On this Easter Sunday allow me to focus our reflections on the themes of transformation and liberation and freedom from sin, suffering, darkness, death and decay as brought about by the power of the resurrection of Jesus. We begin with a story.
The Jesuit Fr, Mark Link shares a beautiful story narrated by Ernest Gordon in his book Through the Valley of the Kwai. Gordon’s book documents his personal experiences and the transformation that took place in the lives of prisoners in a Japanese prison camp along the Kwai River during World War II.
According to Gordon, he and the other prisoners were forced bareheaded and barefooted to build a railroad from dirt and stone and under the heat of the sun that sometimes reached 120 degrees. They wore rags for their clothes. The bare ground became their only bed.
But their worst enemy was not the Japanese or their hard life; it was themselves. The law of the jungle governed their lives. They stole from one another. They were suspicious of one another. They betrayed one another. In short, they were destroying one another. It was a hell of a life.
Then something incredible and beautiful happened. Two prisoners organized the others into Bible study and prayer groups.
Through their study and praying of the Bible, the prisoners gradually discovered that Jesus was in their midst as a living person. They came to discover that Jesus also embraced their situation. Jesus too had no place to lay his head at night. He too became hungry and tired. He too was betrayed. He too suffered a lot. He died unjustly on the cross like any other criminal of his time – all for the love of us and for our salvation..
Link, on the basis of Gordon’s testimony, says, “Everything about Jesus – what he was, what he said, what he did – began to make sense and come alive.”
The prisoners started to stop thinking of themselves as victims of some cruel tragedy. They stopped destroying one another. They began to pray not so much for themselves but for one another and to release the new power that they found within themselves for accepting Jesus in their lives and in their midst. Slowly, the camp went through a transformation that amazed not only the Japanese but also the prisoners themselves.
One night, Gordon, according to Link, was returning to his cell after a meeting with his study and prayer group. As he walked along in the darkness, he heard the sound of men singing. This sound highlighted the transformation that had taken in the prison camp. It was an experience from death to resurrection.
The amazing story of transformation that took place in that Japanese camp is a beautiful illustration of what Easter is all about. It is an example of countless people and communities that are never the same again after encountering the Risen Lord. Easter is all about encountering the Risen Jesus and experiencing the transformation that the Risen Lord brings to us.
The gospel passage for Easter Sunday is from the Gospel according to John. Raymond Brown tells us that that the Gospel of John is a gospel of encounters. In John, we see, for example, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the cripple at Bethesda, the man born blind and Mary and Martha encountering the Lord. And anyone who encounters Jesus encounters the light that came into the world. One is judged on whether or not he or she continues to come to the light or to turn away and prefer darkness.
This is the very meaning of the description that we find in the opening of the gospel passage today: “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark.”
In the Gospel of John light and darkness are a very important motif. The glorious light of the Risen Lord has overcome the darkness of suffering, sin, death and decay. On this first day of the week, on this first Easter Sunday, a new beginning dawned. The world and human history would never be the same again.
For the evangelist John, people can no longer live in darkness because of the Risen Lord. Lack of faith in the risen Jesus is a life in darkness. Darkness lasts until we believe in the Risen Jesus. We continue to be in the dark until we allow the power of the Resurrection of Jesus to truly transform us.
The resurrection stories in John begin with a report of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb early in the morning. It was the custom in Palestine to visit the tomb of a loved one for three days after the body had been buried. It was believed that for three days the spirit of the dead person hovered round the tomb; then it departed because the body started to become unrecognizable through decay. The people believed that after three days, the body of the dead would start to decompose.
It was on the third day after the cruel death of his Son that the Heavenly Father of Jesus snatched him not only from decay but from death itself. God did not allow Jesus to remain dead and his body to decompose.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in one of his three books on Jesus of Nazareth, says: “Not to see corruption is virtually a definition of resurrection. Only with corruption was death regarded as definitive. Once the body had decomposed, once it had broken down into its elements – marking man’s dissolution and return to dust – then death had conquered. From now on this man no longer exists as a man – only a shadow may remain in the underworld. From this point of view, it was fundamental for the early Church that Jesus’ body did not decompose. Only then could it be maintained that he did not remain in death, that in him life truly conquered death.”
Suffering, darkness, death and decay are consequences of sin. God did not only overcome sin; He also overcame suffering, darkness, death and decay.
When we reflect on the Resurrection of Jesus, it is important that we reflect not only on its theological meaning but also on its practical meaning especially for us as we continue living our lives as Easter people.
The good news of Easter is not only the triumph of Jesus over sin, suffering, darkness, death and decay. The good news of Easter is that we do not have to wait until we die to share in the power of the resurrection of Jesus. We can begin to truly share in the power of the resurrection of Jesus right now. Just as the prisoners in the Japanese prison camp shared in the transforming power of the resurrection of Jesus, we too can experience the same.
Is there some kind of death or decay that we are experiencing right now? Is there some kind of sin that we find ourselves being slaves of? Are we living in some kind of darkness or gloom because of life’s difficulties? What is it that is destroying us like the prisoners in the Japanese camp in Kwai many years ago? What is it that is making us to be too focused on ourselves and failing to recognize the needs of others, especially the poor and the suffering? What is it that is preventing us from becoming truly Easter people, people who proclaim in words and in deeds that Jesus is alive and that we can all live in hope, faith and love? What is it that is preventing us to really allow Jesus to be alive in our lives, in our families and in our communities?
It is not only important that we recognize sin, suffering, darkness, death and decay in our lives and their instrumentalities and causes. It is also very important that we truly welcome, believe in and embrace the Risen Jesus and the power of his resurrection in our lives and the transformation that Jesus is giving us. We need to allow God our Father to snatch us through his Risen Son Jesus from the valley of sin, suffering, darkness, death and decay and bring us new life in Jesus.
As Easter people, we are a people of hope. Hope, says St. Catherine of Siena, is the “radical refusal to put limits to what God can do”. God can do the unexpected, the impossible, the miraculous if we only trust and allow Him.
The good news of Easter is not only about the Risen Jesus. It is also about us rising with the Risen Jesus. It is about sharing in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
When we let Jesus to help us overcome sin and weakness, we experience the power of His resurrection.
When we let Jesus help us trust, hope, and love once again, after we’ve had our trust, hope and love betrayed, rejected and dashed, we experience the power of His resurrection.
When we let Jesus help us pick up the broken pieces and start over again after we were ready to give up, we experience the power of His resurrection.
When we let Jesus reach out to others, especially the poor, the needy and the suffering, through us and through our humble and loving service and sharing, we experience the power of His resurrection.
Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis I, has been making Jesus to be truly alive in our midst by his love for Jesus and for the Church, by his example of humility, simplicity, love and concern for the poor and for creation. Indeed, Christ is alive, but we must also make Him truly alive by the way we live authentic Christ-like lives.