Coordinator of Youth Ministry
St. Patrick Church, Lake Forest, IL
On Saturday, November 17, I watched the last Notre Dame home football game of the season like any other loyal alum would do. As I watched the students’ Irish eyes a-smilin’, I thought of my own undergraduate friends and all of the memories we made in that stadium: the time we snuck marshmallows into our Senior game, the times we hoped to catch the attention of the boys a few rows behind us, the times we cheered, booed, and held our tongues for the sake of young fans behind us, and the times in which I pounded my fist with one hand, and prayed a Rosary with the other. During the 2009 USC game, I’m pretty sure I prayed at least three full Rosaries. We came pretty close to winning that one.
As is typical of any other alum, I watched Saturday’s game with a bittersweet heart, remembering what once was with longing and gratitude. Atypical of most alumni, however, one thought crossed my mind as I clenched my fists at each fourth down: Did the Apostles miss Jesus in this same way?
I can never again visit campus just like any other fan, much less as a tourist. Every building holds a memory. South Dining Hall is where my friends and I sat and talked for hours while reading assignments loomed in the backs of our minds. The Lyons Arch is where I unexpectedly ran into a dear friend at three o’clock in the morning, and then proceeded to have a three-hour “heart-to-heart.” Alumni Hall was where I attended Sunday Mass with the first Notre Dame boy I had a crush on. The Grotto is where I prayed for my grandma during her battle with cancer. Every place holds a memory, whether it be good or worthy of a trip to Reconciliation. Every place now has its own, unique charm and is an echo of voices, sights, smells, and feelings from the past. Even on a crowded football Saturday, Notre Dame, to me, is now a ghost town of the life I once lived as a student.
Is this how Jesus’ friends felt after He ascended into Heaven? Did they ever visit the old room in Jerusalem, just to remember what it was like to share their last meal with their dear friend? Did they ever go back to the wedding hall in Cana just to recall where it all began? Were any of them tempted to remove Jesus’ burial cloths from the tomb and keep them, as something to remember Him by?
We know Christ as our Lord, Brother, King, Savior, Redeemer, Teacher, Friend, Emmanuel. We know him in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. The Apostles, however, knew Him with their eyes. They saw how His eyebrows furrowed while He prayed. They saw the look of joy and compassion in His eyes as He reached out to the children. They knew whether His ear lobes were free or connected. They witnessed at first hand the very distinctive and human characteristics of the Word-made-flesh. We know only the mystery, and even what we know of the mystery is but a drop in the ocean. We know the stories as recorded in the Gospels; the Apostles knew them from their own memories.
So it goes for Notre Dame students. Zealous fans, visiting high school seniors, and parents come to the school and they see only the mystery. They don’t know at first hand just how many people can fit in a Sorin quint on a Friday night, how bitterly cold a February walk down South Quad can be, or which priests give the best homilies. To them, Notre Dame is a mystery: the Catholic, Midwestern dream where students pray hard and play hard and where the “Main Title” track to Rudy can always be heard in the distance. Students and alumni know the real stories – for better or for worse.
In the Gospel of John, we read:
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes” (Jn 24:1-10).
What did Peter and the beloved disciple think when they saw “the linen cloths lying” and the napkin “rolled up in a place by itself”? A dear friend of mine has suggested that perhaps they were speechless to see that Jesus left the cloths as He always left His bed linens. Perhaps Jesus always made his bed very neatly (hospital corners and all), and these linens were folded with a signature precision. Perhaps Jesus was too busy ministering too worry about how He folded His linens. Maybe He usually just rolled everything up into a ball, and these linens were no exception. Perhaps the Apostles could tell by the very way in which these linens and napkins were left that their Lord was here, not as a lifeless corpse, but as the friend whom they had always known.
I imagine how I would feel if I could unexpectedly see my closest college friends again. Like the beloved disciple, I would outrun anyone else just to see them again. It is often commented that little kids seldom walk anywhere; they run. To their toys. To Mom and Dad. Away from the changing table. As an adult, the only times I run are when I’m about to miss the bus. That childlike excitement has faded. But, if a loved one had come back into my life, nothing could stop me from a full sprint.
Perhaps this was the Jesus whom they missed after He ascended into Heaven. The Jesus whose eyes lit up with kindness as He asked followers, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Mt 9:28). The Jesus who knew their inside jokes, often smelled like sawdust, and spoke with a thick Nazorean accent.
We cannot miss that Jesus, because we have not walked hand-in-hand with Him. We long for Him, we wait for His second coming, and we hope to see Him in Heaven. Perhaps, our hearts might even feel an unnamed loneliness because we are not yet in perfect Communion with Him. On that day when we do arrive in Heaven and our eyes gaze upon Him whom we have waited for, we will echo the words of the disciples as we proclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us” (Lk 24:32) while He talked to us on the earthly road to Heaven? Indeed, we will find in Christ the home that we longed to return to throughout our earthly sojourn. Every moment of loneliness and longing will finally make sense and be fulfilled.
Until then, we, like the Apostles, cherish the things of the past. The friends who lived only a five-minute walk away, but are now a plane ride’s distance. The loved ones whose memories are so fresh in our minds even though they are no longer with us. We expect that life will change as people grow and venture out independently. What we don’t always expect, however, is the accompanying loneliness.
The Apostles knew this loneliness. Why else would so much attention have been given to how fast they ran toward Jesus’ grave? Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why they remained in the upper room for nine days after His ascension: they were afraid to go on without their friend. And yet, the bitter truth remained. They could not go back, for the past, well, “it is finished” (Jn 19:30).
This is the same lesson that anyone forced into an unwelcome life change must face, be it the senior on graduation day, or the widower visiting his beloved’s grave. We cannot go back, and yet we must force ourselves to move forward. Like the Apostles, who, although they grieved their friend, carried forth His mission to go “and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), so also must we go forth to take the gifts we have received and let them be more than just a memory. The friendships and love that we have received are not ours to bury. Christ had to rise from the dead. It wasn’t an option. Who are we to assume that the life we once lived can stay dead, too?
The mission to rise again is not a lonely one. Christ tells us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20), and He is. The very things that hallmarked His earthly ministry – water, hand gestures, bread and wine – continue His presence through the sacraments. Though His earthly sojourn happened 2,000 years ago, He continues to transcend even death to be physically present to us. The memories of people and places we once loved need not remain in the past, either. Indeed, do we not still carry that burning love in our hearts? My Grandma may be gone and I can’t express my gratitude in the same way, but I still live by her example. My college roommate may be miles away on a completely new adventure, but I still cherish her friendship. The people and things we loved are not gone; we just have to learn to love them differently.
Likewise, we love Christ differently than the Apostles did. We may not look into His eyes or feel His calluses, but His love changes our lives just as it did for the Apostles. The manner in which we know and love Christ might appear different, but the grace remains ever efficacious. And so where does this leave us, those who feel change thrust upon them in the most inconvenient and unwelcomed manner? It leaves us with a reminder of our healthy need for intimate friendships, and with a holy longing for the Christ who was, is, and is to come.