‘On the third day, He rose again.’
As we meditate on the Way of the Cross, as we follow that long, sad path up to Calvary, as we contemplate, and adore, Jesus the Son of God, suffering and dying on the Cross, our soul is filled with what Our Lord Himself experienced, along with Mary, John and the holy women.
The first words that spring to our lips are ‘I’m sorry!’ And almost immediately afterwards: ‘Thank you!’ First a profound sorrow for having offended God by our sins, and a firm resolution never to offend Him again. Then an enormous outpouring of gratitude to this same God, who, through His Son, has redeemed all those faults for which we are saying sorry.
That same Sorry, and that same Thank you are also directed at Our Lady, whom we have so wounded, through her Son, and who has taken such a part in our redemption: by giving Jesus to us, by accompanying Him to Calvary, by saying Be it done according to Thy will, all the way from the Annunciation up until to the Cross, and by the adoption of John – and of all of us, therefore – as her own son.
Then we meditate with her on all that is going to happen, on what is happening at that moment, and on all the consequences, both immediate and future, of this Passion and this Death of the Son of God, who is also the Son of Mary.
In man’s eyes, it could have looked as thought Our Lord’s enemies finally triumphed at the moment of the Saviour’s death on the Cross. The Evangelists limit themselves to telling in a few words about the calm and solemn ceremony of the placing of His body in the tomb, in the presence of Mary, and under her instruction. They conclude that part of their narrative by telling how Joseph of Arimathea rolled a stone over the entrance of the sepulchre, adding that the Jews took the precaution of asking the Roman Governor for some soldiers to guard the tomb, ‘for fear that His disciples might come and steal the body.’
The witnesses did not suspect that the judicial error which had led to the infamous execution of one of their own people would be at the centre of the universe, would be the principle of its being made anew, would be the instrument of reconciliation with God. They did not suspect that this gibbet, on which this man died would be the central pivot of the world, the living heart at the centre of every pulse of history.
The Appearance to the Virgin Mary
Mary is the only one, perhaps, that Holy Saturday, to have kept both Faith and Hope alive. But how can we doubt that she did not have the right to be the first to meet the Risen One in the early hours of Easter. She did not even see the need to go with Mary Magdalen and the holy women to the tomb: since she knew that the tomb would be empty. Her delicacy and her discretion are once more demonstrated: her Faith and her Hope did not waver for an instant. She waited. How could she not have been the first to receive a visit from her Resurrected Son?
The Moment of the Resurrection
‘I believe in the resurrection of the body, and in eternal life.’
The analyses done on the Holy Shroud of Turin seem to attest that the Body of the Lord could not be so imprinted upon it, unless it were irradiated by a dazzling light for an instant: that moment when the body was resurrected, and the Shroud collapsed upon itself.
The glorified body had no need that the stone should be rolled from the mouth of the tomb, for it to leave. It shot up in an instant, and rose to Heaven to throw itself into the Father’s arms. It was at that moment, doubtless, that there was a great earthquake: and the Angel of the Lord came down from Heaven to roll the stone aside. He had a face like lightning, and his robe was as white as snow. On seeing him, the guards were overcome by fear and became like the dead.
On coming back to themselves, they fled, after having noticed that the tomb was empty, and they went back to the city and told the high priests all that had happened.
The First Visits to the Tomb
Mary Magdalen is the first to run to the tomb. She arrived just after the guards had fled, along with the other faithful women: Mary, the mother of James and Salome, and the other Mary, who had bought spices with which to anoint the body. (cf Mark 16, 3)
‘Filled with awe and great joy’ as St Matthew tells us, ‘they ran to take the news to His disciples’ who, moreover ‘did not believe them.’
What is extraordinary, in the Gospel accounts, what stands out with a startling clarity, is that the first reaction was incredulity; and that amongst the disciples, the women, the apostles, those who loved Jesus the most; those who, tomorrow, and as a result of the experience of their senses and a renewed understanding, would be transformed into the witnesses of the reality of the Resurrection.
The women don’t believe the Angel, the apostles don’t believe Mary Magdalen, Thomas will not believe the other apostles. That is why ‘He showed Himself to the Eleven themselves while they were at table. He reproached them for their incredulity and obstinacy, because they had refused to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen from the dead.’ (Mark 16, 14)
Curiously it was the enemies of Jesus who believed in His resurrection more quickly than His friends. With the seals placed on the tomb and the guard they had put in place, they were quicker than the apostles to establish the facts.
