One of the things that I’ve learned working with college students over the past 16 years is how often they are ahead of the rest of the culture and the rest of the world.  In 2007, there was this thing called “MySpace” (which most people under the age of 20 have probably never even heard of) – that was at the peak of its popularity as one of (if not the) first of its kind, social media sites.  Being new to working with college students and clueless about where to start, I dutifully created my own Myspace page, only to learn within a couple of weeks from my new parishioners: “No one uses that anymore…you have to join ‘Facebook.’” Sure enough within a year or two, MySpace was practically defunct.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for EASTER SUNDAY – THE RESURRECTION OF THE LORD March 31, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

It’s not just “trends” like social media or entertainment that they’re ahead of.  Some of the debates, controversies, protests making headlines right now – that seem intense and “new”- for many of us working in campus ministry we’ve seen, heard, and experienced a lot of those debates, controversies, and protests years ago.

All of that came to mind when, about a week or two ago, there was a news report that many journalists and commentators from all walks of life and perspectives seemed genuinely surprised and troubled by.  As CBS News reported, in the newly released 2024 World Happiness Report, the U.S. dropped out of the top 20 on the list for the first time in the report’s 12-year History.  The U.S. now ranks at No. 23, compared to No. 15 last year.

I don’t consider myself cynical, but what shocked me was that others (including those who seem to be in the know about so many things) seemed shocked.

It was one of those things that, sadly, I had noticed working with college students, even before the pandemic.  I’m hardly some genius with mental health expertise or degrees.  But it seemed pretty apparent that you could sense, hear, and see it.  There was this marked rise in anxiety and depression among college students.  Here it is the time when they are experiencing newfound freedom and independence, given unique opportunities most likely they’ll never be able to have again to help them learn and explore in ways they’ve never had before.  Yet, they seemed fearful, nervous, and anxious in a way I had never seen before.  That’s why, back in 2017, we first hired therapists to work with us in campus ministry to try to have additional resources to help the kids.  Now, post-COVID, outside of the campus, you didn’t need a World Happiness Report to know that many people around us, maybe very close to us, are feeling kind of down.  Perhaps it’s not just near but even some of us ourselves.

Commentators, celebrities, and politicians will all speculate why all of this is.  Usually, with someone or something in mind to blame and arguing that if everyone saw the world in precisely the way they did, that would answer much of this unrest.  Again, from the vantage point of working with college students, not to mention personal experience, that rarely works.  At best, it helps mask some issues or numb some pain.  At worse, it’s worse.  Worse because someone else they believed in and trusted has let them down.

It’s striking that those realities of anxiety and fear are some of the same ones we can see and hear in today’s Gospel on the greatest and most important of feast days in the Church calendar – Easter Sunday, where we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the grave.   Of all the Gospel writers, John is the most deliberative and reflective.  His details often have additional meanings.  He’s being intentional when, for example, at the outset of this chapter of his Gospel announcing the resurrection, instead of saying “before sunrise,” he says “while it was still dark.”  That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase.  It’s meant to tell us something about the mood and environment of the world that first Easter Sunday.

While it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, one of Jesus’ earliest and closest of followers… the one whom he had transformed her life, freeing her from the hell on earth she was experiencing being possessed by demons, Mary goes to the tomb to mourn a dead Jesus.  When she sees “the stone removed,” her impulse is that a further insult to a still very raw injury has taken place.  Who has caused such a desecration?  Haven’t “they” done enough?  Couldn’t “they” leave Him alone in death?  Couldn’t “they” leave them, His followers, alone in grief?  After witnessing Good Friday, which, unlike all of the apostles (except for John), she did – after having her heart broken in ways she could never imagine and thinking there could be no further pain – she discovers there can.

Where does she go with that?  With Jesus not around, she goes to the ones Jesus had relied on the most in His ministry: Peter and John.  Peter, the one Jesus had called His “rock,” his right-hand man, the first Pope – and John, the closest friend and only one who remained with her as Jesus was crucified.   John tells us their reaction: their impulse is to run to the tomb.  After two days of grieving….two days obsessing, playing over and over again and again, what I did, what I didn’t do… two days worrying and fearing what’s next – that impulse to run in understandable.  It was something to do to burn this pent-up energy within.  They had been unable to stop all that transpired with Jesus’ Passion.  But they could still run.

