What Does It Mean When the Scriptures Say That the Apostles Worshiped the Risen Jesus but That Some Doubted?

There is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that can seem puzzling:

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted (Matt 28:16-17).

What is this doubt to which the text refers? It is all the more perplexing if we recall that this is not the first time the apostles had encountered the Risen Lord. There are almost a dozen other documented appearances (in Scripture) of Jesus to some or all of the disciples before this final one, which takes place just before His ascension. Why do they still doubt?

The Greek word translated as “doubted” sheds more light on the meaning: it is distázō, which more richly means to “waver” (from dís, (two) + stásis, (stance)). So, the Greek describes having two different stances or vacillating between two positions. Thus, the apostles are not necessarily being described as stubbornly doubting or refusing to believe. It is more likely that they are struggling to believe or understand.

But the question remains, why?

Perhaps we ought to remember that we have the advantage of two millennia of reflection on Christ’s resurrection. For the apostles, the resurrection challenged everything they knew and had experienced. There is a scene in Mark’s Gospel that points to this:

As they were coming down the mountain [of the Transfiguration], Jesus admonished them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this matter to themselves, questioning what it meant to rise from the dead (Mark 9:9-10).

It certainly helped that they had seen both Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain raised from the dead, but those were different; this was Jesus rising by His own power.

Further, the resurrection narratives indicate that there was something mysterious and supernatural in the manifestation of Jesus’ glorified body. Some don’t recognize Him at first. He is not a ghost or an apparition because they can touch Him, and He eats and drinks with them. However, He can appear and then disappear suddenly. So, He is among them, but sporadically and mysteriously.

Thus, there is something quite human in the apostles’ response. How does one get his mind and heart around so startling a mystery? Consider what questions must have been in the mind of each of them: Who is this? Is Jesus a ghost? No, because I can touch Him. It is clearly Jesus, but something seems different about Him. Am I really sure it’s Jesus? Am I dreaming? I can’t just go and see Him now on my own terms, as I did before, because He appears and disappears at will. What does all this mean for me? He keeps saying that He will send the Spirit, who will explain everything. When? How?

Thus, what we are reading is a portrait of quite human apostles, who are trying to process an astonishing event that was previously unimaginable. So remarkable is it that they vacillate, even after having seen Him. At one point, Peter even ponders returning to fishing (See John 21:3).

Jesus does not seem troubled by their “doubt” or wavering; He gives them the great commission anyway:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).

Jesus knows that their doubts will be clarified soon enough, when He sends the Holy Spirit to remind them of everything He said (John 14:26), glorify Him in their minds (John 16:14), and lead them to all truth (John 16:13).

Indeed, after Pentecost, the apostles are changed men; they show no wavering or doubt. As we make our way on our journey, the Holy Spirit confirms our faltering faith and makes it more steady, strong, and sure. It is for us to continue to grow and to allow the Holy Spirit to quicken our faith. It is crucial, for the great commission is still upon the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does It Mean When the Scriptures Say That the Apostles Worshiped the Risen Jesus but That Some Doubted?

An Easter Exhortation

We’ve had quite a week of gatherings here in Washington, D.C. during this Easter Octave. The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast was held on Tuesday and I was privileged to be able to speak to the organizers of that event on Monday evening. On Friday there was a wonderful gathering of leaders from EWTN and our local affiliate, WMET 1160 AM. Catholic radio and Catholic television have had a profound effect on the lives and faith of so many!

Despite the Easter glow, there was also at those gatherings a sober awareness that these are dark days and that the Lord is calling us to be willing to suffer and sacrifice for the truth of the gospel.

Recent readings from Scripture have also had this theme. The readings in daily Mass this past week (from the Acts of the Apostles) show the joy of a poor, lame man healed by Peter and John at the Gate called Beautiful. By week’s end Peter and John were arrested for the “dangerous” act of glorifying Jesus and forced to appear before the Jewish court. More suffering and arrests would follow.

