On Easter morning it is always fascinating to contemplate what it must have been like for those who found the once-occupied tomb of Jesus to suddenly be completely empty. As we hear the Gospel being proclaimed it is easy to assume the reaction of Mary Magdalene, her companions, and the subsequent apostles to be that of surprised joy. But if we were to imagine ourselves in that garden, to truly enter into the setting in prayer, I think we would arrive at a scene that is in actuality a bit chaotic: an earthquake (Matthew 28:1-10), soldiers scattering in fear, an impossibly heavy stone which has rolled away from the entrance perfectly, and the tomb in which there is nothing inside but burial clothes and the echo of their voices as they gasp in confusion. What has taken place here? As Mary Magdalene, and then shortly after her, Peter and John, (John 20) try to come to terms with the tomb which is now empty, we watch as the deep joy of the discovery begins to seep into their hearts along with whatever other emotions are already present. As we observe, what is our reaction to this perplexing scene? It seems that the emotions and thoughts of those present after Jesus was newly resurrected must have been in great conflict. That is, until they had an encounter with Him enabling what they saw to take root in their hearts, the conflicts melting into joy as they heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you!”
If we are to appreciate what happened on that Resurrection morning, we need to acknowledge that the first witnesses did not have the instant joy that we experience at Easter. We are at an advantage over them because we already know that Jesus resurrected. The women who were first on the scene, and then the apostles, still had to connect what they saw with what Jesus had talked about before He died in such a humiliating way. Their heads must have been spinning and their hearts racing as they saw the tomb. However, the joy did arise within the women as they saw the angel there, and a moment or two later even more deeply within Mary Magdalene when she actually saw Jesus, (though she mistook Him for the gardener at first) and in Peter and John who later saw the empty tomb with their own eyes. The apostles-in-hiding were another story, however. They simply could not comprehend what they were hearing, even from trusted friends and brothers. We can hardly blame them: they had experienced the strangest, most terrifying, disturbing, and disappointing time of their lives in the couple of days preceding this. It was more than just astonishment with which they received word that the tomb was empty and that Jesus lived: it was confusing to hear the news of something they had not yet seen for themselves. It seems that even for the first witnesses, (and not just Thomas!) seeing was in fact, believing.
To have a sense of what they were experiencing we need to see with the eyes of our faith by putting ourselves in the scene as we pray about it. Would we have had any more clarity than the first witnesses or the frightened apostles-in-hiding? It is a difficult question since we cannot “un-know” what we already understand about that morning. But there is value in contemplating the scene and trying to imagine what it was like for the disciples and apostles: we can begin to have deeper understanding of the magnitude of what Jesus did, and also it can aid in the nourishing and renewing of the graces we received at our baptism. In other words, we need to take ownership of the great truth that Jesus, the one who we witnessed to have died the most horrible death imaginable on Good Friday, and who we grieved as He was gone from the earth, is alive again and has opened the gates of Heaven so that we can enter there some day. This is cause for the most heartfelt rejoicing. Therefore, it is important that we do not accept the joy of the moment simply because we know the “end of the story.” It is especially true because it is not at all the end of the story, but rather it is the beginning. To take ownership means we must celebrate more than the day of Easter, and even more than the season of Easter: it means we must live this truth daily as an Easter people, and even with joy.
To live as Easter people means that the joy of the resurrection of Jesus propels us outward in faith, hope, and love such that we put into action that which we believe. It means – (a continuing theme since Advent) – that we need to respond (make a return to God in gratitude) to the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a monumental gift given by God, by living with kindness, mercy, and compassion. The apostles responded by giving their entire lives to making Jesus known and loved, even dying for their belief that Jesus did resurrect and is indeed the Christ, the very Son of God. We may be tempted to think it was easier for the apostles to make a response because they actually saw Jesus, but we, too, are witnesses to the Risen Christ: we observe the Easter mysteries during the liturgy every time the consecration takes place and every time we receive of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. However, I suspect that because it is something we do so often we might forget that every Eucharist is an Easter celebration (no matter what the liturgical season might be.) Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it definitely can breed a blasé attitude if we are not careful.
If we see or experience something too often we can lose the beauty (the perspective, perhaps) of it because it is so familiar that the details become almost invisible to us. But if we approach it as if for the first time we can see the inherent beauty and sometimes even find more than we originally realized was there. For example, the other day I drove down a familiar and often frequented local road which is tree-lined in the median and also on both sides. I imagined that I had never seen this particular street before and that I was driving on it for the first time. Interestingly, it ‘transformed’ into an exquisite road upon which to travel. It became evident that the trees formed a beautiful green canopy; the familiar sight became truly moving. We cannot do this with everything we see or experience in our day, but to try to see another person with new eyes, to see them in the light of the Resurrection, is indeed what the gospel calls us to do. The immense power and mystery of the Resurrection is that it not only ‘transformed’ Jesus, but that through it He has invited us into that very transformation that the mysterious power of the event might begin to shape us now so that we are truly new people: Easter people.