The Appearance to Mary Magdalen
This is where we place Our Lord’s appearance to Mary Magdalen; she had run, distraught trembling with fright, with shock, to tell Peter and John of her discovery of the empty tomb, she didn’t know what to think, she dared not hope for the resurrection, however wonderful that would be, and she returns, in haste, looking for the first apostles, and seeking to understand. Then Jesus appears to her. ‘Mary!’ He says, simply. At this word, said by His voice, Mary recognised her Lord. She turned immediately: ‘Rabboni!’ she cried, in Hebrew, which means ‘Master.’ She threw herself at His feet, clinging to them, kissing them, weeping, but with joy this time, and emotion.
‘Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go and find the brothers and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. So Mary of Magdala’, St John concludes, ‘went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that He had said these things to her.’
The Appearance to the Holy Women
St Matthew assures us that the Lord appeared likewise to the other women who had gone to the tomb, and who had left ‘filled with awe and great joy’ after hearing the Angel’s words. ‘And there coming to meet them was Jesus. Greetings, He said. And the women came up to Him and, falling down before Him, clasped His feet. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee: they will see me there. ‘
These faithful handmaids truly deserved that the Lord should console them directly by His presence. Their fervour and their faith made them very apt to receive such divine favours, which they had earned by their commitment to perform those final duties for Our Lord, and by their courage in braving the night, the guards, and the insults. But when the holy women went to tell the apostles what they had seen, ‘this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.’
In all this coming and going, from the very dawn of Easter day, between the tomb and the various places where the apostles and the women had taken refuge, events overlap. There is a lot of to-and-fro, by different paths. There is the feeling of an unbelievable event, incredible but true, undeniably true and real, but which nobody dares to believe, and yet which cannot be denied.
Mary Magdalen clearly occupies a place apart in the midst of these women. It was she who, at Bethany, sat at Jesus’ feet, so as to hear His words, whilst Martha was cooking and preparing the meal. It was she who intervened so that Jesus would resuscitate her brother, Lazarus. It was she who, later, by her anointing at Bethany, prompted the prophecy of the coming burial of Jesus. Mary of Magdala, then, was going to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had said these words to her. Jesus entrusted a mission to the reformed sinner who became, in her turn, an apostle, as it were, profoundly incorporated into the mystery of our salvation. She has even been called ‘the Apostle to the Apostles,’ for having been the first to proclaim to the Apostles that news which, by their mouths, was soon to be proclaimed to the whole world: Christ is Risen! She was to be the patron of the Crusades, and of the knights of France, because of her prediction of the burial of Christ, because of her fidelity to the tomb of Christ, and also, perhaps, because of her courteous understanding of love.
Mary Magdalen has been subject to plenty of misunderstanding, and jealousy; she provoked the hatred of the ‘free thinkers’ along with their most vile and most unhealthy calumnies. Why? Because she is too great. Because she is too close to Christ. Because she loved too much, and in too pure a fashion. Because she understood Him better than anyone else did. Because she provokes admiration – and therefore the jealousy of the small-minded, the mediocre, and the Pharisees in every age.
Those who understand her best are, perhaps, the great sinners who have also repented. It is true, this woman was a courtesan, a ‘sinner in the City’ as her detractors pointed out. But it was not her past, wiped out and pardoned, that attracted Jesus to her. It is her whole self that was moved by the most ardent love for the risen body of her Lord. And in that movement, even her very body starts to be transformed into a love that is above that of this world. There is nothing there which is not pure, healthy and holy.
Our bodies can be purified; they can be transformed by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ; and then they are worthy to enter into glory. That is the meaning of that moving encounter between the Risen Jesus, appearing as a gardener, and Mary Magdalen, overcome by love.
The Appearance to the Pilgrims of Emmaus
Before even showing Himself to the apostles, Jesus appears to two unknown people on the road to the village called Emmaus; we only know the name of one of them: Cleophas.
Every detail of that day was so poignant, that we are overcome afresh each time we re-read St Luke’s account of it. Two disciples are fleeing from Jerusalem, for fear of reprisals on the part of the Jews, and are discussing, in hushed voices, what has just come to pass, when a stranger joins them. Deep in their despair, they don’t even look at Him; but the Risen Christ, for it is He, questions them, just like the good teacher that He is. ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ What else would they have been talking about, but the latest events that had just taken place in Jerusalem over the last few days? How could this stranger possibly not have heard about it all?... Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet who was mighty in words and deeds before God and the people… given over… condemned to death… crucified… Did you know nothing of all this?... And now, there are some brave women who claim to have seen angels, who found the tomb empty… What are we to believe about it all?....