In the Office of Readings, we are reading from the First Letter of Peter, which is a kind of survival guide for those who suffer on account of Jesus. Consider these excerpts from this past week:

Do not be surprised, beloved, that a trial by fire is occurring in your midst. It is a test for you, but it should not catch you off guard. Rejoice instead, in the measure that you share Christ’s sufferings. When his glory is revealed, you will rejoice exultantly. Happy are you when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, for then God’s Spirit in its glory has come to rest on you ….

The season of judgment has begun, and begun with God’s own household. If it begins this way with us, what must be the end for those who refuse obedience to the gospel of God? And if the just man is saved only with difficulty, what is to become of the godless and the sinner? Accordingly, let those who suffer as God’s will requires continue in good deeds, and entrust their lives to a faithful Creator….

Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world. The God of all grace, who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish those who have suffered a little while. Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen (1 Peter 4:12-5:14).

I have written before on the bloodiness of the Christmas Octave; the Easter Octave is not much different. The ancient Church had little time for the sentimentality we have introduced into the celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Indeed, there was no Santa Claus with flying reindeer, no Easter bunny, no Easter parades. Jesus was born to do battle and rose to show forth the victory. But a victory presupposes a battle and a struggle.

The Sequence that should be sung during the Easter Octave is as follows:

Mors et vita duello,            (Death and life have contended)
conflixere mirando:           (in a stupendous conflict)
dux vitae mortuus,             (The Prince of life having died)
regnat vivus!                         (Now reigns living).

Easter is serious business with a message that summons us to the battle with confidence. In effect the message is this:

Enough of all this cowardice. No more hiding out in upper rooms. Get out there like soldiers who know they are on the winning team. Manfully engage the battle and win some souls for Christ. As in any war, there is going to be suffering. Jesus says, In this world you shall have tribulation; but have confidence I have overcome the world (John 16:33). The Easter message is not that there is no battle, but rather that the battle is a glorious one whose outcome has already been decided. Choose sides!

Scripture says,

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His Blood, who has made us into a Kingdom, priests for His God and Father, to Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him. All the peoples of the earth will lament Him. Yes, Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:5-8).

Make sure you are on the winning team. Some people foolishly choose the wrong side, thinking that winning means having power, popularity, money, and possessions—that is not victory. A team can be ahead until the final play of the game yet still lose. You already know who is going to win; present appearances mean nothing. Choose the winning team even if, for now, it means being subjected to ridicule, disapproval, and desertion. Be ready and willing to suffer for the Kingdom. The Easter message is not that there is no suffering, but that our suffering, united to Jesus’, will lead to glory and victory.

Stop acting like a loser, hiding out and being afraid to announce the truth of the gospel. Stop being so anxious about what others are saying. You may be called hateful, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, backward, and uptight—anything but a child of God. Do not hate them, but keep on summoning them to join us; know that some will do so if you persevere. Be willing to suffer for the truth and still remain joyful.

Peter and John were arrested in the first week after Pentecost; can’t we at least tolerate a raised eyebrow or some laughter at our expense? The martyrs stared down deadly threats; they endured the swords and lions of a hateful, scornful world. Must they bear the cross alone?

The Easter message is not one of cheap joy. It is about a courageous transformation that equips us to be willing to face down death in order to proclaim the truth of the gospel. We are going to need this in the years ahead. This fallen world is going to get darker, and a people used to the darkness despises the light. To those who hate the truth, it seems hateful; they will call themselves righteous as they expel us from the public square. They already label themselves victims at the mere utterance of moral truth. “Safe zones” will have no room for us. Despite all their calls for tolerance, there will be no tolerance shown to us. Our speech and our actions will be increasingly criminalized.

This is my Easter exhortation. What do you think of it? If you think it is too negative, why? If you like it, great. Will you live it? How? When? Why not now?

Catholic catechist, speaker, and writer Dr. David Anders spoke to us at the EWTN/WMET gathering about something Mother Angelica once said. When asked what she thought the future of EWTN would be she said, “Nothing lasts forever. For now, we have an open window of opportunity and we should use it while we can. For one day, the window may close and EWTN will be declared illegal. Let’s strengthen everyone now, while we still have the time”—a sober understanding to say the least. Courage and action today will lay the groundwork for what will be needed tomorrow.

