It was a big year in the life of Christ. Or at least in our understanding of Christ. You might remember that the big furor last year dealing with a certain book that was being made into a major motion picture. This book and movie that shall remain nameless throughout this homily said that Jesus must have had a mistress named Mary Magdalene. He must have faked his own death and married her and had children because clearly no one can go for an entire life-time without getting married. (look at yourself). Oh, right….well, in any case, despite the dearth in evidence and the ability to transform a group of heretics that believed all flesh was sinful into the group that believed Jesus and Mary were “in the flesh” with one another, this piece of…fiction managed to do well in the theaters. Thankfully, Hollywood tossed us a bone simultaneously by releasing a movie about the birth of Christ called the Nativity. And, while I haven’t yet get the chance to see it, I’ve heard from several people that it’s well done. Recently, another discovery was made that seemed to put scientific fact to the fiction of the movie that shall remain nameless. A grave containing the burial box of Jesus, Son of Joseph. In the cave there are several other boxes, two with the name Mary. A statistical analysis says that there is a one in six hundred chance that this is not the Jesus of Nazareth…pretty good odds that it is. The Christian world looks in confusion. We believe Jesus was raised from the dead bodily. We celebrate his bodily resurrection and bodily ascension. What could this new discovery mean. Then we discover that this “new” archaeological discovery isn’t even all that new. It was discovered in 1980 and deemed unworthy of study by archaeologists. And we discover that it’s not an archaeologist that is forwarding this discovery as the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene but a journalist and a high profile movie maker. Archaeologists are almost unanimous in their laughter at this find and the conclusions of this journalist who simultaneously claims that he didn’t enter into this expecting to find the Jesus of history yet all of his questions and tests are intent of proving that he has.
This persecution should come as no huge surprise to we believers. There have always been people intent on disproving the truth of Christianity. Peter, in our first reading, is articulating the first defense the church offered for her belief. His belief is that Jesus’ ministry began in his baptism and was a ministry “about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” This is consonant with the scriptural message that we hear most other weekends. Peter also says, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” This point of actually eating and drinking with Jesus was used often to point to the fact that Jesus had a bodily resurrection. A pure spirit need not eat and drink anything since they have no body to sustain. It gives me hope that we will still eat and drink in heaven. I’d miss turkey and stuffing too much otherwise.
The resurrection account in the gospel may seem to leave this question open in a sense. Even though there is no appearance of Jesus, the disciples arose and went to the tomb and found it…empty. Not filled with bone boxes. Of course, there’s a good reason that they didn’t find the bone boxes, because that would have happened a year or so after death. Yet, the early church dealt with a rumor that they stole the body of Jesus and this was their answer; that when they went to anoint the body it was already gone. They didn’t steal the body. They were terrified that someone else had. It only makes sense to them a few hours later when Jesus appeared to them in that upper room in which Thomas is not present.
So, which do we choose to believe? A work of fiction combined with a 25 year old archaeological discovery that most scientists debunk? Or a 2000 year old institution that has consistently told the same story, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again? I imagine most of you have voted with your feet, voted in the veracity of the gospel account, not because I’ve done a lot to strengthen your faith in this homily, not because you have infinite distrust in journalists who dabble in archaeology, not even because the Pope wears cool clothes. You believe for the same reasons Peter, and Mary of Magdala believed so many years ago; because Christ has touched your life in baptism and continues to touch your life with the gifts of his body and blood which he gives to us each Sunday that we gather together in his name. We have faith that will be fulfilled in heaven and, even though we pay attention to the arguments of those who try to weaken our faith, even those only manage to strengthen it because they prove that Christ is still a threat to the institutions that promote immorality and violence. “Christ has triumphed over sin and death,” as one early Christian writer once wrote, “and hell trembles with fear.”