The Laughter of Redemption

April 9, 2015

On Easter Sunday, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P., gave the following homily at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. On Easter morning, in many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic homes, family members exchange red-colored eggs with the greeting, “Cristos anesti”—“Christ is risen” to which the proper response is, “Truly He is risen!” This tradition traces to St. Mary Magdalene. After meeting the risen Christ in the garden, legend has it that she traveled to Rome in order to proclaim the Resurrection there. Gaining an audience with the Tiberius Caesar, she exclaimed to him: “Christ is risen!” According to tradition, Tiberius laughed and, pointing to an egg, declared that it was as likely that Christ rose from the dead as it would be for that egg to turn red. When Mary Magdalene touched the egg, naturally, it turned a bright red, symbolizing the grace of the Resurrection communicated through the Precious Blood of Christ. Hence the Eastern Christian tradition, where in icons St. Mary Magdalen often appears holding an egg. The practice of coloring Easter eggs spread from the East to England during medieval times and gradually involved many highly decorated varieties and hues. In 1290, King Edward I purchased four hundred and fifty eggs to be painted and gold-leafed as Easter gifts. Perhaps the most famous decorated Easter eggs in history were those created for tsar Alexander III in 1883 by the famous goldsmith, Pierre Fabergé—a priceless fifty-seven of which have survived. Even chocolate Easter eggs—which first appeared in Germany and France in the early 1800s—owe their beginnings to the tradition of that miraculous red egg of St. Mary Magdalen. As we can see with our own eyes at Eastertime, the legend has been remarkably durable. And well it should be. Is it so hard to believe that Mary Magdalen really did travel to Rome to proclaim the Resurrection of Christ to the emperor Tiberius and that she made that egg turn red? As the first witness to the Resurrection, she was also the first to bear the message of the Resurrection to others. While the Synoptic Gospels each recount her presence at the tomb after the Resurrection, only St. John’s Gospel reports that she went to the tomb alone at first, and in turn announced to the Apostles that she had found the tomb empty. What is more, she then encountered our risen Lord himself in the form of a caretaker or gardener. In this way, St. John’s Gospel gives singular preeminence to Mary Magdalene: she is the first to see the empty tomb, the first to announce the Resurrection and the first to encounter the Risen Lord. Thus, it came about that, already in the second century, St. Mary Magdalen received the title apostola apostolorum from Hippolytus—to be followed by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Her special role in the proclamation of the Risen Christ gave rise to an intimate connection between St. Mary Magdalen and the Dominican friars: very early on, she became, along with St. Catherine of Alexandria (who debated pagan philosophers), co-patroness of the Order. In our own time, both Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to the distinctive apostolic role that St. Mary Magdalen fulfilled. Pope John Paul wrote that her role as the first to see the Risen Christ…”in a sense crowns all that has been said previously about Christ entrusting divine truths to women as well as men” (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 16). Pope Benedict stated that “the Gospels…tell us that the women, unlike the Twelve, did not abandon Jesus in the hour of his Passion…. Among them, Mary Magdalene stands out in particular. Not only was she present at the Passion, but she was also the first witness and herald of the Risen One….St. Thomas Aquinas [said of her]: ‘Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life’….” (cf. Women in the Early Church, General Audience, 14 February 2007). For his part, in one of his daily meditations (“The Gift of Tears” 2 April 2013), Pope Francis draws attention to the fact that, after the departure of Peter and John, the Gospel of St. John reports that Mary Magdalen “remained at the tomb weeping.” Thus, when Christ appears, she sees him through her tears. According to Pope Francis, these tears recall those with which she washed the feet of Christ as he forgave all her sins because she loved so much (cf. John 20:11-18). It is remarkable, in the pope’s view, that she expressed her desire for forgiveness not with words but simply with tears. Now, as she remained at the tomb weeping, these tears were the medium through which she would see her Risen Lord. Have we received the gift of tears that prepare our eyes to see the Lord? the pope asks. There are tears of joy, but there are also tears of pain, of sorrow, of repentance. Sometimes in life, the pope says, the eyeglasses with which to see the Lord are our tears. Our understanding of the passion, death and resurrection is expressed by the tears that, like St. Mary Magdalen’s, prepare us to see the Lord. Knowing how much we, and those whom we love, and the whole wretched broken world need the redemption that Christ has brought to us—this is the knowledge, this gift of tears, turned St. Mary Magdalen into the apostola apostolorum. ***** Brothers and sisters in Christ, our final word on Easter Sunday morning cannot be about tears. It would be against tradition! If you have laughed, or at least smiled at the story of St. Mary Magdalen’s red egg, we will have fulfilled a requirement for Easter sermons dating to fifteenth century Bavaria. The preacher was expected to insert amusing stories into his Easter sermon that would cause the congregation to laugh (Ostermärlein)—in the end, of course, without failing to draw some appropriately edifying lesson. Since this Easter laughter gave rise to abuses of the word of God (one can only imagine), it was prohibited by Pope Clement X in the seventeenth century and again in the eighteenth century by Emperor Maximilian III and the bishops of Bavaria. Alas. Pope Benedict XVI, himself a native Bavarian, draws attention to the scriptural basis of this risus paschalis—the paschal laughter, as it is called: “Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy on his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy—this laughter of redemption: if you see what I see and have seen…you will laugh!” (Behold the Pierced One, p. 119). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son together with the unanticipated divine deliverance of Isaac prefigure the redemption won for us by Christ. Laughter—not the skeptical laughter of Tiberius but the laughter of redemption—rightly expresses the joy that we experience in the knowledge that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, sin and death, suffering and sorrow, have lost their power to overcome and destroy us. “I have seen the Lord,” exclaimed St. Mary Magdalen. Through tears of joy and with the laughter of redemption, let us join on this Easter morning in her jubilant salutation: Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

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