How Can We Understand the Passage About the Dead Coming Forth From Their Tombs When Jesus Died on the Cross?

There is a passage in Matthew’s Gospel which says something quite astonishing but then leaves us starved for more information:

[When Jesus died on the cross], the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Mt. 27: 52-53).

It is a very mysterious text that does not lend itself to simple or satisfying explanations. Was this reported elsewhere in literature from time? Why do the other Gospels not mention something so startling? Who rose? How many? What happened after they rose? Did they go back to life in Jerusalem or did they appear for only a moment?

We are simply left to wonder as to the details. But we must recall that each of the Evangelists selected their material carefully and according to set purposes. Brevity of written texts in those times was more important than verbiage given the costly nature of writing long before the printing press.

Matthew seems to have two purposes in mind: he reports what actually happened, but he does this with the goal of showing how scripture is fulfilled. For example,

  • Therefore prophesy and tell them that this is what the Lord GOD says: ‘O My people, I will open your graves and bring you up from them, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, My people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. (Ezekiel 37:12-13)
  • I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where, O Sheol, is your sting? (Hosea 13:14)

The main purpose of Matthew in recounting the event seems to be a relating of the fulfillment of Scripture, not reporting all the details as if we were watching an episode of the “night of the living dead.”

Further, the rending of the veil in the temple and the earthquake reported in earlier verses of the same passage are not just events; they are signs of God’s judgment on this world. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Christ gave the world the only serious wound it ever received, the wound of an empty tomb.” This world is shaken by Christ’s death and the rending of the veil indicates He, and not the Temple rituals, has opened the way out of this world and unto the Father.

The details of the passage about the dead come forth and appearing to many are sparse. But what should be avoided is the elaborated notions of our imagination that the dead emerged from their tombs and wandered the streets in a zombie-like way. This is not an American horror film being described. Rather, Matthew asserts that many (indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens) rose bodily and appeared to many (again, indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens). How they appeared and to whom is not elaborated. But the text does not directly report them walking about Jerusalem and being seen indiscriminately by everyone. It may well have been a select number who were privileged to encounter the risen dead. It is similar to the way that Scripture reports the appearances of Jesus: He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10:41)

Beyond this, the details permit little more than speculation about this mysterious and wondrous incident.

St. Thomas Aquinas, basing his views on Jerome, says several things about this passage in his Commentary on Matthew :

First of all he does not think this event actually happened at this moment of the Lord’s death, but only after the Lord’s resurrection. And thus Matthew puts it here as a kind of proleptic. St Thomas says, 

And one should note that although this was said in the description of Christ’s death, yet one should understand that it was said by way of anticipation, because it was done after the resurrection; for Christ is the first begotten of the dead (Rev 1:5).

Further, he speculates on the possibility that the Holy City mentioned here where they appear may not have been Jerusalem at all, but the Holy City called heaven. He writes:

And they came into the holy city, not because it was holy [at that time], but because it had been before; how is the faithful city, that was full of judgment, become a harlot? (Isa 1:21). Or, it is called holy because holy things were done there. Or, following Jerome, [they entered] into the holy city, namely the heavenly city, because they went with Christ into glory. And appeared to many.

He also concludes that they rose and did not die again at some later time:

There is usually a question about these people, whether they rose again and died again, or did not die. It is agreed that some have arisen and later died, like Lazarus. But one can say about these people that they rose and did not die again, because they rose for the manifestation of Christ’s resurrection, and it is certain that Christ rising again from the dead, dies now no more (Rom 6:9). Also, if they had risen only to die again, it would not have been a kindness shown them but rather an injury; therefore they rose to enter into heaven with Christ.

St. Thomas also summarizes the Church Fathers in the Catena Aurea. Here are a few citations:

  • Hilary of Poitier describes the earthquake and the dead coming forth as a kind of judgment on this world: “The earth quaked,” because it was unequal to contain such a body; “the rocks rent,” for the Word of God that pierces all strong and mighty things, and the virtue of the eternal Power had penetrated them; “the graves were opened,” for the bands of death were loosed. “And many bodies of the saints which slept arose,” for illumining the darkness of death, and shedding light upon the gloom of Hades, He robbed the spirits of death.
  • John Chrysostom speaks of the event as a great victory for those who had died in friendship with God awaiting the Messiah: When He remained on the cross they had said tauntingly, “He saved others, himself he cannot save.” But what He would not do for Himself, that He did and more than that for the bodies of the Saints. For if it was a great thing to raise Lazarus after four days, much more was it that they who had long slept should now show themselves alive; this is indeed a proof of the resurrection to come. But that it might not be thought that that which was done was an appearance merely, the Evangelist adds, “And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
  • Remigius says: We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord’s resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him.
  • Origen does not deny the event but spiritualizes its ongoing meaning for us: These same mighty works are still done every day; the veil of the temple is rent for the Saints, in order to reveal the things that are contained within. The earthquakes, that is, all flesh because of the new word and new things of the New Testament. The rocks are rent, i.e. the mystery of the Prophets, that we may see the spiritual mysteries bid in their depths. The graves are the bodies of sinful souls, that is, souls dead to God; but when by God’s grace these souls have been raised, their bodies which before were graves, become [p. 965] bodies of Saints, and appear to go out of themselves, and follow Him who rose again, and walk with Him in newness of life; and such as are worthy to have their conversation in heaven enter into the Holy City at divers times, and appear unto many who see their good works.

And thus passage, fascinating though difficult, is explained in various ways by the Patristic and scholastic tradition.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: How Can We Understand the Passage About the Dead Coming Forth From Their Tombs When Jesus Died on the Cross?

Why Was the Resurrection Such a Hidden Event?

There is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this 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 10:41-42).

Note that Jesus did not appear openly to all but rather only to some. Why? 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 summon people to my tomb with trumpet blasts and then emerge amid great fanfare (including a multitude of angels), inspiring awe and striking fear in the hearts of the enemies who had killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and then go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely it would be an event that would never be forgotten! It would draw many to faith, would it not?

Yet the Lord does none of this! Not only did He appear only to some after His resurrection, but the dramatic moment of the resurrection itself was apparently witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to the sound of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of nothing but crickets chirping. Although St. Matthew mentions an earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone and the guards being stunned into unconsciousness, it appears that Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back.

Such a hidden event! It was the greatest event the world has ever known, and yet it was hidden from human eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille, the great Hollywood director of epic movies, would not be pleased.

Jesus made one appearance to a large group, which Paul relates 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).

He appeared to more than five hundred people at once, yet no details are supplied! Where did it happen? When? What did the Lord say? What did He do?

Then there are the resurrection appearances that never happened (but to worldly minds should have): Jesus’ appearance to His accusers and persecutors, 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 it probably would’ve been good for them as well. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.

Such are my thoughts on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why was it so hidden? Why so selective an audience? Ultimately, I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch, if you will.

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 that God is love. It is in the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) for the lover to invite (or woo) his beloved rather than overwhelming, coercing, or forcing. The lover wants to be loved, but forcing his beloved into a fearful love would mean not receiving true love in return.

It is Satan’s nature to pressure, tempt, and overwhelm us in order to get us to sin. He is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.

In contrast, God whispers. He calls us and gently draws us in. He provides evidence and supplies grace but does not overwhelm us with fearsome or noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He has written His name in our hearts and whispers there quietly: Seek always the face of the Lord (1 Chron 16:11). At times He permits our life to be shaken up a bit, but even then it is more often something that He allows rather than directly causes.

God is generally not interested in making loud, flashy entrances or humiliating His opponents. He does not have a big ego. Even if He chose to compel the Temple leadership to worship Him by using shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response would have been genuine. Faith that needs to “see” isn’t really faith; one doesn’t need faith to believe what can be plainly seen.

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 then sends these eyewitnesses to us, supplies His graces, and provides us with other evidence so that we can believe and love. None of this, however, is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.

God is love and love seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection is an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So, the Lord rises quietly and appears (but only briefly) to some 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, one that would change their lives forever.

How different this is from the way we operate! So many of us think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, and conquest. How different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, and quiet. He doesn’t need to get “credit” for everything He does. He doesn’t need to crush His enemies. Rather, ruing the day on which their no might become a forever no, He works to win their love, always aiming for their conversion. Until our final breath, He is always calling, willing, and 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; it 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 might do the Easter fire:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Why Was the Resurrection Such a Hidden Event?

What Happened to Us When We Were Baptized into Christ Jesus?