The Lord takes pity on these poor faithful people who were suffering – just as He takes pity on the suffering faithful of all times – and opens their minds to the Scriptures. But He begins with a good sermon: ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the Prophets! Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?’ He said.
When we are tempted by discouragement, by the sadness of seeing that our dearest prayers do not seem to be answered, let us ask the Lord to draw near, to accompany us on our journey. And as He accompanies us He will explain that it was for us that He climbed Calvary; that it was for us that He died, so as to fulfil the Scriptures. The sorrowful event of the Crucifixion, which we have been contemplating, will thus become a lesson that speaks to each one of us. In our own time, once again, man needs to meet the crucified and risen Christ.
Who, more than this God who was condemned, can fully understand the pain of the person who submits to unjust condemnation?
Who, more than this King who was ridiculed and humiliated, can understand the suffering and the loneliness of so many lives damaged and with no future?
If we open our heart to Christ, He will answer our deepest desires. He Himself will unfold the mysteries of His Passion and His death on the Cross, as He did to the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus.
The pilgrims of Emmaus, silent, captivated by His words, invited the Master to stay with them, for night was falling, and to share in their meal. ‘Mane nobiscum, Domine.’ Should we not frequently ask that of the Lord? Especially after Holy Communion? ‘Stay with us, Lord, above all when shadows are falling on our soul, when we are sad, when we are tempted by the devils of the night. Manete. Stay!”
“Then, once at the table with them, He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognised Him… but He had disappeared from their sight. And they said to each other: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as He talked to us on the road and explained the Scripture to us?’
How could we not make the connection with the Last Supper, the Blessing of the bread that consecrates it as His Body, the breaking of the bread, the Holy Communion of the guests?…
May we, like those travellers, better recognise in the mystery of the Eucharist, in the breaking of the Bread, the presence of our Risen Saviour! May we better encounter Him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and welcome Him as our companion on our journey! ‘Ego sum Via.’ He will know how to listen to us and how to comfort us. He will know how to be our guide, so as to lead us throughout our life on the paths of life that lead to the Father’s House. Remember what Pascal wrote in the Pensées, which he places in Our Lord’s mouth: ‘ You would not be looking for Me, if you had not already found Me.’
At that moment, the Pilgrims of Emmaus, although night had fallen, set out on the road once again and returned to Jerusalem. Their speed was quite different now compared to their earlier departure; they flew back to tell the apostles of the great favour which they had been blessed to receive. They found them all together – except for Thomas – with various companions, and in a state of internal turmoil, of unusual excitement. Yes, they had already heard tell of the resurrection, and the appearance to Peter had been confirmed: but they wanted to see for themselves before they could believe that it was really true! It just seemed too beautiful an idea!
First Appearance to the Apostles
They were still talking, St Luke tells us. The Apostles had suffered great desolation and violent storms: their sadness had been excessive, as they had no Faith in the Resurrection yet. The Lord was to reproach them severely for this. ‘He reproached them for their incredulity and for the hardness of their heart, because they had refused to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen from the dead.’ Nor had they remembered the predictions that Jesus Himself had made about this.
They were duly abashed, of course, by this well-merited tirade… But fascinated, enthused and moved, they experienced an intense spiritual joy, just as their Saviour had promised them, in the Upper Room. Their hearts overflowed with joy, a joy which nobody could take away from them.
He said to them a second time, ‘Peace be with you!’
Jesus wanted to prove His identity, and the reality of His body. He allowed them to touch Him, He truly ate, a real piece of fish, which could be seen and touched. He assured them that hHe was no ghost or phantom. But on the other hand, His body was different, in ways that a materialist could not accept. He could pass through closed and locked doors, just as He could pass through the stone of the Sepulchre. He could conceal His appearance at will: Mary Magdalen and the pilgrims of Emmaus did not recognise Him at first; He could appear and disappear as He chose. Later He would do the same, as at the overwhelming appearance by the Sea of Tiberias.
Then, He opened their eyes to understand the Scriptures, St Luke tells us, just as He did on the road to Emmaus.
