Easter Joy and Easter Peace

By Fr. Vincent Freeh

If we merely read about what the disciples did when confronted with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, their experience of the meaning of Easter is likely to escape us. If we read with perspective and composure and try to share their disillusionment, their shattered hopes, their utter sense of loss, their realistic fears, and their loss of trust in themselves, we may come to appreciate their tentative recovery of faith that grew into an unshakeable belief in Jesus Christ, not just as risen from the dead or as a vindictive Messiah but as the Savior, the Redeemer, the Divinizing and Loving Son of God!

In the Gospels of Matthrew, Mark, and Luke “the acquaintances,” particularly the women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem, witnessed his suffering and death on the cross “from a distance.” In John’s Gospel, Mary his mother, her sister Mary the wife of Clopas. Mary of Magdala, and John the disciple whom Jesus loved were right at the cross. As the word excruciating suggests, death on a cross was the ultimate measure of torture and punishment the human mind could devise. The request of the Jews that the legs of the crucified be broken has reference to an aspect of crucifixion that is seldom noted: When hanging on a cross, to catch a breath, victims must make their leg muscles momentarily carry all the body’s weight. The extreme physical pain and the terrifying fear of suffocation that accompany this desperate maneuver put it beyond unspeakable human cruelty into the category of satanic evil as a desecration of the human person comparable to the absolute absence of mercy in the violation of the womb that takes place in abortions.

The crucifixion story nears its conclusion when the Jews asked Pilate that the legs of the crucified be broken because they would then die presently from being unable to breathe. They wanted this done “that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath, for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one.” The Jews wanted the bodies to be taken down and not remain on the cross on the sabbath. “So, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19: 31-35).

John, who witnessed these events, testified that his report was true, concluding that it all happened in keeping with providence and that the scripture might be fulfilled. As for the chief priests and the Pharisees, the victorious culmination of their plans to kill Jesus began to look too hideous and reprehensible even to them–to be on public display during the celebration of the Passover.

Quite to the contrary, the early Fathers of the Church wrote volumes on the symbolic meaning in every aspect of Christ’s death on the cross in a striking comparison between Eve being born from the side of Adam and the Church being born from the side of Christ, in the wounded Heart as the seal of God’s Love and the ratification for the Gift of the Holy Spirit, in the outpouring of blood and water that foreshadowed the seven Sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist. Providence would not have been well served had Jesus died from enforced asphyxiation rather than in completing his lifelong obedience and unbroken resolve to fulfill the will of the Father, which he declared done in his final words: “It is accomplished! Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”

We know from the above that Jesus died on the very eve of the Passover because of the initial hurried burial of Christ. This is why Mary Magdalene and the other women who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus “came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week.” They had purchased perfumed oils and had prepared spices which were needed to afford proper burial for the body of Jesus. From this perspective we know they were resigned to the death of Jesus. They also were in full compliance with the law. Not even for Jesus, who had healed many on the day of rest, were they ready to risk the wrath of the chief priests and Pharisees by breaking the sabbath observance. Jesus was gone.

The Easter narrative begins when the women arrive at the tomb. Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been moved away and her heart fell. She thought someone had stolen the body of Jesus. Plainly, she had accepted his death. She sought only the consolation of being able to repair his mangled frame, grieving over every wound and bruise as she and the other heartbroken women made his lifeless body ready for burial. “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, *They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him” (Jn 20: 1-2).

John gives us the most detailed description of what happened next because he was there. When Mary Magdalene gave her report, he writes: “So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first. He (John) bent down and saw the burial cloths there but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned home” (Jn 20: 3-10).

The cloth that covered the head of Jesus had significance for being rolled up and in a separate place. When John wrote “he saw and believed” at the very least this must have meant he believed the body of Jesus had not been stolen body snatchers would not have taken time to roll up the napkin. Also, the way the napkin had been rolled up may have reminded him of how Jesus rolled up his napkins. With that the love Jesus had for him must have been so strong he no longer could not not believe.

There are many stories that demand our attention, one being right then when Peter and John had left: “But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels ni white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said, Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbuoni’ which means “Teacher.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, “I am going to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.’ Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ and what he told her” (Jn 20: 11-18).

After his playful way of surprising Mary, who still thought he was dead, Jesus comes to what really matters: “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Equivalently, this is: “Welcome to the Life of the Trinity!” Here is Easter Joy!

The Doubting Apostle Thomas made Christ’s divinity more explicit by not being present when “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20: 19-23). Here is Easter Peace!

Thomas would not believe them. He said to them, “‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood ni their midst and said, Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

There are two more appearances that demand our attention. You will find one in the Gospel of Luke in the story about two disciples, one known as Cleopas, on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day of the Resurrection. Jesus chides them for being foolish and slow of heart for not being able to interpret nor ready to accept the words of the prophets, and puts this question to them: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” The disciples then invited this stranger to have dinner and to stay with them because it was evening, and the day was almost over. Here we have that scriptural phrase found before the multiplication of the loaves and fish and at the Last Supper: “And it happened that, while he was with them at the table he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”

What is truly remarkable si that during the brief time on the sabbath between the crucifixion and the resurrection the phrase “the breaking of the bread” must have come into use as the Apostles tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Again and again, they must have tried to explain what they had experienced at the Last Supper. Things are beginning to add up.

Another significant appearance is in the Epilogue to the Gospel of John, relating the conversation between Jesus and Peter wherein Jesus commissions Peter to be his Vicar. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter says he does love Jesus, and Jesus commissions him to take care of his lambs and to feed his sheep. Why this interrogation? The common explanation is that just as Peter had denied Christ three time, he was given the occasion to affirm his love three times. Providentially, this public affirmation had not taken place, the primacy of Peter may have been in jeopardy. This job interview was more than enough to prove Peter had the humility required to be Christ’s Vicar.

In coming to an assessment of our reflection on Easter from the perspective of Scripture, we might find that the chide that Jesus applied to the disciples on the road to Emmaus also applies to us- and perhaps for the same reason: The disciples were having a hard time believing in prophecies or doctrine. They finally realized they were not to believe in doctrine; they were to believe in Jesus! They had rested their hopes on the possibility that Jesus as Messiah would “restore the kingdom.” His death on the cross from that perspective not only shattered their grandiose ideas but left them with a leader whose final moments reflected only failure and shame. Try as they might, they could not pin that description on Christ. Did Jesus have to go to such extremes to bring them–and us–to let go of our hollow hopes and egoistic dreams? Only by changing the cross from being an instrument for inflicting pain and humiliation into a manifestation of boundless and unconditional love could Jesus bring us to choose life rather than death, light rather than darkness, truth rather than falsehood, accepting God’s Love in obedience that sets us free.

St. Theresa of Avila once said if she had a choice between ecstasy and suffering, she would choose suffering; it brought her into closer union with Jesus. With absolute finality, Easter is about faith, which is not guaranteed by knowledge, whether it be of religious doctrine, psychology, the physical sciences, and all things that can be known. It is rather an informed act of the will. Knowing sound religious doctrine, the natural laws of human behavior, and the natural laws of physics can add richness to our faith but apart from faith, no amount of knowledge can endow us with God’s love. That is up to God to give. With all the evidence at hand, we should not be dumb enough to think otherwise.

He is Risen, Alleluia!

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