The first reading for Monday’s daily Mass, from the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 2:1-10), gives a concise account of our salvation by Christ Jesus. It begins by describing our absolute need for salvation and then speaks to the gifts that come with it. Let’s take a look.

Dead in our Sins – The text says, You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses.

There is nothing more helpless than a corpse. It cannot do anything but lie there and decompose. This was our condition before baptism. No amount of good works, repentance, or spiritual pushups could accomplish a thing. We were dead, helpless, powerless. We had a debt we could not repay.

We were decomposing by following the prince of this world, the Devil. We had the rigor mortis of stubbornness and the stench of disobedience. Dead in our sins, the desires and pride of our flesh won the day. We indulged our passions and impulses. Even keeping of the law was a matter of pride. We thought that we could be righteous by following certain narrowly understood laws. These were just the illusions of a dying man. Isaiah said of us,

All of us have become like one who is unclean, even our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; we all wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind (Is 64:6).

Death was all around us and within us.

Destined for Wrath – The text says, And we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest.

Wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. It is like fire and water—they cannot coexist; there is a conflict between them that is heard in the hissing of water when it falls onto a fire.

God is a holy fire and we cannot endure the heat and light of His glory in our sinful state. By grace, we must be brought up to the temperature of glory by the Holy Spirit and must become accustomed to the glorious light of God’s truth. Without these gifts we cannot endure the presence of God.

Yes, this is wrath. It is not that God is angry; it is that we cannot endure Him as He is. It is like being exposed to the light after being used to the darkness. We say that the light is harsh, but the problem is that we’ve become too accustomed to the dark.

Before the grace of Christ, we were children of wrath. Only by the light of His grace and the warmth of His love can we hope to draw close to Him who is the light of truth and blazing charity.

Delivered in Christ – The text says, But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, …

On account of His mercy, God the Father sent us Christ Jesus as a glorious gift. Jesus comes to restore us to life, to bring us to the light in stages and bring us up to the temperature of glory!

In His Spirit, who descends like tongues of fire on us, we are set on fire. Through His proclaimed truth, He who is the light of the world accustoms us to the bright light of God’s truth. Yes, we are brought out of the dark, cold dungeon of the tomb and raised up with Christ!

Designated in Honor – The text continues, … and [the Father] seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

In Christ, we are already seated in the heavens—mystically but truly. As Christ has ascended into the heavens, we ascend with Him as members of His body.

One may wonder how it is that he is “up there” while we are “down here.” When I ride the elevator to the tenth floor, although my head arrives before my feet, I get there. In Christ our head, we are already seated at the Father’s right hand. Where the head of the body goes, the members will follow.

Brethren, this is our future and our dignity if we are faithful: seated with Christ at the Father’s right hand in Heaven!

Diligent in Fruitful Faith – The text says, 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 good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Meanwhile, we walk in fruitful faith. Our faith bears fruit in works. Yet even our works are God’s grace. The text says that God prepared them for us in advance so that we should walk in them. All is grace! St. Augustine says that God’s love extends to this, that His graces should be our merits. Thus, our works are our faith working through love (cf Gal 5:6).

Such is our state in Christ and God’s gift: we who were dead in our sins have been brought to life in Him. Destined for glory, we journey upward in fruitful faith and love.

Thank you, Father, for Jesus and your Spirit, who breathes new life in us. We could nothing to accomplish this; we were dead. By your grace we now live and are destined to be with you. Keep us faithful unto death, lest we lose this precious gift and die in the hardness of our heart. Yes, keep us faithful unto death.

An Unequivocal Affirmation by Jesus that the Dead Will Rise

In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 9th week, the Church presents us with a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Let’s look at what we are taught:

The Ridicule of the Resurrection – The Gospel opens as follows: Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. They proposed a hypothetical situation in which a woman is married seven times, to brothers who successively die without siring any children by her. The Sadducees suggested that at the resurrection there would be confusion as to whose wife she really is; we’re supposed to laugh and conclude that the idea of resurrection is absurd.

Jesus will dismiss their absurd question handily, as we shall see in a moment, but let’s consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.

Fundamentally, the Sadducees rejected the resurrection because they only accepted the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This point is debated among scholars, but we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses (which the resurrection was not), the Sadducees were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition, were not considered authoritative sources.

While most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament (and teachings within it such as the resurrection of the dead), the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said that they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless, they were influential due to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more about them here: Sadducees.