St John tells us, He continued: ‘As the Father sent me, so am I sending you. After saying this, he breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’
On that Easter evening, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance, and gave His apostles (and their successors) the power, the inestimable gift of the divine goodness and mercy. That gift was solemnly given on the day of His triumph over the powers of Hell and over Death.
One cannot imagine a more complete outpouring of divine love: complete forgiveness of sins, absolute remission of all faults. And He entrusts this inestimable gift to sinful men, just like any other sinners. And men who, moreover, had doubted Him and even abandoned Him, just a few hours earlier.
Now that the sacrifice of the Cross is consummated, that the Resurrection is accomplished, God breathes the breath of life on man. So that is when the Sacrament of Penance is instituted. Our Lord had already promised it, but to institute it, He chose to wait until the sacrifice of the Cross was consummated, the Resurrection was accomplished, and the Church was established. He wanted the prerogatives of the apostolic ministry to be proclaimed. The gift is given to the apostles, therefore, for the good of souls, and until the end of the world. An incredible way to crown the very first Easter day! An extraordinary gift that the Saviour wanted to give to His very young Church, before the end of the very first day!
This day of Resurrection comes to an end with this intimate reunion of the Master with His apostles, the last appearance of the day, which, perhaps, had included others.
It is in the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, the ultimate goal of the Incarnation, that Jesus addresses His last words of the day to his first Bishops.
‘Peace be with you… Sins will be forgiven…’
Appearance to St Thomas
St John also tells us of another appearance, eight days after Easter. ‘Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples told him “We have seen the Lord’ he replied; ‘ Unless I see the holes that the nails made in His hands and can put my hand in His side, I will not believe.’ We can understand him, this poor doubting Thomas… How would he not doubt, just like the others, until he had seen. Then Jesus, who saw and heard everything, of course, had pity on him, and eight days later, as St John tells us, ‘the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” He said. Then He spoke to Thomas: ‘Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it in my side. Doubt no longer, but believe.’
Let us admire the mercy of the Son of God, always at the service of the little ones, the sinners, the unbelievers, coming to each of us to save us – almost in spite of ourselves, all the while leaving us with our liberty completely intact, as God wills it. Thomas, like St Mary Magdalen, threw himself at His feet: ‘My Lord and my God!’ Everything is said in that Act of Faith. He sees, he touches the holy Humanity of the Saviour, and he believes that Jesus truly is the Son of God. But Jesus draws one more lesson from this, being the perfect teacher: ‘You believe because you can see more; Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
St Gregory the Great says that there was, in this incredulity of St Thomas, a mysterious working of Divine Providence. St Thomas confirms the truth of the Resurrection by the very fact that although he was so resolute, initially, not to believe his fellow apostles, he ended up adding his witness to theirs. Thank you, St Thomas, for your scepticism! Had you not displayed it, our Faith would be less assured. Thanks to you, we too can almost touch the wounds of the Risen Lord. That truly is a human body, that we could touch as we could our own. Those truly are open wounds, certain signs of the Passion He endured. It is truly Him.
And that ‘Him’ is God. My Lord and my God! An incredible declaration. It is not just the long-awaited Messiah, not just the Master and Lord, it is more than the Son of Man, more even than the Son of God; it is God Himself, proclaimed by doubting Thomas, with nobody dissenting. That is the very best profession of faith in Jesus Christ, which we too must proclaim.
Our Faith in the Resurrection
It was not just for them, it was for all men, for the whole human race, for all generations, that Jesus Christ died, that He rose, before going back up to Heaven to be with God, His Father and our Father, His God and our God. Each of us has been chosen, called, formed and especially qualified to preach the Gospel of God, as St Paul says: “Segregatus in Evangelium Dei.”
The Word of God perfectly accomplished the mission that His Father had entrusted to Him. The Kingdom of God was established, the Sacraments were instituted: Baptism, Penance, the Eucharist, (translator addition: Matrimony), Holy Orders, the Sacrament of the Sick; Confirmation had been announced, and would follow on the day of Pentecost. The universe was reconciled with God.
The Institution of the Church
The Institution of the Church would come next, and Jesus gave his final instructions to His apostles. ‘He then opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them: ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in His name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.’
It is clear: the foundation of the Church is the apostolic testimony. The mission, the duty of the Christian apostolate is essentially to witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This witness is the foundation of our Christian Faith. We adhere to a well-established testimony: this faith is not essentially and emotional affair. On the contrary, in fact. Emotion, in such matters, is suspect, and we should not leave our judgement at the mercy of our emotions. If Christ is not risen, we must consider ourselves, along with St Paul, as the most unfortunate of men; and moreover, as fools. Truly!
