Easter Sunday

Commentary on Acts 10:34,37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; John 20:1-9 (for afternoon Masses, Luke 24:13-35)

Our Easter celebrations form the heart of our Christian living. Our faith is deeply rooted and finds its real meaning in the resurrection of Jesus. St Paul says that, if Christ is not risen, then all our believing is in vain.* It is sad, then, to find people who make Good Friday and the death of Jesus the climax of Holy Week. However, attitudes change over time and more and more people have come to love the Easter Vigil liturgy, especially when it is done well.

Those Christians who depict the cross without the body of Christ on it are making a very important point. The cross was the high point of Jesus’ gift of himself to the Father for our sake, but he is no longer there and it was his entry into glory with the Father which gives the Cross its validity. Otherwise, it would have been a journey into nothingness.

Because of the resurrection, the disciples, who were at first paralysed with fear of being arrested as accomplices of Jesus, suddenly made a complete turnaround and began boldly to proclaim that Jesus, who died on the Cross, was alive and with them. And when, in fact, they were arrested, persecuted and imprisoned, it became a cause of rejoicing that they were now even more closely related to the life experience of their Lord, sharing in his sufferings that they might share in his glory.

A call for change
Easter, however, is not only concerned with recalling the resurrection of Jesus or its impact on the first disciples, but also with the meaning of this event for our own lives and for our faith. The celebration of Easter (and the days of Holy Week leading up to it) are a call for us to change – and perhaps change radically – as Jesus’ own disciples changed.

The sign that we are truly sharing in the risen life of Jesus is that our lives and our behaviour undergo a constant development. We not only believe, we not only proclaim, but we do what we believe and what we proclaim.

Proclamation and witness
The theme of today’s Mass includes both proclamation and witness. In the First Reading, we see Peter speaking after the baptism of Cornelius and his family, the first Gentile Christians. He is speaking about his own experience and sharing that experience with the listening crowds. For the true disciple of Jesus, there is a close and indivisible relationship between experiencing and proclaiming. Because of Peter’s experience of knowing with utter conviction that Jesus, who died on the Cross, is now alive, he is so filled with the joy of it that he simply must share that joy with others – so that it can be theirs, too.

We find a similar theme in both of the Second Readings (there is a choice of readings) and the Gospel. Paul was a Pharisee, a dedicated Pharisee and a man of integrity. He persecuted Christians because he saw in them a dangerous deviation from the Jewish Law and Jewish traditions. Then he, too, had that sudden experience when the Risen Jesus revealed himself while Paul was on his way to Damascus to bring the Christians (whom he saw as heretical Jews) into line.

That experience, as we know, brought about a total change in Paul’s life. It gave him a totally new vision of things and especially of the meaning of Jesus’ life and message. For the rest of his life, he used all his energies, the same energies he once used against Christians, to help others – Jews and non-Jews alike – to know, love and follow Jesus, his Lord.

Empty tomb
In John’s Gospel, we have the experience of the empty tomb as the sign of Jesus’ resurrection to life. Mary Magdalen saw the stone rolled back (it was so heavy; who could have managed to do such a thing?) and she went running to the disciples. Peter and the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” went to see for themselves. They ran to the tomb and, although the “other disciple” got there first, out of deference, he let Peter go in before him. They saw, they understood, and they believed. Until that moment, the Gospel says:

…for as yet they did not understand the scripture [the Hebrew testament], that he must rise from the dead.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus will also be made to recognize that the positive meaning of the sufferings of Jesus can be found in the Hebrew Testament for those who can see and understand (see Luke’s Gospel for the afternoon Masses).

Not just resuscitation
It is important, however, to be aware that the Resurrection is not simply the resuscitation of the body of Jesus after he died on the Cross. No one saw the resurrection because there was nothing to see. The crucifixion is a historical event, but the resurrection is a faith event. The Risen Jesus enters a completely new way of living; the post-Resurrection texts all indicate that. He is not recognised at first by even his intimate friends, he is everywhere that his disciples happen to be, and his new Body – the means of his being visibly present among us – is the community of his disciples. We are, quite literally at this time, the Body of Christ.

