April 4, 2021
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Homeland
(Livestreamed and Broadcast)
The Benefits and Limits of Optimism
Last Easter Sunday, some people predicted that, come Easter Sunday 2021, the pandemic would be over and that a blessed normality would return. Obviously, such predictions proved to be overly optimistic. There are, of course, signs of progress. An increasing number of people are being tested and vaccinated. Government officials have lifted some restrictions on travel and public activities, and schools are now permitting students to be distanced three feet apart, not six. Even as positivity rates rise, there is, nonetheless, an optimistic feeling in the air.
Time will tell whether such optimism is justified, . . . but for now, permit me to make a simple observation, and it’s this: Optimism is good, that is to say, a sunny disposition coupled with a can-do spirit – a habitual state of mind that thinks the best and looks for good outcomes. Optimistic people tend to look for solutions where others see only problems, and are likely to be more imaginative and creative than those who are not. And isn’t it true that most of us prefer to associate with optimistic people, inasmuch as pessimists and complainers just seem to wear us down.
Good and necessary as optimism is, however, it has its limits. Sometimes, optimism lacks realism, and so degenerates into wishful thinking. At times, it obscures gathering storm clouds in one’s personal or professional life. It may prompt us to ignore long-standing problems that threaten to overwhelm us. Optimism can also be Potemkin, a good front, a happy face, designed to fool others. Finally, as we see so often, optimistic expectations can turn out to be dead wrong. So, while optimism is good and surely preferable to pessimism, it does not offer us a sufficiently solid foundation on which to build our lives.
The Failed Optimism of the Disciples
The disciples’ reactions to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection show us the limits of optimism. As Peter and his fellow Apostles travelled about with Jesus, we get the impression that they saw Jesus more with the eyes of optimism than with the eyes of faith. They could not quite shake off the idea that Jesus would be the one who would rescue Israel from foreign occupiers and restore its independence. Seeing the miracles and beholding his glory, the Apostles felt Jesus could do whatever he wanted.
Indeed, on the very night when Jesus was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, Jesus’ closest followers did not fully grasp the gravity of their Master’s plight. Otherwise, the disciples would have been on high alert as Jesus underwent his agony. When Jesus was sentenced and died on the Cross, as if he were a criminal, their world came crashing down – their optimism, their this-worldly hopes vanished. Yes, they had heard Jesus’ predictions that he would be condemned and killed, and yes, they heard him say that he would rise from the dead–but all that eluded them. Mere optimism could not comprehend such a thing. And when optimism fails, it succumbs to fear.
The disciples’ failed optimism was on display in today’s account of the Resurrection. St. John tells us that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb while it is “still dark” – a detail meant to help us understand her frame of mind after Jesus’ death. The death of Jesus plunged Mary Magdalene into deep spiritual darkness. Prior to his death, she loved Jesus and followed him enthusiastically and loyally, but as yet, she did not have full-fledged faith and hope. For that reason, she was profoundly astonished to find that the rock in front of the tomb had been rolled away and the tomb itself empty. Immediately she left to report all this to Peter and to John, the beloved disciple: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” Mary Magdalene’s optimism succumbed to fear, but her fear would soon give way to amazement and her amazement to faith . . . in that moment of joy when she encountered the Risen Lord in the Garden.
But back to our narrative. Alerted by Mary Magdalene’s report, the Apostles Peter and John rush to the tomb. John gets there first and peers into the tomb but allows Peter to enter ahead of him. Already shell-shocked by the events that led to Jesus’ death, they too are astonished to find that the rock had been removed and the tomb empty… but also to find that the burial cloths, in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped were neatly folded and placed off to one side. Surely this was not “M.O.” of grave robbers –but what could it all mean? This morning’s Gospel intimates that the beloved disciple, John, “saw and believed”, but a closer reading of the text indicates that he had only ‘begun to believe’. For the same Gospel reading goes on to say that neither Peter, nor John, nor any of the Apostles as yet understood what it could mean for Jesus to rise from the dead – and how could they? If we put ourselves in the Apostles’ place, we will quickly recognize how astonishing, how astounding, the Resurrection-event must have been. Even the Risen Lord’s subsequent appearances did not entirely rid the Apostles of fear and confusion. They continued to be ‘half-fearful, half-overjoyed’, (Mt. 28:8) and yes, some of the Apostles entertained doubts. Indeed, on the eve of the Lord’s Ascension, the idea persisted among the Apostles that somehow, the Risen Lord might indeed restore Israel’s rightful independence. My friends, the journey from worldly optimism to faith in Jesus, Resurrection and the Life, is arduous indeed!
Our Journey from Worldly Optimism to Authentic Easter Faith
In our skeptical, secular culture, that journey is all the more arduous. Today, when and if Christianity is given a hearing, it is not usually on the merit of its truth-claims, but solely on the mundane effects of its ministries – In other words, Christianity’s existence is justified to the extent that it feeds a this-worldly optimism. Does it lead to prosperity? Does it stave off illness and death? Does it bring me comfort? Or make me feel fulfilled? Is it in step with the times? If not, then one can discard it, set it aside, or perhaps retain it only as a last resort. Now, to be sure, the Church continues to educate millions of people successfully. It provides excellent health care, and lifts countless people out of poverty, and has set more than a few of us on the path to success . . . all that and more! Yet, even such benefits are insufficient to sustain us as believing, practicing Catholics.
In this Holy Mass, the Risen Lord is in our midst, no less than he was 2,000 years ago. He is inviting us, just as he invited Mary Magdalene, and his Apostles and disciples, to move beyond a mundane optimism that will ultimately fail us, and to embrace instead an authentic Easter faith in his Resurrection. Pope Francis reminds us that ‘the grave is the place where no one who enters ever leaves. But Jesus [did] emerge for us; he rose for us, to bring life where there was death, to begin a new story in the very place where a stone had been placed.’
How many worldly hopes and dreams are entombed in our hearts! How heavy is the stone at the entrance of our hearts, the stone which hampers us from truly opening ourselves to God and neighbor in love, the stone which hinders us from professing and practicing our faith day by day. No one rolled back the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb, except Jesus himself. On this feast of his Resurrection, he asks only to encounter us, to speak to us in love, and to remove the stone from our hearts . . . so that, at long last, we emerge from our self-built tombs, stand up straight, and lift our eyes to heaven, for in the Risen Lord our Redemption is at hand (cf. Luke 21:28)! So too, St. Paul exhorts us in today’s reading from Colossians, “If, then, [in Baptism] you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” My friends, let us indeed seek ‘what is above, not what is on earth!’ (Col. 3:1-2). Strangely enough, only when we begin really to seek the things of heaven will we come to a deeper understanding our life on earth!
Dear friends, “This is the day the Lord has made!” (Ps 118:24) Let us rejoice and be glad, for the Lord is truly risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!