A very happy Easter to all of you, your families, your friends, and your loved ones!
On this glorious day, we celebrate what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “crowning truth of our faith in Christ,” the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is so central to our faith that everything falls apart without it. The Resurrection is indeed a historical event, but it is also a transcendent event. The Catechism teaches in paragraph 647: “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.”
When we believe in the Resurrection, we not only place our faith and trust in God and in Jesus Christ whom He has sent, we also place our trust in the witness of the Apostles and Evangelists who were entrusted by Christ with the mission of proclaiming the Good News of salvation to all nations. Therefore, faith in the Resurrection builds our trust and communion with God and with the Church, with one another. The Apostles proclaim to us this new life in Christ and witness to His Resurrection, not only with their words, but with miraculous signs and works of charity. In other words, a significant aspect of their witness is how they strive to live the new life of the Resurrection now in this life in contradistinction to the world. They put off their old life of sin and selfishness and put on the new life united to Christ in Baptism.
The credibility of the testimonies to Christ’s Resurrection is strengthened by several facts. The first fact is the reaction of the disciples upon discovering the empty tomb. The Gospel accounts clearly show that the disciples were disheartened and saddened by the death of Christ. Even though Jesus had foretold his suffering, death, and resurrection on several occasions, the disciples seem to have forgotten these predictions. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the first to come to the tomb and find it empty. As soon as she sees the empty tomb, she leapt for joy and ran around shouting that Jesus is risen, right? No, that’s not what happened. Mary seemed to forget Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection and her reaction to seeing the empty tomb is entirely logical. Her first thought is that someone has gone into the tomb and removed the body. The possibility of the resurrection had not even occurred to her. This shows that although the empty tomb is an important piece of evidence for Christ’s resurrection, it is insufficient. Other explanations are possible.
Mary goes to tell Peter and John that the Lord has been taken away and the two men run to the tomb to investigate. After all, if Jesus’ body had been stolen, then the thief couldn’t have gotten very far and perhaps they can find clues that will help them locate Jesus’ body. Peter and John enter the tomb and see the burial cloths there. This is the first bit of evidence that communicates something of interest to Peter and John. There is something striking about the way that the burial cloths are arranged in the tomb. As the Catechism says in paragraph 640: “The disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ affirmed that when he entered the empty tomb and discovered ‘the linen cloths lying there,’ ‘he saw and believed.’ This suggests that he realized from the empty tomb’s condition that the absence of Jesus’ body could not have been of human doing and that Jesus had not simply returned to earthly life as had been the case with Lazarus.” There was something peculiar about the burial cloths that led John to believe. It is not until later that Mary Magdalene also comes to believe when she encounters Jesus himself, but not before mistaking him as the gardener.
Another fact that strengthens the credibility of the witnesses’ testimonies is the slowness of the disciples to believe. I think this shows how truly human they are. Believing in people simply rising from the dead is not natural, it’s supernatural. Hence it requires supernatural faith. Having gotten to know Jesus personally, following him during his earthly ministry, listening to him, seeing his miracles, and sharing meals with him, surely the disciples would have wanted to believe that Jesus would rise again from the dead as he said he would. Yet, after seeing the empty tomb and listening to the witness of the women who saw Jesus with their own eyes, some of them still did not believe. Thomas, who was not present when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee, persists in his doubt until Jesus finally appears before him personally. Some of his disciples do not recognize him even while he is walking and talking right next to them. They only recognize him when they share a meal with them and as he breaks bread in their presence. Jesus even rebukes his disciples for their slowness to believe because they should have simply taken him at his word. This shows that his disciples were not gullible nor were they simply trying to make up a story to fool others into believing.
A third fact that strengthens the testimony of the witnesses are the texts in Scripture that mention the large number of witnesses to whom Jesus appeared and the testimony of St. Paul, to whom the risen Christ appeared after his Ascension into heaven. St. Paul himself testifies in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Here St. Paul is giving an orderly account of all the people to whom the Risen Christ appeared. What is most striking here is not the fact that Christ appeared to the apostles or to Paul, but that he appeared to more than five hundred other people. While this is still a relatively small number of people, it’s not an insignificant detail. Christ appeared to those whom he chose to appear, and the total number of people amounts to over five hundred. St. Peter also proclaims to the Gentiles in today’s reading from Acts that Christ appeared to a select number of witnesses. He 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.” Peter doesn’t specify the number of witnesses, but his testimony seems to corroborate with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians.
The testimony of St. Paul only adds additional weight to his witness to the Risen Christ. If anyone had every reason to be opposed to Christ and to wipe out any vestige of Christianity, it would be St. Paul. He was a zealous Jew who actively hunted down and persecuted Christians and even saw to their executions. His religious views were strongly aligned with the Jewish ruling class and saw Christianity as a threat to be exterminated. Then one day, he suddenly makes a complete 180-degree turn and becomes a zealous witness to Christ and to his Resurrection. For Paul to undergo such a complete conversion, he must have encountered something earth-shattering. No one makes such a change in his life unless there’s a significant event that causes it. It does not seem likely that any mere Christian would have been capable of making an Apostle out of Paul by their own efforts alone. Paul’s conversion is so complete and profound that he even goes so far as to put himself in danger of death by traveling to various places around the Mediterranean to make Christ known and gives the ultimate witness by shedding his blood as a martyr. Thus, when Paul testifies that the Risen Christ has appeared to him, his testimony is made all the more credible.
The final fact that adds to the credibility of the witnesses is the martyrdoms of all but one of the Apostles as well as the martyrdom of St. Paul. While it is possible that people can choose to die for something that is entirely fabricated, it’s not likely. People are usually not willing to lay down their lives for a cause in which they do not firmly believe. What is most remarkable about the witness of the Apostles is not so much that they died as martyrs, but that they persevered in the virtue of charity until the end of their lives. Even in the face of execution at the hands of their persecutors, they desired not retribution and revenge against their enemies, but that their enemies too might come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. They were witnesses to Christ by their lives of charity and by their deaths, loving their enemies and praying for those who persecuted them.
As the letter to the Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” The Catechism teaches in paragraph 651: “The Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of all Christ’s works and teachings. All truths, even those most inaccessible to human reason, find their justification if Christ by his Resurrection has given the definitive proof of his divine authority, which he had promised.” Therefore, we who are baptized into Christ are called to do as St. Paul instructs us in the second reading today from 1 Corinthians, “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
If we Christians wish to be effective witnesses to Christ and his Resurrection, we would do well to heed these words and to get rid of any malice and wickedness in ourselves: any anger, bitterness, resentment, unforgiveness, gossip, backbiting, mockery, slander, detraction, lying, selfish ambition, greed, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, haughtiness, fear mongering, rash judgment, or anything else that comes from the spirit of the world and not the Spirit of Christ. We become effective evangelizers to the extent that we put on the mind of Christ and seek to carry out his works – works of charity and justice. We manifest God’s love to the world by loving others as Jesus loved us. I’ll close with these words from St. John’s first letter about the love of God: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth…Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”
By Fr. Matthew Mary