The Gospels of the Easter Octave describe not just an event but even more so a journey. It is tempting to think that the disciples and apostles, having seen the risen Lord, were immediately confirmed in their faith, stripped of all doubt.
That is not the case, however. Nearly all the resurrection accounts make it clear that although seeing the risen Lord was “mind-blowing,” it was only a beginning. As it is with any human experience, no matter how intense, encountering the risen Lord was something that the disciples needed to process. They needed to come to live its implications in stages.
This description of a journey, of a coming to resurrection faith in stages, is presented in the resurrection accounts. We notice that the first awareness occurred “when it was still dark” and “at the rising of the sun.” It does not suddenly become fully light at dawn, however. Rather, the light manifests itself and increases over time; so it is with awareness of the resurrection. It begins to “dawn” on the disciples that He is Risen, truly; He has appeared to Simon.
The first reports are sketchy and there is a lot of running around: Mary Magdalene to Peter and John, Peter and John to the tomb, the women to the rest of the apostles. Yes, there is an awful lot of running about! It is still dark, and the cobwebs of recent sleep aren’t completely gone; the light is just dawning, not yet at full strength.
The disciples wonder what it all means and how it has changed/will change their lives. The answers to questions like these will require a journey; they are not to be answered in a mere moment.
In Matthew’s Gospel there is a beautiful line that describes the experience well:
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed (Matt 28:8).
Yes, such a beautiful description: fearful yet overjoyed (φόβου καὶ χαρᾶς μεγάλης (phobou kai charas megans, which means fearful and of great joy))!
What is one to make of all this? Yes, He is alive, but what does it mean? One’s life is changed, but how? One is filled with joy yet draws back in a kind of reverential fear at the unknown, the unexperienced.
So we see the women, encountering the risen Jesus on the road, and they are fearful yet overjoyed. Again, while we might suppose that such an appearance would “seal the deal,” it is not that simple. Consider the following occurrences in the aftermath of the resurrection appearances and notice that a journey of sorts is required to make sense of it all.
- Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize Jesus at first. Her eyes must be adjusted by the faith that comes from hearing—in this case, hearing her name, Mary, spoken by Jesus.
- Mary also has to make the journey from merely clinging to Jesus as “Rabboni” and running to others to proclaim Him by saying, “I have seen The LORD.”
- The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus at all until their eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread.
- When the apostles first see Jesus, they draw back, thinking He is a ghost. Jesus has to reassure them and clarify things for them.
- Simon Peter, even after seeing the Lord several times, falls away from his mission and announces to the others that he is going back to fishing. The Lord has to stand on the shore and call him anew from his commercial nets to the sacred shepherding of the Petrine ministry.
- Even after witnessing forty days of appearances by Jesus and having been summoned to the mountain of the ascension, some still doubt.
- After the ascension, the day of Pentecost still finds the apostles and disciples huddled together behind closed doors. It is only after the coming of the Holy Spirit that they are really empowered to go forth.
Yes, there is more to experiencing the resurrection than merely seeing it. Faith comes by hearing and deepens by experience. They have to make a journey to resurrection life and so must we.
Even for us who were born in the teaching of the resurrection, the truer and deeper meaning of it all is not something that can be learned simply by the reading the Catechism; it must be grasped through a journey.
As a priest and disciple, I have both observed and experienced that Good Friday is powerful and moving for many people. Most of us know the cross; we have experienced its blows and its presence is quite real and plain to us. On Good Friday there are often tears shed during the Stations of the Cross, the Trae Horae, and the evening service of the Lord’s Passion.
Come Easter Sunday, though, the experience seems less certain. People are joyful yet somewhat unsure of why or how. The joy of Easter seems more remote than the brooding presence of Good Friday or the gloomy silence of Holy Saturday. Although those days are unpleasant, they are familiar—Easter Sunday is different. What does it mean to rise from the dead? What are we to do in response? During Lent we fasted and undertook practices designed to focus us. Easter is more open and vacuous: Joy! Alleluia! Now what?
It remains for us to lay hold of this new life that the Lord is offering. It is not enough to think of or see the resurrection as an event of the distant past. It is that, but it is so much more. It is new life for us. We rise with Christ.
How and what does this mean? That is discovered through the journey. It is the deeper and more personal experience of the historical event that the Lord accomplished for us. He has raised us to new life.
In my own journey I have had to move from the event itself to a deeper, more personal, truer experience of that event. I have come to experience the new life that Jesus died and rose to give me. I have seen sins put death and new graces come alive. I am more chaste, generous, joyful, hopeful, serene, and zealous. My mind is clearer; it is new. My priorities are in better order and I have clearer vision. My heart is more spacious. I have learned more deeply of God’s love and mercy for me and can thus show it more easily to others.
So, Easter is an event, but it is also a journey. The faint light of early dawn gives way in stages to ever-brighter awareness as we lay hold of the new life that Christ died and rose to give us. There is a beautiful line in the King James translation of the Bible that captures Simon Peter’s journey, which at that time was only just beginning:
Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass (Luke 24:12).