You would think after so long a time we’d be better at this. Lent, Holy Week, Easter. They’ve been observed for some two millennia—and for however many years in our own lives—yet by now, two days after Easter Sunday, we may wonder what it was all about. Well, let me speak for myself. Is my prayer life any better than it was some forty days ago? Are my thoughts or intentions more pure? Am I more patient, kind, understanding, compassionate, charitable, long-suffering, virtuous? Are the sacramental gifts of the Holy Spirit growing within me? Do I love God with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself?
The Church marks Easter with an Octave, celebrating each day from Sunday to Sunday as the day of the Resurrection of Jesus. The daily Mass readings reveal the mystery of the risen Savior and the disciples’ growing realization that the redemption of all the world has happened in their lifetime. Surrexit Dominus vere. The Lord is truly risen!
My heart can hardly grasp the meaning in this proclamation for my life today. I feel as though I am missing something. The world has certainly not lived up to such joy and hope—gaudium et spes. War and rumors of war; economic strife; political plots and divisions; pandemic confusion and hypocrisy; sky-high crime rates; murder at noon in midtown. The Seven Deadly Sins parade unchecked across our screens, popping up even in daily encounters with family, friends, and neighbors. And we are not always the injured or innocent party. The mystery of iniquity, the dynamic of Cain and Abel, play out in our hearts as we seek what little sustenance this scorched, scratched earth can offer.
Yes, I know, it’s Easter. The time of family, fun, bunnies, bonnets, parades, and candy. The time when humanity is urged to put all its eggs in one basket for the hatching of something new. And not just new thoughts or perspectives or inventions or human advancement, but something truly new and revolutionary: life after death, everlasting life, not just for Jesus, but for those who follow him in faith. Yet, year after year, we are caught off-guard, unready, unaware, standing in a hushed, shadowy church, holding the Easter Vigil tapers with flames illumining the faces of a people not quite convinced by the words of the Exsultet: This is the night, when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Honest question: How much of a difference does it make today? When I was teaching First Communion to inner-city kids, some of whom had never seen their fathers, one boy plaintively asked: “If Jesus loved us, why did he go away?” My theology degree was silenced for the moment as I felt the pang of a question that confounds believers. Indeed, why is Jesus not still here as he once was for thirty-three years? “Yes,” I said, recovering composure, “we wish we could touch and talk to Jesus in the flesh right now, but that’s why we’re preparing for First Communion, when you will receive Jesus into your own body in the form of the host.” It was the correct response and I really believe it to be the answer to the mysteries of faith. Yet the question still echoes: Why did Jesus go away? Our bodily nature calls out for something more tangible than his sacramental presence.
In today’s Mass, the Gospel is the beautiful account of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus at the empty tomb. The woman who dearly loved the Lord stands near the entrance, hardly marveling at the two angels she sees inside, who ask her why she is weeping. Her heart and mind are set on Jesus as she explains, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” Jesus then appears, but she does not recognize him. “Sir,” she says in all innocence, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, she recognizes him as he calls her name, “Mary!” She responds with joy, “Rabbouni!” Teacher. Jesus tells her not to cling to him but to go and tell the disciples that he is ascending to his Father in heaven.
The post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus are shrouded in mystery. He speaks, he walks, he cooks, he eats like all men. However, his divinity transfigures His glorified humanity, and there is something other and untouchable about Him. He is here and then there, passing through the locked doors of the Upper Room. He loves us and died to redeem us, but it is clear that he doesn’t need us. He is God, one with the Father, beyond our reach or reason.
You may have heard the enigmas of Easter discussed in this way: Christmas warms our hearts with the birth of a child. Good Friday melts our hearts with the execution of a righteous man. But how can Easter touch our hearts since none of us has ever experienced resurrection? Our hearts may feel as empty as the tomb, even as we recite the words by faith, He is risen!
Our attenuated attachment to Easter is due, I think, to the fact that we are looking for a God-like-us. One who breathes and coughs and weeps and bleeds and feels our pain and dies the death of us all. Jesus is in every way like us, except for sin. But the Resurrection is a rupture, a tug away from our human nature toward something and somewhere beyond our world and ways. It is something we could never do ourselves and therefore reveals us to be weak, mortal, and in need of a Savior. We respond with the learned men of the Areopagus when Paul tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead: “We will hear you again about this,” they say. And never call Paul back.
If we Christians have failed to make Easter attractive on its own terms, it’s really not our fault. To a world that prefers eternal life in the form of an unending extension of this life, we offer those who live true to faith suffering and death before resurrection and heaven. The hard edges of the Christian way are laid bare at Easter. We are now in the “He will come to judge the living and the dead” part of the Creed, and there’s an uneasiness as to how it will all end. We have no infant to place safely in a manger, no noble body to lay across a mother’s lap in pietà. There is the risen Jesus, pierced and healed, true God and true man, enfleshed, yet set above the clouds. He has left us the Church, the Word, and the Sacraments, which offer us his grace. We are free to say yes or no to all he has bestowed, free to return the “love that moves the sun and other stars” with the movement of our own halting hearts towards him. If we are today, as St. Augustine said, “an Easter people whose song is Alleluia,” let us lift our voices in unison, and with conviction exclaim: Surrexit Dominus vere!