While it was still dark, they were angry.  Angry at the world that someone who showed love, who gave love, who was love incarnate could be misunderstood and rejected.  Angry for sure at Judas, the religious authorities, the Romans.  Angry at themselves for being so helpless.  Maybe even angry at Jesus – at least on Peter’s part.  We often focus (understandably) on Peter’s denying of Jesus three times – that we can forget that earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Judas’ betrayal is revealed and the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter is ready to fight, pulling out a sword and cutting off someone’s ear (that for full disclosure – Jesus miraculously heals).  Peter was ready to fight.  Jesus wouldn’t let him.  So as Peter replays over and over the horrors that have unfolded – no doubt his denial haunted him, but maybe some small part of him was blaming Jesus, and then that caused even more grief for Peter, knowing what they did to the one he saw walk on water, the one who called Simon Peter to lay down his life and follow him by the water.

That is the darkness of the world that they were in that first Easter Sunday Morning.

That is a darkness that many can relate to this Easter Sunday Morning.  A darkness of grief, disbelief, and anger at a number of things.   This is why this Gospel so beautifully brings our brothers and sisters, these first apostles and disciples – Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene – to us.  They come not to judge us for our anxieties, fears, our questions and doubts.   But to show us that they were there, too.  Yes, eventually, they were the first ones to see and, believe and announce this good news to the world.  But John realizes that wasn’t his first impulse.  Had it been, wouldn’t they have been waiting at the tomb?  It’s not like Jesus hadn’t predicted and outright told them what was going to happen to Himself multiple times.  But they weren’t there.  They had remained in that darkness of unbelief.  And it’s in there, in an empty tomb, where the burial shroud is lying, undisturbed – while the shroud that covered His face is folded up.  Those details meant something to John.  A body that would have been stolen would not have its burial cloth left behind, undisturbed.  The veil covering the head had been folded – I wonder if Jesus had a particular way of folding towels and napkins that, just seeing that, is when the darkness is starting to fade for John.  His belief is dawning.  When John concludes this passage with, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead,” it’s kind of like he’s hitting himself in the head and saying, “Duh…” as he acknowledges that everything Jesus said, predicted, did that spoke of this moment didn’t click for him until just then.

It’s dawning on all of them that the sunrise of Easter never sets as we celebrate the Son Rising.  (See what I did there… I didn’t invent that, by the way) But notice we have yet to get any of the miraculous encounters of the Risen Christ from the scriptures.  The Church has left behind 40 days of Lent, 3 days we call the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and now enter into 50 days of Easter, where we will continue to unpack this great, central, defining moment of History with all of those stories of encounter with the Risen Christ.  But it all starts with an invitation to believe.

In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear from St. Peter how to do that.  His belief in Jesus’ resurrection enabled him to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and be empowered by Jesus with the gift of the Holy Spirit, changing yet again the trajectory of Peter’s life and becoming one of Jesus’ first instruments in forever changing the world.  And his entire sermon is an invitation for every single one of us to experience the same thing.  Peter’s sermon was directed to a world that had remained oblivious to the radiance of the Risen Christ, which can and will forever remove whatever darkness this world can envelop people in.  He witnesses and testifies that Jesus really did live, die, and rise from the dead—and through Him, we too can experience forgiveness of our sins.

Our sins— yes, the source of our anxiety—come from this brokenness, the fact that we fall for temptations, we make bad decisions, we feel bad on some level—we sin, and that’s wrong.  Not because someone even has to tell me that, but because I can feel it internally in my heart and soul.  I can feel and sense it when I do something I know I shouldn’t do.

Our death— yes, the source of our fear–  is death.  It’s why the pandemic helped accelerate this sense of “unhappiness” only making headlines now.  That entire awful experience of keeping people isolated, exacerbating their anxieties and fears is not something people can quickly bounce back from.

Easter invites us not just to experience moments of happiness that are fleeting and fading, that can be measured by polls and surveys using very worldly, limited terms.  Easter invites us into the joy of experiencing forgiveness of sins.  To the knowledge that yes, God sees and knows our brokenness.  He’s not intimidated by the darkness that we’ve created for ourselves in rejecting His light.  He is waiting for us to turn back to Him, to return to Him and follow Him, leaving those sins behind.  Easter opens the horizon of eternal joy, of eternal life.  Where we will never experience being in the dark again, but live in the eternal light of the radiance which is God’s Love.  And that is our happiness.