The Sadducees approached Jesus to poke fun at Him and all others who believed that the dead would rise.

They are no match for Jesus, who easily dispatches their arguments using the Book of Exodus (a book they accept) to do it. In effect, Jesus’ argument proceeds as follows:

  • You accept Moses, do you not? (They would surely reply yes.)
  • But Moses teaches that the dead will rise. (They must look puzzled now, but He presses on.)
  • Do you accept that God is a God of the living, not the dead? (They would surely reply yes.)
  • Then why does God (in Exodus) identify Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years?
  • How can He call Himself their God if they are dead?
  • They must be alive, or He could not call Himself their God, for He is not a God of the dead but of the living.
  • Therefore, they are alive to God; they are not dead.

In this way, Jesus dispatches their argument. For us, the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church. We should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead.

Rejoice, for your loved ones are alive before God! To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us clearly and firmly that they live. And we, who will also face physical death, will live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how He easily dispatches them. Though the idea is ridiculed, the resurrection is real.

The Resplendence of the Resurrection – Jesus also sets aside the absurd hypothetical scenario that the Sadducees pose by teaching that earthly realities cannot simply be projected into Heaven. Scenarios perceived in earthly ways cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The saints in Heaven live beyond earthly categories.

Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and the accumulation of good things. It is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says,

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).

The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).

Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Then multiply it by a thousand, or a million, or a trillion; you are still not even close understanding the glory that awaits.

And this glory will transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Siena that if she ever saw the glory of a saint in Heaven she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity: to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect His glory. The following is a summary of St. Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in Heaven:

It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. “My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful” [1].

Yes, Heaven is glorious, and we shall be changed. Scripture says, we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:19). I have written more on our resurrected bodies here: What will our resurrected bodies be like?

Too many people have egocentric notions of Heaven. It’s a place where I will have a mansion, I will see my relatives, and I will be able to play all the golf I want. But the heart of Heaven is to be with God, for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and a peace that is beyond earthly imagination. Heaven is far greater than golf, mansions, and family reunions. There is certainly more to it than clouds and harps. Heaven can never be described because it is beyond words. St. Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into Heaven; he affirms that it cannot be described; it is ineffable; it is unspeakable.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven …. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Cor 12:2-3).

Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an old spiritual that says,

I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning, Lord.
I’m getting’ ready for the judgment day, my Lord, my Lord!
Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!)
Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!)
Do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!)
I’m waiting for the chariot ’cause I ready to go.
I never can forget that day,
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!).
My feet were snatched from the miry clay!
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)

The "Great Gettin’ Up Morning" as Described in an Unlikely Advent Hymn

120814Here in the heart of Advent, we are considering how prepared we are for the Lord to come again. Either He will come to us or we will go to Him, but either way we must prepare. In today’s post I’d like to consider some teachings about the Day of Judgment, from an Advent hymn that most do not know is an Advent hymn. Tomorrow I would like to consider the great Parousia, wherein the saved enter into glory with the Lord.

Regarding the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day,” I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the current sequence hymn for Latin Requiem Masses, the Dies Irae. This gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, and many composers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions.

But the hymn was not in fact composed for funerals. Actually, it was composed, by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century, as an Advent hymn. Yes, that’s right, an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it is also about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will offer an inspiring English translation by W. J. Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin well enough. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae.) I will also offer the scriptural verses that serve as background to the text.

The syllables of this magnificent hymn hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila!  Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy, but at the same time, no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgment warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end to wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

Yes, all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all. Consider two scriptural roots to this first verse:

  1. (Zeph 1:15-18) A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
  2. (2 Peter 3:10-13) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up … the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!

The “Sibyl” referred to here is most likely the Erythraean Sibyl, who wrote an acrostic on the name of the Christ in the Sibylline Oracles. These will figure prominently in tomorrow’s meditation on the Parousia.

And now the stunning, opening stunning scene of creation. All have been set aghast; our rapt attention turns to Jesus, who has come to judge the living and the dead and the whole world by fire:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgment be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Here, too, many Biblical texts are brought to mind and masterfully united. Here are just a few of them:

  1. (Matt 25:31-33) When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left …
  2. (Matt 24:30-32)  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty.  And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them.
  3. (Rev 20:12) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
  4. (Rom 2:4-6) Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works:
  5. Luke 12:3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
  6. 2 Peter 3:14 and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

So, Judgment shall be according to our deeds; whatever is in the Book! Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy, and appeals to God for that mercy, basing it on the very will of God to save us. Was He not to be called Jesus because He would save us from our sins? (Mt 1:21) Did not God so love the world that He sent His own Son? And did He not come to save rather than condemn? (Jn 3:16-17) Did He not endure great sorrows and the cross itself to save us? Ah, Lord, do not now forsake me as I ponder my last end. Keep me faithful unto death!

