Beyond the Bright Side
Readings: Acts 10:34,37-43; Psalm 117:1-2,16-17,22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Picture: cc Caitlinator
Sisters and brothers, what kind of people do you think our world needs most today? This planet of ours, which so often seems engulfed in darkness. What kind of people do you think it needs most of all? The answer appears quite straightforward, doesn’t it? In a world of shadows, what more can we need than people able to see the brighter side of life? Optimistic people. People who think only positive thoughts, who speak only cheerful words. Isn’t this why the coach of the national women’s table-tennis team provoked such a strong reaction recently, when he predicted that Singapore had only a 1% chance of beating China in the world championships? People got angry with him. Never mind if what he said was true. He shouldn’t have said it. He was being defeatist. He should have spoken more positively. He should have looked on the bright side.
I’m reminded of a story of a father who had twin sons. The two little boys were identical in appearance, but very different in temperament. As different as night and day. The first boy was a pessimist. His brother an optimist. One day, the father decided to put them both to the test. He filled the room of the first boy–the pessimist–with all the latest toys and gadgets that he knew the boy liked. And the other son’s room he loaded with horse manure. As expected, when the father later visited his pessimist son in his room, he found him sunk deep in depression. What am I going to do with all these toys? The boy asked, shaking his head. Now all my friends will get jealous of me. I’ll have to waste time studying all the manuals. I’ll have to spend money on batteries. What am I going to do? In contrast, the other boy was seen, in front of his dung-filled room, jumping for joy. When asked why he was so happy, he replied, pointing enthusiastically into his room, with a big smile on his face, I just know there must be a pony in there somewhere!
If made to choose between the attitudes of these two boys, perhaps we may think that optimism is the better option. After all, better to be happy than depressed, right? But then, whether happy or depressed, isn’t it the case that neither boy was really in touch with the truth? After all, toys may indeed bring difficulties, but also many hours of enjoyment. And, very often, a roomful of horse manure is nothing more than... well... a roomful of horse manure.
But then what about this joyous season of Easter that we’re beginning to celebrate today? Isn’t Easter all about looking on the bright side? And doesn’t our gospel today highlight to us the contrast between pessimism and optimism? When Mary of Magdala arrives at the tomb and finds it empty, she immediately fears the worst. She gets anxious and depressed. The Lord’s body is missing, stolen by grave robbers. What are we to do now? The classic reaction of a diehard pessimist, or so it seems. In contrast, Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved react differently. They too see an empty tomb. But they believe that the Lord has been raised. Isn’t this an example of the power of positive thinking? The ability to look on the bright side of life?
No, actually. Not quite. As tempting as it may be to see in the gospel nothing more than a contrast between negative and positive thinking, there actually is something far more profound here. The gospel tells us that when Mary first arrives at the tomb, it is still dark. And the scholars say that this is no ordinary darkness. It is the darkness of unbelief. A lack of faith. In this darkness, Mary cannot see the truth. She looks on a scene of joy and sees only a source of deeper sorrow. So she flees from the empty tomb.
In contrast, Simon Peter and the other disciple run in the opposite direction. They move from the darkness of unbelief towards the light of faith. But this light is quite different from the kind of wishful thinking and empty optimism that would imagine a pony when surrounded only by horse manure. For when the apostles first arrive at the tomb, it is still, for them, a place of grief and sorrow. This is where their Lord and Master was buried. And along with him all their hopes and dreams. Yet, the two of them somehow find the courage to enter this uncomfortable place. They fix their eyes on what is there, however agonising it may be. And it is only when they do this, when they gaze, without flinching, upon reality in all its harshness, that they begin to recognise the unmistakable signs of new life. They notice that the burial cloths–the trappings of death–have all been left behind. And the other cloth, which had covered the Lord’s head, has been neatly rolled up and set aside. Surely, no grave robber would bother to do all this. The apostles see these things and they believe. They move from the darkness of despair into the light of faith. But only because they were first willing to enter the tomb of their grief. Only because they faced their fears. Only because they fixed their eyes firmly on a reality that has been touched and transformed by the Dying and Rising Lord.
Isn’t this what is meant when we are told, in the second reading, to let our thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth? What we are being asked to do is not to walk with our eyes forever fixed on the clouds above, ignoring the obstacles that may trip us up here below. That may be what positive thinking looks like. But it is not what faith is all about. For we are able to raise our thoughts to heavenly things only by following the footsteps of the One who came from heaven to earth to save us. And Christ was raised to the heavenly heights only by first descending into the depths of death. To be raised with him, we must first be buried with him. To enter with him into the various tombs of our own earthly existence. Places of grief and sorrow. And there to experience him indicating to us the unmistakable signs of new life. This is what Easter is about. Not the blindness of positive thinking. But a new vision of Truth.
And isn’t this precious gift the very thing that we Christians have to offer to our darkened world today? Isn’t this what the world needs? Isn’t this what Peter himself is talking about, at the home of Cornelius, in the first reading? Cornelius, as you know, is a gentile. To the Jews, he and his household remain in the dark, far from God. But it is to this very household that Peter brings the light of faith. And he does this in a very characteristic way. He does it by bearing witness. Peter bears witness to the mighty works that Jesus did when he walked the countryside of Judaea and in Jerusalem. Peter bears witness to the fact that although they killed him by hanging him on a tree, yet three days afterwards God raised him to life. Peter bears witness that all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name. And isn’t it true that Peter is able to bear witness to the light of Christ, only because Peter himself was willing to enter the darkness of the tomb? He entered it, and found it empty.
Sisters and brothers, it is true that our world remains engulfed in darkness. The darkness of unbelief, selfishness and sin. But this darkness cannot be dispelled by the power of positive thinking alone. What is needed is the light of faith. The light of Easter. And for this light to spread, Christians must bear witness.
Sisters and brothers, as in the days of Peter and Cornelius, what our world needs most are witnesses to Christ. Witnesses to his Dying and his Rising. How will you be a witness today?