In the early hours of the resurrection appearances on the first Easter Sunday news began to be circulated that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were, at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. Various reports from both women and men were dismissed by the apostles. But suddenly in the evening of that first Easter Sunday there is a change, and a declaration by the apostles that the Lord “has truly risen!” What effected this change? We will see in a moment. But first note the early reports of the resurrection and how they were largely disregarded:
- The women who go to the tomb first discover it empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is most specific indicates that Magdalene went straightway to Peter and John and speaks anxiously, not of resurrection but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. But meanwhile the other women have had a vision of an angels who declare that Jesus had risen and that they should inform the apostles. They depart to do so. Here is first evidence though the risen Lord had yet to appear.
- John sees and believes – Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women had departed. They saw only the empty tomb but it was clearly not grave robbers for the expensive grave linens were lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text said, John saw (the grave clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had said? Or does the text mean he came to believe in that moment that Jesus had risen? It is not clear but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does this mean that the Church now officially believes that Christ has risen because one of the apostles (one of the first bishops) believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait for later in the day. Peter and John depart the tomb.
- Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and, after they leave, Jesus appears to her. Here is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this now mean that the Church officially believes that Jesus is risen? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. For scripture testifies that Jesus appeared elsewhere to the other women who had gone to the tomb but that when Mary Magdalene and the other women report that they had seen Jesus risen, the apostles would not believe it (Mk 16:11; Luke 24:11) Hence, though we have appearances we cannot yet say that there is any official declaration by the Church that Christ is truly risen.
- Jesus appears also to two disciples (not apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus that late afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance they run to tell the apostles who, once again, do not believe it (Mark 16:13). So now we have had at least three appearances but no official acceptance by the Church’s leaders (the apostles) that there is any truth to these sightings.
So when does the resurrection become the official declaration of the early Church? Up till now the stories had been rejected by the apostles as either fanciful or untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the 12 (John) was not enough to cause an official declaration from the early Church. So, what causes this to change? It would seem that, after the early evening report by the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk, or some other purpose, and according to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34) the risen Lord appeared to Peter privately and prior to the other apostles. Peter then reports this to the others, and the resurrection moves from being doubted, to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded thus:
The Lord has truly risen indeed, he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)
The resurrection is now officially declared. Notice, the world “truly” (some texts say “indeed”). It is now an officially attested fact that Jesus has risen. Neither Magdalene, nor the women in general, nor the disciples from Emmaus, nor even John, could make this declaration for the Church. It took the college of apostles in union with Peter to do this. Hence the dogma of the resurrection becomes so on very Catholic terms: The first bishops (the apostles) in union or in Council with the first Pope (Peter) make this solemn declaration of the faith.
When I wrote a similar article some years back, some argued in opposition that the Church “did not exist” at this point since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time” (For I think she did exist, but had simply not been commissioned to go forth to the nations as yet, that would wait for Pentecost. Further even if one will piously hold Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, and the Church’s existence surely also precedes her “birth”). But let us side-step the whole debate by holding saying that this exercise of the Church’s teaching authority in this event is proleptic. That is to say, what would fully be the case later, is here seen operative in an anachronistic, yet real manner (For example, Mother Mary is saved by Jesus and preserved from sin not apart from Christ’s saving act, but in a proleptic way, in anticipation of his saving grace). Thus, the apostles and their office which were fully operative after Pentecost, are here active as the result of a prevenient grace, an anticipation of the future reality of the Church to teach authoritatively out of her basic structure and the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully or widely at some later time. But again, I stand by my point that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a proleptic but in fact a proper action of the magisterium at this very point.
But did the women and the laymen’s declaration mean nothing? In fact it does. And the Lord upbraids the apostles later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance. But he does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration, for in the very next verse he commissions the apostles to go forth and preach and teach in his name. Surely the Lord was not pleased after he had promised many times to rise from the dead that they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have concluded it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise and connected the dots? Did he have to personally appear before they would believe?
Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men, far from it. But they were the leaders he had chosen, knowing their weakness. So too for today, the Church’s leaders are not perfect and may take far too long at times to make decisions or give clearer teachings or impose necessary discipline. But, in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.
This whole event also teaches us that the bishops and even the Pope are not always the first to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. The more frequent pattern is that the Lord begins reforms and sends apparitions, not to the leaders, but among the faithful. Reform movements and messages are often received there first, and only later does the Church, through her anointed and appointed leaders, affirm or uphold certain things as worthy of belief, and set aside others as problematic.
Finally it should be noted that one of the apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth he still refused to believe (Jn 20:25). Here too the Lord is merciful to him but in the end is clear that Thomas has fallen short. And Thomas has fallen short in a more egregious manner, for he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church, not merely disbelieved the testimony of one or a few disciples. Jesus goes on to declare blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). That’s us!