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary, since for now we can call on that mercy. For of that day, though there will be wailing and grinding of teeth at a just condemnation, such tears will be of no avail then (Mt 13:42). Please Lord, let me not be with the goats at the left, but with the sheep on the right (Mt 25:33). And in the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. Only you, Jesus, can save me from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: that day is surely coming! Grant me O Lord your grace to be ready; prepare me:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgment must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

It is a masterpiece of beauty and truth, if you ask me. Some years ago, I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant ringing through her echoing arches. When I die, please sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all, and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. Amen.

When did the Resurrection become truly the Faith, and the official teaching of the Church?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

The Resurrection Appearances Chronologically Arranged

This blog post is a follow-up from yesterday’s blog. You can read yesterday’s post by clicking HERE

When we encounter the resurrection accounts in the New Testament we face a challenge in putting all the pieces together in a way that the sequence of the events flow in logical order. This is due to the fact that no one Gospel presents all, or even most of the data. Some of the data also seems to conflict. I tried to show in yesterday’s blog that these apparent conflicts are not, usually, true conflicts. Another problem with putting all the facts together in a coherent and reasonably complete manner is that the time line of the events is often unclear in some of the accounts. Luke and John are the clearest as to the time frame of the events they describe but Matthew and Luke give us very few parameters. Both Acts and Paul also supply data wherein the time frame is not always clear.

Nevertheless I want to propose to you a possible, dare I claim, even likely, sequence of the Resurrection events. The work is my own and I make no claim that this scenario is certain or backed up by recognized ancient authority. St Augustine has done quite a lot of work in this matter and you can read that by clicking HERE. My attempts here are simply the fruit of 20+ years of praying over and pondering the events of those forty days between the Lord’s resurrection and ascension. My reflections are based as solidly as possible on the actual biblical data with a sprinkling of speculation. I realize that the attempt to do this will irritate some modern biblical scholars who, for reasons unclear to me, seem to insist it is wrong to attempt any synthesis of the texts.

Nevertheless, I boldly press on figuring that the average believer will benefit from it and find such a synthesis interesting. Take it for what it is, the work of an obscure pastor who has prayed and carefully sought to follow the sequence of the forty days. You may wish to offer correction or alternative interpretation and are encouraged to do so in the comments. I have posted a PDF of this Document that is easier to read here: The Resurrection Appearances Chronologically Arranged

In this year’s version I have included the hyperlinks to the biblical texts so that you can simply click on them to read the text and press back to return here.

