In the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, the news began to circulate that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the Apostles. They dismissed various reports from both women and men. But suddenly that evening there was a change, 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 that it is empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is the most specific, indicates that Mary Magdalene went straight away to Peter and John, speaking anxiously not of resurrection, but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. Meanwhile, the other women have a vision of angels, who declare that Jesus has risen and instruct them to inform the Apostles. The women depart to do so. This is the first evidence of the resurrection, though at this point the risen Lord has yet to appear.
- John sees and believes – Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women have already departed. They see only the empty tomb, but it was clearly not due to grave robbers, for the expensive burial linens are lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text says that John saw (the burial clothes outstretched) “and believed” (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had told them? Or does the text mean that he came to believe that Jesus had risen? It is not clear, but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does the fact that one of the Apostles (one of the first bishops) believes Christ has risen mean that the Church now officially believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. At this point, Peter and John leave the tomb.
- Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and after they leave Jesus appears to her. This is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this appearance 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 reported His appearances, 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 to two disciples (not Apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus late that afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance, the two men 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 until now the stories have been rejected by the Apostles as either fanciful or downright untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the them (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 from the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk. According to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34) the risen Lord then appeared to Peter privately, prior to making Himself known to any of the other Apostles. Peter reports Jesus’ appearance to the others and it is at this point that the resurrection moves from being doubted to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded as follows:
The Lord has truly risen, 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 Mary 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 in a very Catholic way: 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 that the Church “did not exist at this time” since Pentecost “is the birthday of the Church.” I do not accept that “the Church did not exist at this time.” 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 holds Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, since our existence precedes our birth by at least nine months, surely the Church’s existence also precedes her “birth.”
We could sidestep the whole debate by saying that the 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 earlier, yet real manner. 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 teaching authoritatively out of her basic structure, and of the charism given to Peter and the Apostles more fully at a later time. But I stand by my contention that the Church did exist at this time and that we do not have a prolepsis, but in fact a proper action of the Magisterium at this very point.
Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger (that is to say not claiming to exercise the Papal Magisterium), speaks to the ecclesiological aspect of the early Church’s declaration. “The Lord is truly risen; He has appeared to Simon.” and “He appeared first to Cephas and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:4). Benedict writes,
… This indication of names [Cephas and then the Twelve], … reveals the very foundation of the Church’s faith. On the one hand “the Twelve” remain the actual foundation stone of the Church, the permanent point of reference. On the other hand, the special task give to Peter is underlined here. … Peter’s special witnessing role is confirmation of his commission to be the rock on which the Church is built. … So the resurrection account flows naturally into ecclesiology. … and it shapes the nascent Church [Jesus of Nzareth Vol 2., pp. 259-260].
But did the women’s and the laymen’s declarations mean nothing? 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, preaching and teaching in His name. Surely the Lord was not pleased when, after He had promised many times to rise from the dead, they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have realized that it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise? Should they not have “connected the dots”? Did He have to personally appear to them 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, even knowing their weakness. And so, too, today. The Church’s leaders are not perfect; at times they may take too long to make decisions, 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 himself 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 to some 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 refused to believe (Jn 20:25). But the Lord is merciful to him. In the end, though, it is clear that Thomas has fallen short, egregiously so. Not only has he disbelieved the testimony of one or more disciples, he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church. Jesus goes on to declare as blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29). So we are blessed!