But our faith is based on an authentic and historical testimony, and has nothing to do with credulity – credulity taken in its usual pejorative sense, of course, for Our Lord reproached the Apostles for their in-credulity.
On the strength of ancient documents and authentic accounts, we certainly believe in the conquests of Alexander or of Napoleon. The Church preserves the apostolic witness. She is a channel, a web of communication to transport and diffuse the Good News of Salvation; an umbilical cord, one could also say, through which nourishment, blood and life are passed: the knowledge of the Kingdom of God. We are, in the bosom of the Church, like a new-born child at his mother’s breast. She carries us to Heaven, where the Risen Jesus has gone before us.
The Church is Jesus Christ, spread and communicated, said Bossuet.
The Church is Jesus Christ Himself, continuing to incorporate into Himself the universe, now absolved and reconciled.
The Church is the mystery of Easter, spread and communicated, just as the repeated physical evidence of the living and glorified Body dazzled the Apostles, solidifying their Faith, their Hope, their Love; just so this mystery of a Risen Body sums up and implies all the other mysteries of our religion, and becomes the very foundation of the Church.
The Church is the transmission of the Gospel to all men. The Good News of the Salvation brought by Jesus Christ, and of which He is the centre.
It is the coming of the Kingdom of God, awaited by the Jews since the time of Abraham, initiated by the Incarnation of Jesus, and accomplished by His Resurrection from the dead, and His bodily return to glory, with His Father.
The Church is the absolute extension of this Kingdom of God, the proclamation of this extraordinary news to all men, by the preaching of the Apostolic testimony. Its fulfilment will be at the end of the world, when Jesus Christ, absolutely triumphant, will return the Kingdom to His Father, and God will be all in all.
Our own Resurrection
In our own time, whether they acknowledge it or not, men are searching, beyond the world, for a source of purity and reconciliation; for our modern civilisation makes it very clear that such a source is not to be found in this world. The hour of truth will always come upon us. It is that hour when we realise that we are not of this world, that we truly do not belong to this world.
That hour comes for all men at the time of their death. May it come long before death! The earlier, the better…
What will be the circumstances of our own particular resurrection? The wisest thing is to trust in God, without exercising our imagination. What we must believe it that we will be resurrected, that our souls will be reunited with our bodies, and that we will appear before the Judgement Throne of God, there to be judged, according to the measure of our charity, the measure of our love, in truth.
The Saviour has already ascended to the heavens to make us, through Him and in Him, into citizens of Heaven. In His Resurrection and in His Ascension, He did not rise alone, and He did not ascend alone.
Everything springs from this mystery of Redemption: Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost. And all that in the space of fifty days!
The Presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Blessed Virgin Mary was present in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, according to the most ancient traditions. The Blessed Virgin Mary was present during the Way of the Cross. The Blessed Virgin Mary was present at the foot of the Cross. She was present once more to receive the Body of the tortured victim and to bury it. We have discussed how she would have been the very first to be visited by the Risen Christ on Easter morning. The Acts of the Apostles assure us that she was likewise present with the Apostles at the time of the Ascension, and again on the day of Pentecost.
There can be no doubt that Mary, Mater Apostolorum, Mater misericordiae, who herself went up, body and soul, into heaven on the day of her Assumption, continues her intercession at the throne of God on behalf of the Apostles of all ages, and on behalf of all those who invoke her as their Mother. ‘Woman here is your son. – Here is your Mother.’
To sum up:
Firstly, the Resurrection of Christ is a historic fact. It is not a legend or a myth, or merely a mystical or religious truth, as some imply, in order to deny its historic reality.
It is a historic fact whose authenticity is seen in the testimony of witnesses, and in the critical study of that testimony.
Whilst a historic fact, as undeniably proven, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is also, and no less, a miraculous fact, completely inexplicable by natural forces alone.
A unique fact, with irreversible and universal consequences and significance, the Resurrection engages the whole of humanity in a solidarity with this universal fact.
By His Death and Resurrection, Jesus has gained for all the remission of all our sins, and our participation in the glory of Heaven, with God, for eternity.
It is up to us to bear witness, along with the Apostles, and to ‘be witnesses,’ even if that means martyrdom – for the word martyr means a witness.