Jesus is risen from the dead and He is not going away. He has won the victory and I will either gather souls with Him, or I will scatter and squander. I will work for Him and win, or I will contend with Him and lose. I think I’ll choose Jesus!

The song in the clip below has these lyrics:

I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
And He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name
And He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name
Yes He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name
But I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name
So I told Him it would be alright and the world would hate me
That I would go hungry if He changed my name

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: An Easter Exhortation

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 Didn’t Christ Stay with His Disciples Continually from the Resurrection to His Ascension?

After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples at certain places and times, but did not seem to stay with them continuously. On the first Easter Sunday, He appeared six times in rather rapid succession: first to Mary Magdalene, then to the women at the tomb, third as the women left the tomb, fourth to Peter, fifth to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and sixth to the ten Apostles in Jerusalem (when Thomas was not present).

In His public ministry, Jesus seemed to be with His disciples nearly all the time. However, after His Resurrection he would appear, converse, and teach, but then be absent from them bodily. For example, John 20:26 says that “after eight days” Christ appeared to the disciples, suggesting that He was not otherwise present to them during that period.

While it is true that we do not have an exact calendar of His appearances and not every appearance is necessary recorded, it seems apparent that the Lord was not constantly with the disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension.

Why is this?

St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on this question and offers two basic reasons. In so doing he does not propose an absolute explanation, but rather demonstrates why it was fitting that Christ was not with them continuously during the forty days prior to the ascension. St. Thomas writes,

Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose.

Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before … [For as Bede says] “He had then risen in the same flesh, but was not in the same state of mortality as they.”

That Christ did not stay continually with the disciples was not because He deemed it more expedient to be elsewhere: but because He judged it to be more suitable for the apostles’ instruction that He should not abide continually with them, for the reason given above.

He appeared oftener on the first day, because the disciples were to be admonished by many proofs to accept the faith in His Resurrection from the very out set: but after they had once accepted it, they had no further need of being instructed by so many apparitions (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 55, Art. 3).

While St. Thomas observes that there may well be appearances that were not recorded, he is inclined to hold that there were not a lot more of them. He writes,

One reads in the Gospel that after the first day He appeared again only five times. For, as Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. iii), after the first five apparitions “He came again a sixth time when Thomas saw Him; a seventh time was by the sea of Tiberias at the capture of the fishes; the eighth was on the mountain of Galilee, according to Matthew; the ninth occasion is expressed by Mark, ‘at length when they were at table,’ because no more were they going to eat with Him upon earth; the tenth was on the very day, when no longer upon the earth, but uplifted into the cloud, He was ascending into heaven. But, as John admits, not all things were written down. And He visited them frequently before He went up to heaven,” in order to comfort them. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) that “He was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once … after that He was seen by James”; of which apparitions no mention is made in the Gospels (ibid).

St. Thomas strikes a balance between the Lord’s need to instruct them and summon them to faith in the resurrection, and the need for them to grasp His risen glory. Christ did not merely resume His former life. The disciples were not to cling to their former understandings of Him as Rabbi and teacher; now they were to grasp more fully that He is Lord.

Though Thomas does not mention it here, I would add another reason for the Lord’s action of not abiding with them continuously: It was fitting for Him to do this to accustom them to the fact that they would no longer see Him as they had with their physical eyes. Once He ascended, they would see Him mystically in the Sacraments and in His Body the Church. Thus, as the Lord broke the Bread and gave it them in Emmaus, they recognized Him the Eucharist (Luke 24). Thereupon He vanished from them. It was as if to say, “You will no longer go on seeing me in the same manner. Now you will experience me mystically and in the Sacraments.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Why Didn’t Christ Stay with His Disciples Continually from the Resurrection to His Ascension?

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 Does Jesus Mean When He Tells Mary Magdalene Not to Cling to Him Because He Has Not Yet Ascended?

