Strong winds are rocking the garden this morning, twisting and turning the willows and propelling little bursts of fruit blossom this way and that. It is such a contrast to the calm beauty of Easter Sunday. In the course of a few days we have moved through so many different emotions — pity, fear, horror, rejoicing — that we need today and Mark’s brief summary of the events following the Resurrection before we can celebrate the fulfilment of the Octave tomorrow (Mark 16. 9-15). This is a day for taking stock, for quiet prayer and reflection if we can, for allowing the reality of Easter to take root in us and renewing the hope and faith we and the world badly need.
It is breakfast on the beach time again. The disciples have been night-fishing: they were at a loose end and needed to occupy their time to distract themselves from their darker thoughts, but they have had no success. Then that mysterious figure appears on the shore, gives an odd instruction which nets a huge catch, and Peter does his best to escape. It is all very human and understandable. The difficulty comes when we begin to notice the more explicitly theological elements in the narrative (John 21.1–14) — the 153 fish (the square of the Trinity plus the square of the apostles according to some medieval commentators); the meal of bread and fish (recalling the passover meal as a symbol of the Eucharist as well as the miracle of the loaves and fishes) and so on and so forth.
I find particularly interesting the way in which the disciples react to what they see. ‘None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”; they knew quite well it was the Lord.’ Once again we seem to have some doubt, some newness about the Risen Christ which confuses the disciples, who are nevertheless confirmed in their faith by what they experience. And there is Peter, poor hot-headed Peter, who has no doubts at all but simply wants to get away and hide his shame. He, at least, seems to recognize the person on the shore; but even though he knows who he is, he doesn’t fully understand the new relationsip of love and forgiveness that now exists between them. It will take the threefold question and commission of the next few verses to make that clear.
One of the difficulties many of us experience is believing that we are fogiven. We forget that God always takes the initiative. From the first moment of our becoming conscious of sin, of our wanting to repent, grace is at work in us. We don’t often feel any different after we have confessed and been absolved from our sins; but we are different. We are in a new relationship with the Lord, and no matter how often we fall, how often we sin again, his grace is always waiting for us. That is all very well in theory, but it is actually quite difficult to live by because it reminds us that we are not in control. And we do so love to be in charge! Today’s gospel teaches us that all our so-called certainties can be over-turned by God in a moment; that his abundance is never limited by our imagining.
This morning we see the disciples struggling to understand, and we struggle with them. Breakfast on the beach is never effortless.
Last night’s rain has scattered cherry blossom on the lawn, where it lies in great drifts of creamy loveliness. The Black Mountains are hidden behind a watery greyness while the air holds a kind of electric thrill of birdsong and raindrops. On just such a day, on just such an evening in spring, surely, Jesus came and stood among his disciples and showed them his wounds. And their reaction was very like our own when we are ‘hoping against hope’ but are finally allowed to see and hear what we have been longing for — the sight of someone we love whom we never expected to see again, the sound of their voice, perhaps the touch of their hand.
I love the fact that Jesus convinces the disciples that he is no ghost by eating a piece of grilled fish. There is something so human and natural about eating and a piece of grilled fish — cold, no doubt — is about as unappetizing to the imagination as it is possible to be. It suggests to me that our Lord was indeed a young man when he died and still retained a young man’s iron constitution and boundless appetite!
Be that as it may, there is a more important point here. We tend to think that everyone should have realised who the Risen Christ was. The empty tomb, the opening of the scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the breaking of bread, weren’t these enough to show who he was? Apparently not. The empty tomb proclaimed the Resurrection, as Peter and John allowed, but actually meeting Jesus and recognizing him was beset with difficulty. Mary had to hear the sound of his voice before she truly knew him; the disciples had to see him eat before their eyes.
We too can be dumbfounded when we meet the Lord; we too can disbelieve for joy. The problem is not so much that we have failed to see him as that we have predetermined what our meeting should be like; sometimes, alas, we miss him even as we look for him because we do not recognize the reality before us. Something there to ponder, I suggest.
Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.
This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.