If we enter into the Resurrection accounts as if for the first time, we can allow the Easter morning experience to begin to change us inwardly, which would mean we would respond differently outwardly. Perhaps we will be able to take ourselves less seriously and grow in humility; perhaps we will have more compassion, mercy and love; perhaps we will have a joyous heart, which is different than simply being happy; perhaps the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) will be visible in us; perhaps we will continue to share our time, talent, and treasure with those in need spiritually, emotionally, or materially but with renewed vigor; and perhaps we will want to spend more time with Jesus in prayer and gratitude. And when we receive the Eucharist, seeing and experiencing the Risen Christ, we can let the Easter mysteries of His Risen presence gradually assist us in our growth in holiness and closeness to God.
The true joy of Easter is that we are witnesses to the Resurrection! If we approach Word and Sacrament, the Scriptures and Eucharist, as if we are experiencing them for the first time, if we put ourselves at the empty tomb and at the Emmaus table as Jesus breaks the bread and then vanishes, if we allow our hearts to burn like Cleopas and his companion, we too will want to run to all our friends and tell them the Good News. And if that is not our style or not our particular call, we can proclaim the message in loving deeds, such that our hearts will burn with the truth of the Risen Christ. We are an Easter people. In the words of the deacon at the end of Mass: Let us go forth and live the Good News with our lives!
May the Resurrection of Jesus permeate our hearts, moving us outward in Easter joy! May we be able to see with new eyes so that we can be renewed in our mission to live as Easter people! May we see beyond the empty tomb, as witnesses to the fullness of life with Christ forever! May we be filled with gratitude that we are able to see and touch the Risen Christ! May we be transformed by the graces offered through the death and Resurrection of Jesus and may it be evident by the way we live our lives! And may we be filled with the peace of Jesus as we work to bring justice and peace, kindness and mercy to our conflicted world! Let us meet in the heart of the Risen Christ! Alleluia! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry on May 8
1. This stained glass window is a photo I took at the church in Emmaus, Palestine. The image captures the ‘action’ surrounding the moment Jesus emerged Risen from the tomb. It shows the terror of the soldiers, the prayerfulness of Mary Magdalene, and Jesus in the center, victorious over sin and death. I chose this because it highlights my statement that the scene was not experienced the same way by all the people present, nor were the emotions instantaneous joy. This stained glass shows that it was a bit of a mixture of emotions and thoughts until Jesus offered His peace to Mary Magdalene by pronouncing her name. (John 20:1-18)
2. This is a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna called Maesta The Three Maries at Christ’s Tomb which depicts the three women, Mary Magdalene, another Mary whose identity is a little confusing, (in one version she is called Salome, and Joanna in another), and Mary the mother of James, who came to the tomb to pour spices on the body, something they were denied because of the Passover. (Luke 24:1-12) I love the humanness of the women, who are shrinking back a little from the angel, as if in fear. I suspect that most of us would have the same reaction given that they were confused about the body being gone and were not expecting to see an angel: it had to be startling to suddenly be addressed by a heavenly visitor. I love how the angel is pointing to the tomb to emphasize that it is empty, as if to say that its emptiness is all the evidence they should need in order to believe that what Jesus promised had been fulfilled. You can find the painting at http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_216095/Buoninsegna-Duccio-di/Maesta-The-Three-Maries-at-Christs-Tomb.
3. This is a photo I took while in a boat on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The water was like glass that morning and it was almost easy to visualize how Jesus could have walked on this water without causing a ripple. I chose to use it here, however, because in the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of John some of the apostles went to Galilee and it was on the Sea that they encountered the Risen Jesus as they fished. (John 21:1-14) Therefore it seemed appropriate to have a photo of the Sea taken from a boat roughly the size of the one they may have been in.
4. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Risen Lord Appears to St. Thomas. I chose it because earlier I had alluded to sometimes needing to see and to touch in order to believe. Like the apostles we can see and touch the Risen Lord in the Eucharist whenever we want to do so. He is always available to us in His Body and Blood. If you are interested in a copy you can purchase a copy of this icon as a plaque, card, or in a larger format at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-risen-lord-appears-to-st-thomas-257-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. This is another of my photos, taken near Rockport, Texas. This is said to be the biggest live oak tree in the state, but I chose the photo because it was the closest thing to a canopy of trees lining an area that I could find, to be honest. However, it is a very beautiful place which, when I took the photo, I was seeing for the first time. Indeed it inspired a bit of awe.
6. This is a photo of the iconographer Fr. William Hart McNichols celebrating the Eucharist at the parish were he serves. At the moment when this was taken he was in the midst of the consecration. I chose this because this is the precise moment at Mass when Jesus becomes present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The priest has been acting ‘in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ), but now Christ is really present and so He is the center of everything that is taking place. I also think that it is good for my readers to see the gifted man who provides such beauty in the icons that I share in nearly every post.
7. The last icon is the account of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). This modern version of a traditional icon is written to tell a story. On the left is the scene of Jesus walking with Cleopas and the unnamed disciple and on the right is Jesus breaking the bread for them at table, an action which opens their eyes to who He is just a moment before He vanishes. Two points: In the story as Luke wrote it, there is no mention of the other disciple being male or female. The iconographer here chose to make this person female. That is not too strange since there are numerous accounts in the gospels which indicate that Jesus had many women disciples. The second point is about the ‘story’ told on the right side of the icon. Jesus vanished right after he blessed and broke the bread because He did not need to be present there in two ways. Once He was present in the bread (and presumably the wine) He only needs to be seen in that one way. He did not leave them when He vanished, but rather He was present as Bread and Wine become His Body and Blood.
Heart Speaks to Heart