  • I. The Morning of Day One
    • A. Very early in the morning a group of several women, including Mary Magdalene, approach the tomb to complete burial customs on behalf of Jesus (Matt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Jn 20:1).
    • B. They behold the tomb opened and are alarmed.
    • C. Mary Magdalene runs to Peter and John with distressing news of likely grave robbers (Jn 20:2)
    • D. The women who remain encounter an angel who declared to them that Jesus had risen and that they should tell this to the brethren (Mk 16:5 Lk 24:4; Mt 28:5).
    • E. They are filled with fear at first and depart from the tomb afraid to speak (Mk 16:8)
    • F. Recovering their courage they decide to go to the Apostles. (Lk 24:9; Mt 28:8)
    • G. Meanwhile Peter and John have gone out to the tomb to investigate Mary’s claim. Mary Magdalene followed them back out to the tomb arriving before they left. Peter and John discover the tomb empty though they encounter no angel. John believes in the resurrection. Peter’s conclusion is not recorded.
    • H. The other women have reported what the angels say to the Apostles. Peter and John have not yet returned and these remaining apostles are dismissive of the women’s story at first (Lk 24:9-11).
    • I. Mary, lingering at the tomb weeps and is fearful. Peering into the tomb she sees this time two angels who wonder why she weeps. Jesus then approaches her from behind. Not looking directly at Jesus, she supposes him to be the gardener. Then he calls her by name, and Mary, recognizing his voice, turns and sees him. Filled with joy she clings to him. (APPEARANCE 1) (Jn 20:16)
    • J. Jesus sends her back to the apostles with the news to prepare them for his appearance later that day. (Jn 20:17)
    • K. The other women have departed the apostles and are on their way possibly back home. Jesus then appears to them (Mt 28:9) after he had dispatched Mary. He also sends them back to the apostles with the news that he had risen and that he would see them. (APPEARANCE 2)
  • II. The Afternoon and evening of day one.
    • A. Later that Day, two disciples on their way to Emmaus are pondering what they have heard about rumors of his resurrection. Jesus comes up behind them but they are prevented from recognizing him. First Jesus breaks open the word for them, then sits at table with them and celebrates the Eucharist whereupon their eyes are opened and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread. (APPEARANCE 3) (Lk 24:13-30)
    • B. The two disciples returned that evening to Jerusalem and went to the Eleven. At first the eleven disbelieved them just as they had the women (Mk 16:13). Nevertheless they continue to relate what they had experienced. At some point Peter drew apart from the others (perhaps for a walk?) And the Lord appeared to Peter (APPEARANCE 4)(Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5) who informed the other ten who then believed. Thus the disciples from Emmaus (still lingering with the apostles) were now told (perhaps by way of apology) that it was in indeed true that Jesus had risen (Lk 24:34).
    • C. Almost at the same moment Jesus appears to the small gathering of apostles and the two disciples from Emmaus. (APPEARANCE 5) Thomas was absent (although the Lucan text describes the appearance as to “the eleven” this is probably just a euphemism for “the apostles” as a group) They are startled but Jesus reassures them and opens the scriptures to them (Lk 24:36ff).
    • D. There is some debate as to whether he appeared to them a second time that night. The Johannine account has significantly different data about the appearance on the first Sunday evening from the Lucan account. Is it merely different data about the same account or is it a wholly separate appearance? It is not possible to say. Nevertheless since the data is so different we can call it (APPEARANCE 6) (Jn 20:19ff) though it is likely synonymous with appearance 5.
  • III. Interlude –
    • A. There is no biblical data that Jesus appeared to them during the week that followed. The next account of the resurrection says, “Eight days later” namely the following Sunday.
    • B. We do know that the apostles surely exclaimed to Thomas that they had seen the Lord but he refused to believe it. (Jn 20:24)
    • C. Were the apostles nervous that Jesus had not appeared again each day? Again we do not know, the data is simply silent as to what happened during this interlude.
  • IV. One week later, Sunday two.
    • A. Jesus appears once again (APPEARANCE 7) to the apostles gathered. This time Thomas is with them. He calls Thomas to faith who now confesses Jesus to be Lord and God. (Jn 20:24-29)
  • V. Interlude 2
    • A. The apostles received some instructions to return to Galilee (Mt 28:10; Mk 16:7) where they would see Jesus. Thus they spent some of the week journeying 60 miles to the north. This would have taken some time. We can imagine them making the trek north during the intervening days.
  • VI. Some time later –
    • A. The time frame of the next appearance is somewhat vague. John merely says “After this.” Likely it is a matter of days or a week at best. The scene is at the Sea of Galilee. Not all the Twelve are present. They have gone fishing, and Jesus summons them from the lakeside. They come to shore and see him (APPEARANCE 8 ) . Peter has a poignant discussion with Jesus in this appearance and is commissioned to tend the flock of Christ (Jn 21).
    • B. The Appearance to the 500. Of all the appearances you might think that this one would have been recorded in some detail since it was the most widely experienced appearance. Many accounts, it seems, would have existed and at least one would have made its way into the scriptures. Yet there is no account of it, other than it did in fact happen. Paul records the fact of this appearance: 1 Cor 15:6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (APPEARANCE 9) Where did this take place. What was it like. What was the reaction? We simply do not know. Proof once again that the Bible is not a history book in the conventional sense. Rather it is a highly selective telling of what took place, not a complete account. The Bible makes no pretenses to be something it is not. It is quite clear that it is a selective book: (Jn 20:30).
    • C. The Appearance to James. Here again we do not have a description of this appearance only a remark by Paul that it did in fact happen: 1 Cor 15:7 Then he appeared to James. (APPEARANCE 10) The time frame is not clear. Only that it happened after the appearance to the five hundred and before the final appearance to the apostles.
  • VII. The rest of the forty days.
    • A. Jesus certainly had other on-going appearances with the disciples. Luke attests to this in Acts when he writes: Acts 1:3 To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.
    • B. During this time there is perhaps the one appearance we can attribute to this time period as recorded by Matthew (Mt 28:16ff) and Mark (Mk 16:14ff). It takes place an “a mountaintop in Galilee.” Mark adds that they were reclining at table. For these notes this appearance (time frame uncertain) is referred to as (APPEARANCE 11) It is here that he give the great commission. Although Mark’s text may seem to imply that Jesus was taken up from this mountain, such a conclusion is rash since Mark only indicates that Jesus ascended only “after he had spoken to them” (Mk 16:19).
    • Evidently Jesus had also summoned them back to Jerusalem at least toward the end of the period of the forty days. There they would be present for the feast of Pentecost. We can imagine frequent appearances with on-going instruction for Luke records that Jesus “stayed with them.” Most of these appearances and discourses are not recorded. Luke writes in Acts: And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4)
  • VIII. The final appearance and ascension:
    • A. After forty days of appearances and instructions we have a final account of the last appearance (APPEARANCE 12) wherein he led them out to a place near Bethany, gave them final instructions to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was sent. And then he was taken up to heaven in their very sight. (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11).

