During the Easter triduum this year, homilists will find themselves, sadly, with a great deal of contemporary material that echoes the story of Good Friday. The events of Sept. 11, the continuing war in Afghanistan, the conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil in places like Nigeria and Pakistan, as well as the fear of future terrorist attacks, all provide ways of seeing the Passion of today’s world.
The church too is not immune from suffering. The pedophilia scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston and elsewhere constitute a Passion for Catholics in America: from the victims and their families, devastated by this horrible abuse, to the outraged and frustrated laypersons who rightly question the actions of their leaders, to the innocent priests who have felt themselves unfairly tarred with the brush of scandal. In an especially poignant way this year, Good Friday is not far from us.
As a result, the mystery of the Resurrection holds a special meaning this year for Christians searching for signs of hope amid the suffering and turmoil.
It is therefore helpful to meditate on the experience of the first disciples around the time of Jesus’ Passion. The one in whom they had hoped, in whom they placed their trust, whom they had followed for so many long months, was suddenly and violently taken from their midst and subjected to the most awful humiliations and sufferings. Frightening signs of the disintegration of the group of disciplesthe betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peterhad appeared even before the actual crucifixion. And on Good Friday only a handful of disciples remained at Calvary as Jesus suffered his agony on the cross. The rest, presumably, had slunk away, certainly despairing and probably bitter over the apparent end of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the first volume of his book A Marginal Jew, Msgr. John Meier lays out some of the traditional criteria for determining the historicity of various Gospel passages. One such criterion is the potential for embarrassment to the early church that a passage might carry. There would, the author explains, scarcely be any reason for inventing a passage that would cast the early church leaders or, for that matter, Jesus, in an unflattering light. The baptism of Jesus by John, for example, could be read as making Jesus appear less than John; it is therefore probably historically accurate. The same could be said for the behavior of the disciples before the crucifixion: Peter denies his master, and the other disciples slink away. This is hardly something the Evangelists would have fabricated.
Even more embarrassingand therefore perhaps as historical as anything in Scriptureis the behavior of the disciples immediately after the crucifixion: they cower behind closed doors, fearful of the future. Clearly they were filled with doubt and questions. What reason is there to go on? Why should we work any further for Jesus? How can one continue to believe in the face of such suffering and evil? One of the first experiences of the early church, therefore, was fear.
Understanding this aspect of the Passion makes the story of the first Easter morning all the more thrilling to hear, and all the more relevant to Christians today. The story of the surprised women at the tomb, the terrified centurions, the cast-aside graveclothes, the first appearances, the breathless first witnesses, the gathered disciples beholding their risen Lord, is still, no matter how many times we hear it, utterly breathtaking. He is not here. He is risen!
So astonishing was this event that each Evangelist had a difficult time describing what exactly had happened. In one place Jesus is said to be almost like a ghost; in another he is clearly corporeal. In one place he is immediately recognizable; in another he is mistaken for a gardener. It is as if words cannot adequately explain, cannot adequately contain, what the disciples experienced: the mystery of the Resurrection. But it is clear that something happenedsomething wonderful, something beyond words. For in an instant the fearful followers of Jesus were transformed into faith-filled disciples ready to give their lives for their Lord, the one who had defeated death and who now promised them new life.
This is the message of the Resurrection: Christ lives! Sometimes, in the midst of fear and sadness, it is extremely difficult to believe this. But what was offered to the fearful disciples is offered to us today: boundless hope in the face of suffering, boundless confidence in the midst of turmoil and boundless love in the midst of fear. The Christ who rose on Easter morning to astonish and comfort the disciples is the same Christ who is with us today in our own struggles, always offering us the Easter miracle of hope.