There is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this hidden quality in Acts Chapter 10 when he says to Cornelius,
“God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:41 to 42)
So, note that Jesus did not appear openly to all, but only to some. Why is this? It is so different from what most of us would do.
If I were God (and it is very good for you that I am not), I would rise from the dead very dramatically. Perhaps I would send trumpet blasts to summon people to my tomb, and I would step out with great fanfare, summoning a multitude of angels to dazzle, and I would step forth to awe many, and strike fear in my enemies who killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely to accomplish such a feat would be an event that would never be forgotten! Surely too it would draw many to faith, would it not?
And yet none of this is what the Lord does at all! Not only did he appear only to some after his resurrection, but the actual dramatic moment of the resurrection seems to have been witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to a fanfare of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of crickets. Though St. Matthew mentions a great earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone, and the women finding the guards stunned into unconsciousness, it seems Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone rolled back.
Such a hidden event! The greatest event the world has ever known, and yet hidden from our eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille would not be pleased.
And when the Lord does appear, it is only to some, as we’ve noted. Two of the appearances have often intrigued me for the details are extremely sparse; they are really mentioned only in passing:
One is the appearance to Peter – It would seem that the Lord appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles on that first resurrection evening. For when the two disciples return from Emmaus they are greeted with the acclamation, The Lord has truly been raised, he has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34). Shortly thereafter, the Lord appears to ten of the apostles, along with some of the disciples.
But why is there so little detail about this appearance to Simon Peter?! We do receive great detail about a conversation between Jesus and Peter two weeks later in Galilee (John 21), but of the first appearance in Jerusalem we get only the passing reference.
In a certain sense, it is a very significant appearance because it moves the resurrection from just some news that the women were sharing, to the apostolic proclamation, the Lord has truly been raised. What moves it from rumor to true fact? The difference is, “He has appeared to Simon.” Here is a kind of early and seminal act of the Petrine office and the Magisterium! But of this crucial apparition, no details are supplied!
The other appearance cloaked in obscurity is the appearance to the 500 that Paul references here:
He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; (1 Cor 15:5-6)
Here is an amazing appearance, not to two or three, or even a dozen, but to 500 at once. And yet no details are supplied. Where did it happen? When? For how long? What does the Lord say? What did he do? Silence.
And then there is a resurrection appearance that never happened, but to worldly minds should have. And that was the resurrection appearance of Jesus to his accusers and prosecutors – his appearance to Caiaphas, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, to all who jeered at him as he hung on the cross. Surely they deserved a good dressing down, and they probably could’ve used it. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.
Yes, such are our thoughts, my thoughts, on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why so hidden, why so selective? Ultimately, I cannot say why; I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch.
My speculation is rooted in the identity of God: God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Love is not merely something God does, nor is it just one of his many attributes. Scripture says God is love. And it is in the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) to woo the beloved, to invite, not to overwhelm or importune, not to force or coerce. For the lover wants to be loved. But to force the beloved to love or to overwhelm the cherished into a fearful love is not to receive true love in return.
By contrast, it is in the nature of Satan to pressure, to tempt, to overwhelm, and to try to coerce us into sin. Satan is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.
But God whispers; He calls us; He gently draws us in. He supplies grace and evidence but does not overwhelm us with fearsome and noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He is the One who has written his name in our hearts and whispers there quietly. “Seek always the face of the Lord.” (1 Chron 16:11) He does at times allow our life to be shaken a bit, but even then, it is more often something he allows, rather than directly causes.
As for loud and flashy entrances, and humiliation of his opponents, God is not interested. He does not have a big ego. Even if He could compel the temple leadership to worship him by shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response could be called a true faith response. It would be more that they had been forced to believe. Faith that needs to see really isn’t faith, for no one needs faith to believe what he can plainly see with his eyes.
Thus the Lord does rise from the dead, and he does supply evidence to witnesses who had faith, at least enough faith to be rewarded. He sends these eyewitnesses, supplies his graces, and gives us other evidence so that we can believe and love. But none of this is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.
God is love, and loves seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection, shows forth as an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So the Lord rises quietly and appears to some, but only briefly, and then seems to withdraw – almost as if respectfully giving them time to process what they have experienced. He gives them time to deepen their faith, and to come to terms with what was for them a completely new reality, a reality that would change their lives forever.
How different this is from us, so many of whom think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, conquering, and so forth. And how different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, whispering, not needing credit for everything he does, not needing to crush his enemies; but rather always hoping for their conversion, working to win their love; ruing, not rejoicing in the day when their “no” might become a forever “no.” Until then, He is always calling, always willing, always giving grace. His mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.
Why was the resurrection so hidden? God is love. And love woos, it does not wound; it invites, it does not incite; it calls, it does not crush; it respects but does not rule or seek revenge. Yes, God is love.
Of her Glorious Groom, the Church and Bride says,
Listen! My beloved! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice… [He speaks to her and says], “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” (Song 2:9-10)
Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille would do the Easter Fire: