Summary: The witness of the apostles to the Resurrection challenges us to face the mystery of our own existence and life, and adopt a way of life that would inspire others at our own funerals.
Monday of Easter Week
Gaudium et Spes
Fifty-one days. What a difference fifty-one days can make, if Jesus Christ and the Spirit of Jesus Christ permeates those days. Look at the followers of Jesus in the wake of His arrest, torture and execution. They were cowering in a little upper room in Jerusalem, fearful of what the next step of the authorities would be. The crowds that just a week before had hailed Jesus as the Messiah and King had seemingly forgotten Him. Their blood-lust had been quenched by the obvious injustice of Jesus’s murder; the gospels record the fact that they had slunk away from Calvary beating their breasts. Maybe it was the prayer-tone of Jesus on the cross, his recitation of the psalms of David. Maybe it was the earthquake that shook the city. And then there was the rumor that just as the priests were slaughtering the Passover lambs in the Temple court, and the earthquake was shaking up the whole city, the Temple veil hiding the Holiest place had been ripped in two mysteriously. But during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, there was quiet in the city. Still, the disciples were understandably nervous.
The stories of what happened next are disjointed, as eyewitness accounts tend to be. In fact, if eyewitnesses all agree on the facts of a case, investigators always suspect a conspiracy. Some of the Easter stories seem to say Mary Magdalene alone was at the tomb; this story in Matthew, which has the ring of authenticity because of the need to wash and anoint the body before corruption set in, envisions several women encountering Jesus. Did they see an angel or not? How many angels? No matter. All of them are in agreement on the fundamental point: Jesus was dead, but is encountered in person as alive. At one point several hundred people saw and heard Him at the same time. What about the guard at the tomb? They were bought off by the Jewish authorities. That, too, has the ring of authenticity. If anyone wants to advance an alternate theory of the Resurrection, he has to overcome one undeniable fact–hundreds of His disciples went to their deaths rather than deny what they saw and heard and touched. Jesus died and rose again, and sent the Holy Spirit upon them, and miracles they worked attested to that reality.
There’s something else that we cannot deny, something the Fathers of the Council put like this: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.”
Jesus passed through a portal that all of us must face. Those of us who are in the last half of our lives see that most clearly, mostly because our parents have died or are dying and we are the generation on the mortality front-lines. We have aches and pains and organs that don’t work quite right that constantly remind us that we don’t buy life insurance to care for our loved ones “if” we die, but “when” we die.
As St. Paul says starkly, if Christ is not risen, then we are the greatest of fools, because we profess faith in a false myth and fast and pray and give alms when the logical response to Christ not being risen is to spend our time and money enjoying ourselves. No. The Christian employs the first and third theological virtues–faith and love–in light of the second. We hope, like Peter, to benefit from the fruits of Christ’s being raised from the dead. In Baptism, we die with Christ so that when we take our last breath, beat our last heartbeat, fashion our last enzyme, we may pass into the loving arms of the everlasting Father. Without that life-giving connection to Jesus Christ, our own life and death lose all meaning, and the very existence of humanity has the appearance of a cosmic joke.
The passion, death, resurrection of Jesus, and His sending of the Spirit, are really the only story that makes sense of existence. If that still puzzles you, imagine your own funeral. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of listening to eulogies that focused on the deceased’s enjoyment of beer, or delight in a day of fishing, or love of practical jokes. But the only encomia that really uplifted my spirits are the ones that talked about the dead person’s service to and relationships with others, his delight in giving to the poor or worshiping our God. I suspect that when each of us passes to join the saints–directly in heaven or in a short place of purification–we’d like our grandchildren to talk about how much good we did in life, or how well we loved God and them. And that is how to participate in this life in the Resurrected life to come.