by Deacon Michael Bickerstaff | April 20, 2014 12:01 am
What more fitting conclusion to a week of drama wrought by sin could there be than the triumph of Life over death! There is so much about Easter to help us live our lives in this day. Surely we can more fully embrace all that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ means for us today if we go back in time and place ourselves in the lives of the Apostles and disciples who experienced that first Easter Sunday first-hand.
For three years, the Apostles and other disciples had traveled with Jesus, learning from him as best as they could all of what God the Father was revealing to them through His Son. It was a time of new discovery and unimaginable joy as they spent their days with the One who had created them. But we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that they fully understood.
At some point during the twelve months that preceded the Resurrection, Jesus led His disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi and asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) It was Simon Peter who replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) To which Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
But we know from the closing verse of the Gospel reading for the Mass of the Day for Easter Sunday that Peter and John, the two disciples that most loved the Lord, did not yet understand fully all that was taking place on that first Lord’s Day: “For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9)
I am reminded of that earlier episode when all of those who had been following Jesus departed from Him and returned to their former way of life after the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they would depart also. It was Simon Peter, always the impetuous one, who declared, not that they understood His teaching on the Eucharistic Presence, but rather, that they believed without understanding: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68) I can so relate to Peter! God’s truth has been revealed to him, and he so wants to understand, but for now, he settles for belief. But that belief is not yet mature – it is still child-like. That is how we are to approach the Lord – understanding will come in time if we remain faithful.
And now, on this Sunday morning following the Friday we call “Good” because of God’s great love for us manifested on the Cross, we meet these very Apostles and disciples, whose lives are so turned upside down, yet again. During the three preceding years, they have come to believe, but not yet understand. Can you not imagine their anguish? The One they came to believe in, to place all their hopes in, the One they grew in love with day by day, has been crucified and has died. They believe Him to be buried in the sepulchre.
How much their lives were impacted and devastated by these events, we can only imagine – and what we imagine is probably not severe enough. When Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested, they all fled in fear. They abandoned their Lord. Of His Apostles, only Peter and John followed Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest as He was taken away. And there, Peter denied His Lord, said he did not know the man – probably denying Him while seeing Him face to face. Of His Apostles, the Gospels record that only John was present at the foot of the Cross as Jesus was dying. All of the Apostles, each in his own way, were suffering due to their abandonment of the Lord and His death. Their world must have seemed lost. Can you begin to imagine?
And not only the Apostles, but there were also others who loved Him so much, and they were in anguish. The Gospel of John tells us that at the rising of the sun on that day – the day after the Sabbath – while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala arrived at the sepulchre to anoint the Lord’s body. From the other Gospels we learn she was accompanied by other women, including, Mary – the mother of James, and Salome. A great earthquake had occurred and the stone, which had closed the sepulchre, was rolled away and they saw that the tomb was empty. Now what? Could a further indignity have been done to the Lord? Had they taken away His body… and to where? John, the beloved disciple, who loved Jesus so fervently, gave honor to Mary of Magdala, who also loved Jesus fervently, by mentioning only her in his Gospel account. I don’t think we can hardly begin to understand their troubled hearts – but we must try, for in so understanding, we might begin to recognize our own anguish when we are separated from the Lord. Mary could not even wait for the sun to rise above the horizon – she had to be there to anoint the Lord’s body at the earliest moment permitted by the Law. But His dead body was not there.
Mary of Magdala ran to where the Apostles, crying aloud her anguish, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” (John 20:2)
The two Apostles who most loved the Lord ran to the sepulchre – the text states that John ran faster and arrived first, followed by Peter. He sees the empty tomb and stops, but Peter rushes in and looks over everything carefully. How fast and hard must his heart been beating. Where is He? What’s happened? And then, a bit of light begins to penetrate both Peter and John to their very souls.
The cloths in which the Lord was buried would surely have stuck to His bloodied body, why were they here in the tomb and why were they arranged as they were with the head covering folded and set aside? Surely this is not what they would have expected to find if the authorities had taken away His body! A deepening belief… a small ray of understanding; were these their thoughts? Possibly!
It is said that they believed, but again, that closing verse (John 20:9) indicates yet a lack of understanding. Is there hope?
As the Gospel continues, we will learn of the encounter between the Risen Jesus and Mary of Magdala and her subsequent testimony to the Apostles. We will learn of His appearances to the Apostles. We will learn the rest of the story as they learn it. But try to imagine… try to place yourself in the lives of those disciples as they arose from rock bottom to new life and renewed hope and a strengthened faith! Is that not also our story? Have we not discovered in our lives for ourselves that resurrection can follow death and apparent defeat, no matter what forms it takes?
Of the crucifixion, St. Paul tells us, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) Why… because the Resurrection is the rest of the story. What appeared at first to be Satan’s defeat over the “Author of Life”, is instead, shown to be the definitive victory of the Cross where the Resurrected Christ defeated death by rising from the dead.
This is what the Apostles came to understand through their post-resurrection encounters with Christ and through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost… their lives were not over, they were just beginning – a gift from the One who makes all things new.
And this is what we must also come to believe – to believe in a way that utterly changes our lives. After traveling with the Lord through this Lent and His Passion and Death, we have arrived at new life – both during the remaining days of our life on earth and in fullness on the day of the Resurrection of our bodies when they will be reunited with our souls as the completion of time.
St. Paul, writing to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15) calls Jesus Christ the first-fruits of those who have died – and others who are yet die – in order to teach them the reality of the resurrection of the dead. But in his Epistle to the Ephesians, he also places the significance of the Resurrection right in the middle of our daily lives on earth. He speaks of the reality that we were dead in our sins, but now we are raised to new life, set apart for holiness. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) Christ’s Resurrection has made it possible for us to live lives pleasing to God.
We no longer need doubt the strength of the Cross to overcome our weakness. It matters not where you are or where you have been in relation to God. Christ has made it possible to live by His grace. As St. Paul declares, “For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God, I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20 – emphasis added)
So as we celebrate the glorious Resurrection of the Lord this fine Easter Day, let us resolve to humbly surrender ourselves to the Lord, join our lives to His, dying as crucified with Him, and rising to new life with Him. Let this Easter be a turning point in our lives, freely and joyfully giving everything to Him. May you be blessed and filled with joy and new life in this Easter Season.
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! To Him be all praise, honor and glory!
Into the Deep…
Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays.
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