We see the beginnings of this in the next part of John’s Gospel that we will read during the first week of Easter. Peter and the ‘beloved disciple’ went back to their companions to tell them of their discovery. But Mary Magdalen, a formerly sinful woman who was now totally devoted to Jesus as her Lord and Master, stayed behind. She was distraught. Her beloved Master was not only dead, his body was now missing. In the tomb she saw two angels, representing God’s presence, who asked her why she was crying.

A familiar voice
At that very moment, she turned and saw Jesus but did not recognise him. This is a constant feature of post-Resurrection apparitions. Jesus is not recognised; he looks just like an ordinary person, any person. In this case, Mary thinks he is the gardener, and wonders if he is the one who has taken away the body of Jesus. When he calls her name, “Mary”, she immediately knows who it is. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus had said:

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
(John 10:3)

Mary then begins to cling passionately to Jesus, not wanting to let him go. But she has to let go – she is clinging to the ‘old’ Jesus. The Risen Jesus is going into glory with the Father. He will return, but in a very different way. From now on he will be found in all those who call themselves his disciples and who are united together as one Body – the Church and all its constituent local churches.

And Mary, too, runs back to the disciples proclaiming her personal experience:

…[she] announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:18)

Not that she had seen Jesus, but that she had seen the Risen Lord. And that is what evangelisation is about: it is not just the handing on of doctrines, but the sharing with others our experience of having seen the Lord in our own lives and inviting them to have the same experience.

The same mission
The celebration of Easter reminds us that we have the same mission as Peter and Mary Magdalen and the other disciples of Jesus. First, as the optional Second Reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians indicates, Easter calls for a radical conversion, a radical purging on our part. In the celebration of the Pasch, the Jews used to throw out all the leavened bread they had and replace it with freshly baked unleavened bread.

Because of the fermentation process that leavened bread undergoes, yeast was regarded as a corrupting agent. So Paul tells us that we, too, as we celebrate our Christian Passover, are to become:

…a new batch of dough, as you really are unleavened [in other words, free from all the corrupting influences in our life]. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

And, to go back to the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter emphasises the importance of Jesus’ disciples not only experiencing the joy of their Risen Master and Lord, but also of sharing that experience and joy with as many people as possible. It is something we must do also. Not to share our Easter joy and what it means to us is to leave Easter only half celebrated. For the true Christian, in fact, every day is an Easter Day lived joyfully in the close company of the Risen Lord.

Peter says:

God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…

Witnesses that is, of Jesus’ preaching and healing, of his arrest, execution and death and also of his being raised again to life.

Peter continues:

…[we] who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Is that not something that we, too, do every time we take part in the Eucharist – to eat and drink with the Risen Jesus? And what message comes from that? Have we satisfied our Christian responsibility just by being in church on Sunday?

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead…that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

There we have our mission.

Putting it in language that may be more easily understood today, Peter is saying that Jesus, and the way of life he proposes, is the yardstick by which people are to measure themselves, and not just as Christians, but as human beings. To attach oneself totally to the Way of Jesus, a way of Truth and Life, is to bring about a deep reconciliation with God and with all our brothers and sisters. It is to bring freedom, justice and peace into our world, and prepare us for the day when we all become one in our Creator God, the Father of Truth and Compassionate Love.


*The Gospel was essentially written backwards. The trigger to its being written was the experience that Jesus the Rabbi had risen from the dead and was with God in glory. That experience, in turn, led to reflection on what at first seemed tragedy, disaster and failure – namely, the trial, suffering and death of Jesus. The resurrection threw a totally different light on the Passion and Death of Jesus and led to a very different understanding of what was happening.

These reflections, in their turn, led to a reconsideration of the public life of Jesus – his teaching and what was now seen to be part of that teaching: his healing, forgiveness of sinners, the expulsion of evil spirits and giving life to the dead.

Last of all, came the stories about the origins of Jesus, the Infancy Narratives.

The longest part of Jesus’ life, between his childhood and the beginning of his Public Life, remained totally hidden to us and not relevant to the main story.

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