As the Easter Octave unfolds, we have in the Gospel this enigmatic statement of Our Lord Jesus to Mary Magdalene:

Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God” (John 20:17).

There is much to ponder and distinguish here.

First, we should set aside certain previous translations that rendered “Do not cling to me” as “Do not touch me.”

The latter sounds almost rude. The Greek expression Μή μου ἅπτου (Me mou haptou) is best rendered, “Do not go on clinging to me” because haptou is a verb in the middle voice.

The middle voice is one that English lacks. It is midway between the active and passive voices and indicates that the subject of the verb (in this case, Mary) both acts and is acted upon. Mary lays hold of the Lord but needs to do so because something is different. Something deeper is being shown to her and she is missing that. Mary actively sees Jesus but passively needs to receive something new about Him. This is the middle voice, containing elements of both the active and the passive.

Further, as Strong’s Greek dictionary sets forth, ἅπτω (haptou) means “to fasten to,” “to adhere to,” or “to cling to.” What the Lord asks of Mary is that she not merely cling to what is familiar but step back and see what is new. Jesus is no longer a mere rabbi or teacher. He is not merely the Jesus she knew; He is Lord and He is risen.

Second, we must ponder what Jesus means when He says that He is ascending.

St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom on the meaning of the Lord’s ascending:

[Augustine says] “… Jesus would have us to believe in Him, i.e., to touch Him spiritually, as being Himself one with the Father. For to that man’s innermost perceptions He is, in some sort, ascended unto the Father, who has become so far proficient in Him, as to recognize in Him the equal with the Father … whereas she as yet believed in Him but carnally, since she wept for Him as for a man.” Or as Chrysostom says (Hom. lxxxvi in Joan.): “This woman wanted to converse with Christ just as before the Passion, and out of joy was thinking of nothing great, although Christ’s flesh had become much nobler by rising again.” And therefore He said: “I have not yet ascended to My Father”; as if to say: “Do not suppose I am leading an earthly life; for if you see Me upon earth, it is because I have not yet ascended to My Father, but I am going to ascend shortly.” Hence He goes on to say: “I ascend to My Father, and to your Father” (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 55, Art. 6, Reply to Obj. 3).

In other words, Jesus’ ascent must take place in Mary (and in every other follower). He is far more than a man resuming mortal nature. He is more; He is Lord. We must come to see Him as Lord and God. He must ascend in our sight. We must see Him at a higher level and in a higher way. He is no mere sage or rabbi; He is Lord and God! He must ascend in this way, in our understanding.

In Jesus’ public ministry, Mary had rightly reverenced Jesus as teacher and rabbi, but Jesus the Lord is doing more now than merely leading an earthly life and fitting into earthly categories.

In effect, Jesus is saying to Mary, “Don’t go on clinging to what in Me is familiar to you. Step back, take a good look, and then go tell my brothers what you see.”

When Mary Magdalene has done this, she runs to the apostles and says, “I have seen the LORD” (Jn 20:18). I show the word “LORD” in uppercase in this quote because up until this point, Mary used the word “Lord” as a title of human respect. She said, “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have put Him.” Of course, one doesn’t take Him and put Him anywhere! He is LORD, and He does as He pleases. No longer clinging to Him in merely a familiar way, Mary now says, “I have seen the LORD,” meaning it in a plenary and divine sense.

For Mary, the Lord is ascending. She is seeing Him in a higher way. The Lord has ascended for Mary Magdalene. Has He ascended for you?

Finally, what of the Lord’s expression that He is ascending to “My Father and your Father, to My God and your God”?

In English, we can use the word “and” in either an equivalent or a comparative sense. I could say to someone, “You are my brother and my friend.” This uses the “and of equivalence” because it indicates that you are both a brother and a friend to me in the same or in an equivalent way.

Other uses of the word “and” indicate a more comparative sense. When we say that Jesus is Son of God and Son of Mary, we mean that He is the Son of His Father in a different way than He is Son of Mary. He is the Son of both but in very different ways. In the liturgy, when the priest says, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father,” he indicates that while his sacrifice and the sacrifice of the people are both sacrifices, they are sacrifices in different ways. The priest acts in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head), while the faithful act as members of the body. Both are rightly called sacrifices, but they are so in different ways.

