I was struck this week by how many people came to the great Liturgies which we celebrated here at St Peter’s Eynsham to mark the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Where is this great decline in church attendance that the Media people keep talking about? Perhaps here at Eynsham we are unique? But no, there on Facebook was a friend from Southend-on-Sea mentioning a Catholic church there, packed to the doors for the Good Friday Liturgy. Did you notice the way the media covered the election of our new Pope? They kept commenting with surprise at the vast numbers who gathered when the white smoke went up. They showed us the great crowds, many of whom were under 30. In their surprise at this, they implied that this was a one-off event, out of kilter with the general decline in church attendance.
The pollsters say that numbers are going down in Europe so I suppose we must believe them, but that may not be a bad thing because maybe the Church here needs to be pruned hard so that new fresh growth may take place. What we need now is for some of the young people who are discovering the faith for themselves to realise that God may be calling them to leadership in the church of the future. It is always very moving when someone gives up worldly ambition and offers themselves in service to God and to his people, but it usually comes to such people most strongly when the Church is struggling, not when it is being too successful. We only have to think of St Francis of Assisi whose name our new Pope has taken, to see this in action in the Church of 800 years ago.
I wonder if you noticed the teenager in the Gospel today? We think that most of the disciples of Jesus were his age, in their late 20’s or early 30’s, which for many of us is quite young isn’t it? But tradition has it that one of the greatest of the disciples was actually a teenager, and who is he? Why, St John, of course! Notice, before we go any further, that the Church springs from this group of young people who have all failed Jesus. They all said they would be faithful to him, but when the crunch came, they all ran away – even Peter the rock, crumbled into denying he even knew Jesus.
The Resurrection, the great Easter event that we begin to celebrate today, comes unexpectedly at the moment when the future seems only to offer darkness, sadness and death.
Nowadays the world seems to be full of atheists and secularists who triumphantly pour scorn on those of us who believe in God. I noticed one message online proclaiming that since the word Easter is of pagan origin this obviously proves that Christianity is a fraud. They are the same people who would want to argue that no religion should claim that it is right and all other religions are wrong. But that’s the point. The Catholic Church does not say that all other religions are wrong. That is why it often took over pagan words and even pagan temples and made them part of Christianity, proclaiming that all that is best in such things is a sign of men and women, seeking the person St Paul calls “the unknown God”. (Acts 17:23 : See also the Catechism Para 847)
So let’s get back to the story of John, the teenager in our Gospel today. He ran away like the others. But then he crept back to stand at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus. And what does Jesus say to him? Does he encourage him by telling him that he will join with the other disciples to spread the Gospel throughout the world ? No! In the midst of his despair, all he is told to do is to accept Mary as his mother and care for her.
Now, early on the Sunday morning, he is the one who runs with Peter to the tomb. Being the teenager he runs much faster than Peter, but then waits for him before they go into the tomb. Then comes, for me, the great moment of Easter. John goes into the tomb and he sees…. But what does he see…. Well nothing….. an empty tomb…. So, does he turn away in despair, thinking to himself: “Not only have they tortured and killed my dearest friend, but now they have stolen his body so that he cannot even have a decent burial.” That would be the logical thing to think, faced with this latest sadness. But instead he does something that even Peter as yet has not done. We are told that our teenager John “saw and believed” Yes, saw beyond the sadness and emptiness of that moment to the power that is God, that can take and transform our lives if we let him.
That is our hope and our joy at Easter, and that is what gives us hope now, even when people in one way or another attack our faith. In the midst of darkness, God is most at work.