There is an old stone abbey off the Western Coast of Scotland on an island called Iona. This abbey was built in the 12th century over the site where St. Columba established a monastery in 563 AD, nearly 600 years earlier. Iona, with its wild landscape and remote location, has been recognized for a long time as a place conducive to meeting God. This abbey is prominent on the island- just up from a rugged but beautiful coastline, with stones that breathe a strength but calm built over centuries of wind, rain, and storms that have battered this holy place. It is a fortress of protection and peace—and when the sun is shining on Iona Abbey—it is awe-inspiring, a wild sort of beauty that has lived throughout the years. It knows the power of storms. It is a holy place for Christians and many people have prayed within its walls over the years.
Today, the Abbey serves the many pilgrims that visit each year and for one summer I baked in the Abbey’s retreat house kitchen. In addition to daily tea time, this Abbey is now home to daily Celtic services—an expression of Christianity as connected to the creative powers of God as the old stone abbey itself. And one service that was particularly powerful involved “letting go.” We were invited to write down something we wanted or needed to let go of. Some wrote things about relationships with children or parents, a grief that weighed them down from a loved one lost, for others the pain of an expectation they could not or chose not to meet. And after writing what we needed to let go of, we set these items, with reverence, into a calm fire and let them burn.
Letting go is not something new. Even before those first monks on Iona, letting go has been important and necessary for why we gather here on Easter—for new life, for resurrection.
After his resurrection, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene and, as we heard in John’s gospel, says “do not hold on to me.” Mary, one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples, must let go—before she can receive the resurrected Christ.
Throughout our lives we go through this process of letting go to receive new life. When I was five I wanted to be an American Gladiator, at some point (realistically by about eight) I realized this would never be the case. But by letting go of that dream something new could be created with my life. It’s a silly example but we all, at times, must let go of certain dreams. At some point we must see that we are no longer the child we once knew. Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Holy Longing writes “some of the happiest people in the whole world are seventy years old and some of the unhappiest people in the world are that age.” It depends on whether they have let go of wanting to be twenty or forty or sixty. We must let go of the honeymoon period— the initial shimmer of relationships, jobs, moves, changes—to find something more profound and with a beauty deeper than we knew before. If we do not let go, if we hold on too tightly to what we knew and loved, we stifle love’s growth…we hold back new life around us and in ourselves.
All of the celebration and joy, bright colors and delights of Easter—let it not mask that for most of us accepting resurrection is difficult. This is one reason we celebrate Easter for 50 days in the church—it takes us a while to accept. For most of us, when we think about “new life”—we really are looking for something we’ve already known, a return to how things were, “the good old days.” But this is not resurrection. Resurrection is, in fact, “new” life. Mary when she is at the tomb looking for Jesus’ body sees the risen Jesus. She even speaks with him but mistakes this risen Christ for a gardener. The gospel says: “She turned and saw Jesus standing there but she did not know that it was Jesus.”
Letting go is imperative for resurrection, as is its newness. Mary the Magdalene loved Jesus, called him teacher and Lord but, risen from the dead, she cannot recognize him. She expects the Christ that rises to look the same as the One she knew and loved—but He’s resurrected. He has been made new.
And Mary is by no means the only one who does not recognize Jesus. The disciples on the way to Emmaus walk with Jesus for miles, talk with him and eat with him but don’t realize it’s him until after he is gone. Thomas demands to touch Jesus’ wounds before he will believe. He does not see Christ in front of him—he wants to see the Christ he knew. But in each case the Christ in front of them doesn’t, at first, compute with the one they knew before. Yet they all eventually come to see— Jesus speaks Mary’s name, he breaks bread with the disciples in Emmaus, he lets Thomas touch his wounds—they eventually recognize this is Christ, the Risen Lord. But before they accept this is Christ resurrected, they must first let go of searching for the One they knew before.
God gives all the disciples what they need to realize this new life. And we need this help from God for resurrection is not just a simple reward, we don’t just walk through a door and it is waiting. Rather it is, as John O’Donahue puts it, “the result of crossing frontiers that divide two different territories.” And the territory we step into, new life, is beautiful but wild—like that of Iona. It carries with it the calm of accepting what is new, but the power and wisdom of living through storms. In resurrection we step from what we have known and even loved to where we trust we must go…this is not an easy step to make.
For while the promise of resurrection is the hope of our faith, we do not get there without some kind of death. Easter arrives only after Good Friday. We do not reverse or erase death—physical or spiritual—what has already happened, happened —rather we mourn and thus, though unfair or painful, create space and possibility for new life to emerge.
We are sadly reminded of this today and this week. Resurrection is the heart of our faith, but it is also a challenge. We are always living this process of death, new life and letting go. But we must move through it mindfully, grieving fully—we mourn for those who were killed in Sri Lanka. We pray for those, who on this joyful Easter day have died. But this is reason for us to be reminded we are children of the resurrection. We are called to live this life of resurrection. As the Body of Christ today. It is now us, each one of us, who are responsible for believing in and living the mystery of resurrection in this place, in this community, and all around the world.
[I love Iona Abbey—it’s beauty and mystery. It tells a story through its stone. It shares its faith through its walls. I have come closer to God inside it. And I am reminded this week, with Notre Dame, that the church is always being asked to live this process of resurrection. I recognize the importance of Notre Dame for many people—not just Catholics and Christians—but it also reminds us the church is not just our buildings. Rather a church—no matter how magnificent it is—is made by and of those who believe, who recognize a place where or simply that God acts. The church is more than its buildings, it is more than its priests or leaders—it is the people that build, their prayers that bless, their hearts that see the power of God at work.
The tomb Jesus was laid in was made of stone and without the disciples who believed and Mary who went to see what was there, it could have remained just stone. But with Christ, with the Disciples faith–it became the site of resurrection—of one of the most important events in humankind. We are called to walk this same path. We, gathered here, are the Body of Christ today. It is now us, each one of us, who are responsible for believing in and living the mystery of resurrection in this place, these beautiful buildings— in our homes and communities and around the world.]
For when resurrection is believed amazing things happen. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb this morning looking for Jesus—and the Jesus she met, her belief, changed the course of history. The disciples to whom Jesus appears, who accept this new life of Christ, did not know they would form the first “church.” But their belief gave birth to our gathering today. We, the church, are children of resurrection.
Even if God must tell us to let go or nudge us to see the wonder and mystery of resurrection—it is just as powerful.
And we celebrate, we sing and rejoice because God has shown us that new life really will emerge—on every level—personal and communal for the world. This is everything. It is what we are here for today! God shows us this in Jesus Christ. He shows us how in Mary and the disciples—in saints, parents, and grandparents—our examples in faith—God shows us the power of resurrection all around us—in the cycles of the natural world—it’s beautiful but wild, mysterious and still going on. None of us are exempt from resurrection. It is God’s work in the world.
But it is our work, with God’s help, to let go in order to embrace new life.
In the ceremony on Iona it was exhilarating to throw into the flames the pieces of our lives we wanted to let go of—exhilarating but not easy, even frightening. When we let go of what has been we aren’t certain of what waits ahead. But Christ reassures us that through death, new life will come…once we let go we can receive the new Spirit of resurrection.
After Jesus tells Mary Magdalene she must not hold on to him, she goes and announces to the others, “I have seen the Lord.”
This is our faith. This is our hope. This is our joy.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.