Thus, when Jesus says that He is ascending to “My Father and your Father,” He does not use the “and of equivalence” but the “and of comparison.” As a man, Jesus can speak of God as His Father, but His human nature is hypostatically united to His divine nature as God, the Second Person of the Trinity. So, although God is our Father and Christ’s Father, He is Christ’s Father in a far richer and more profound way.

Jesus says, “My God and your God” not by way of equivalence, but by way of comparison.

In all these ways, the Lord Jesus must ascend in our understanding. He will do that provided we do not go on clinging to Him in a merely human and familiar way.

Let the Lord ascend in your life.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does Jesus Mean?

Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

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).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

Why Didn’t Christ Stay with His Disciples Continuously from the Resurrection to His Ascension?

After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples at certain places and times, but did not seem to stay with them continuously. On the first Easter Sunday, He appeared six times in rather rapid succession: first to Mary Magdalene, then to the women at the tomb, third as the women left the tomb, fourth to Peter, fifth to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and sixth to the ten Apostles in Jerusalem (when Thomas was not present).

In His public ministry, Jesus seemed to be with His disciples nearly all the time. However, after His Resurrection he would appear, converse, and teach, but then be absent from them bodily. For example, John 20:26 says that “after eight days” Christ appeared to the disciples, suggesting that He was not otherwise present to them during that period.

While it is true that we do not have an exact calendar of His appearances and not every appearance is necessary recorded, it seems apparent that the Lord was not constantly with the disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension.

Why is this?

St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on this question and offers two basic reasons. In so doing he does not propose an absolute explanation, but rather demonstrates why it was fitting that Christ was not with them continuously during the forty days prior to the ascension. St. Thomas writes,

Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose.

Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before … [For as Bede says] “He had then risen in the same flesh, but was not in the same state of mortality as they.”

That Christ did not stay continually with the disciples was not because He deemed it more expedient to be elsewhere: but because He judged it to be more suitable for the apostles’ instruction that He should not abide continually with them, for the reason given above.

He appeared oftener on the first day, because the disciples were to be admonished by many proofs to accept the faith in His Resurrection from the very out set: but after they had once accepted it, they had no further need of being instructed by so many apparitions (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 55, Art. 3).

While St. Thomas observes that there may well be appearances that were not recorded, he is inclined to hold that there were not a lot more of them. He writes,

One reads in the Gospel that after the first day He appeared again only five times. For, as Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. iii), after the first five apparitions “He came again a sixth time when Thomas saw Him; a seventh time was by the sea of Tiberias at the capture of the fishes; the eighth was on the mountain of Galilee, according to Matthew; the ninth occasion is expressed by Mark, ‘at length when they were at table,’ because no more were they going to eat with Him upon earth; the tenth was on the very day, when no longer upon the earth, but uplifted into the cloud, He was ascending into heaven. But, as John admits, not all things were written down. And He visited them frequently before He went up to heaven,” in order to comfort them. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) that “He was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once … after that He was seen by James”; of which apparitions no mention is made in the Gospels (ibid).

St. Thomas strikes a balance between the Lord’s need to instruct them and summon them to faith in the resurrection, and the need for them to grasp His risen glory. Christ did not merely resume His former life. The disciples were not to cling to their former understandings of Him as Rabbi and teacher; now they were to grasp more fully that He is Lord.

Though Thomas does not mention it here, I would add another reason for the Lord’s action of not abiding with them continuously: It was fitting for Him to do this to accustom them to the fact that they would no longer see Him as they had with their physical eyes. Once He ascended, they would see Him mystically in the Sacraments and in His Body the Church. Thus, as the Lord broke the Bread and gave it them in Emmaus, they recognized Him the Eucharist (Luke 24). Thereupon He vanished from them. It was as if to say, “You will no longer go on seeing me in the same manner. Now you will experience me mystically and in the Sacraments.”