a woman.”
So, there is a symmetry and a message in the Risen Lord revealing Himself first to a woman, and the choice of Mary Magdalene to tell “Peter and the others” of His resurrection.
“Those who are forgiven much, love much,” he said. Many people believe that Mary Magdalene was the woman who was taken in adultery. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that she loved much
This woman was the Apostle to the Apostles. The first bearer of the Good News that is the fulcrum of human history. On that first Easter morning, she was the first and the only Apostle.
Women are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus came for women as much as He came for men. He died for women as well as men. He gave the Eucharist to women as well as men.
He instituted the priesthood to serve all of humankind, young and old, weak and strong, sinners and saints, men, and yes, women. That is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets we read in the Easter vigil.
It is the snake, the old dragon misogyny, crushed beneath His foot.
It’s still Lent.
We’ve got a week and a half of the deepest, darkest passage in human history to relive. Jesus arrested, betrayed, beaten, tortured, shamed and murdered; that’s what lies ahead of us in these next days.
We are approaching the depths of Lent; the remembrance of humanity’s greatest crime against innocence in the flesh. And we are almost there.
But how do you do lent in a time of feasting?
Last week, the Papal Conclave elected the first non-European pope in 1200 years, the first American pope and the first Jesuit pope in history. That conclave turned the Catholic world upside down … and left it unchanged.
Pope Francis is the continuation of an unbroken line of popes going back to the moment when Jesus said “I will call you Peter.” The Church as a conduit of grace, a connection to the divine and a highway to heaven is untouched, unchanged and unchangeable. Despite the rancorous demands from some quarters that the Church re-write 2,000 years of Christian teaching to excuse the fashionable sins of our day, it will never do that. It has never done that; not for kings and princes, not for tanks and guns.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. His Church, despite its human failings, is like Him in that. Nothing that matters, nothing that’s central to what the Church is, changes, has changed, or will change.
Last week, we elected a pope. Yesterday, he celebrated his inaugural mass. It has been a week of spiritual feasting, a time to get drunk on the Spirit and wave flags, cheer and experience the jubilation of this proof of His continued presence in our lives.
How do we come down from that to Passion Week and the awful reality of the crucifixion?
Perhaps, we do it the same way Peter, James and John did when they came down from the mount of Transfiguration. They saw something that no one had ever seen before or since, at least not in this life. They saw the transfigured Christ in His glory, conversing with Moses and Elijah — the law and the prophets. They saw the promise of what is to come, of the meaning on the other side of the cross that they were to preach for the rest of their days.
We saw a glimpse of that same promise in this election and inauguration. Not the transfiguration, of course, but the promise of what it meant when Jesus told us “I am with you until the end of the world.” He was promising us that when we are lost, He will call us without ceasing. When we are found, He will walk with us through whatever we must face. He will speak to us through the Holy Spirit in our deepest hearts. He will come to us in the Eucharist and forgive us in confession. In all the years of our lives, he will never leave us without a shepherd to guide us and teach us and show us the way to Him.
This past week of two living popes and one unchanging church has not been the same mountain-top view of the Transfiguration that the three chosen Apostles experienced. But it has been the Transfiguration that the whole wide world needed at this time in history.
Now, we must, as the Apostles had to, come down from the mountaintop and turn our faces toward Jerusalem. It is Lent, and the way we do Lent in a time of feasting is to face the magnitude of our sins and the unbelievable mercy that God has shown us.
This year, like no other, we have been given our own view of Transfiguration.