So here is a possible and, if I do say so myself, likely chronological sequence of the resurrection appearances. It is a kind of synthesis that attempts to collect all the data and present it in a logical order. There are limits to what we can expect of the Scriptural account, and fitting perfectly into a time frame and logical sequence is not what the texts primarily propose to do. Yet such a chronological sequence can prove helpful and it is in that spirit that I present this.

Here is a video I put together based on a song sung here at my Parish on Good Friday. It is sung by one of our Sopranos, Marjorie Boursiquot. It is arranged by Kenneth Louis, our director and composed by Long and Pote. The song is titled: “You Love Me” Prepare for a real treat:

It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming – A Meditation on the Journey Up Yonder

Some years ago in a previous parish assignment, St. Thomas More, in Washington DC, I was accustomed to take a Friday afternoon walk to focus on my homily for Sunday. At the beginning of the walk I’d often stop by the nearby house of an elderly parishioner, Lillian, and give her communion. She was quite elderly, her mind was beginning to fail and for these reasons it was difficult to get to Church. In mild weather she often be in her wheel chair on the front porch and, as I’d walk up she’d say, “Oh Father! It must be Sunday!” “No, Lillian,” I’d usually say, “It’s actually Friday.” And she’d usually say, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

I was thinking of the calendar most times I answered her, but she she was long past worrying what day the world said it was. And so, Friday after Friday, as I’d stop by she kept asking if it was Sunday. Friday it was, but she kept looking for Sunday. “Is it Sunday, Father?”…. “No Ms. Lillian, today is Friday.”

The world has a saying: “Thank God, it’s Friday.” But in the Church, especially among African Americans whom I serve, there is an older expression: “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” It is a thoroughly Biblical reflection wherein Friday represents our sufferings, our own “Good Fridays” and Sunday represents our rising from the dead, our joy and the fulfillment of our hopes.

When Lillian saw her priest, she thought of Sunday, she thought of Jesus and Holy Communion. So, in a way for her it was Sunday, for a moment. But, to be sure, Lillian was in the Friday of her life. She had all the crippling effects of old age: dementia, arthritis, weakness, hearing and eyesight problems, sugar, and you name it. “I’s gotten ooooold, Father.” Yes, Friday had surely come for Lillian.

At her funeral I could think of no other way to begin the homily than to say, “It’s Sunday Lillian.” And the congregation nodded, some just hummed, others said, “Thank you Jesus.” Lillian had gone to Jesus and Sunday had come. Surely she, like all of us, needed some of the cleansing purgation wherein the Lord wipes away the tears of all who have died (cf Rev 21:4) lifts the burdens of our sorrows, regrets and sins for the last time. For those who die in the Lord, die in the care of the Lord. The souls of the just are in the hand of God (Wis 3:1).

Yes, Sunday, glorious Sunday, for all those who trust in the Lord. The Fridays of life will come but if we trust, Sunday will surely follow.

“Oh, Father! It must be Sunday!” ….”Yes, Ms. Lillian, it is surely Sunday.”