The Word Among Us

Easter 2009 Issue

Receive the Resurrection

What Happened on that First Easter?

Receive the Resurrection: What Happened on that First Easter?

Every Easter we hear the words, “Jesus is risen.” And every Easter, we are quick to agree.

But as familiar as these words may sound, they do not always carry the expectation and anticipation that they should. Sure we enjoy the Easter Vigil Mass, and it’s great to recall all the Old Testament history that led up to the birth of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. But the miracle of Easter has the power to draw us deeper into the heart of the Lord. The resurrection of Christ contains within it the promise of a tangible resurrection experience of our own—an experience of renewed love, the grace to forgive, and the inspiration to live a holy life.

As we begin this Easter season, let’s put on the mind-set of Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the feet of the Lord. Let’s ask Jesus to help us become more expectant. Let’s ask him to help us ponder the miracle of Easter. It is worth our time and energy. After all, Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest event in human history. And that means that Easter should be held in the highest regard.

It’s about Life and Death. Writing to the believers in Rome, St. Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Every time we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, we do “confess” publicly that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. The question now is whether we “believe in our hearts” what these words mean.

What does it mean to believe “in our hearts”? Think about how often we hear about the risks involved with a poor diet: high cholesterol, heart disease, unhealthy weight gain, and so many others. We are warned to eat right and get plenty of exercise. Some of us heed the warnings, while others do not. But these warnings take on a whole new light when we have a stroke or a heart attack. Suddenly we want to learn about healthy eating. We change our diet, begin to exercise, and encourage our friends and family members to follow our example. This little illustration shows the difference between just believing something because it makes sense and believing something in our hearts.

Paul tells us that the most remarkable accomplishment gained through Easter is that Jesus won eternal life for us: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Philippians 3:20-21). In other words, this world is not our home. We are foreigners in this land, and that means we should live like foreigners. We should work hard to make this world a better place, and we should cherish education and serving those in need. But this is not our ultimate goal, nor is this world our ultimate destination. We are citizens of heaven, and that’s where our hearts’ deepest desires should be.

It is this offer of heavenly citizenship that makes Easter so special. This is why Jesus came and lived among us. Out of love for us, God sent his Son to save us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). The Easter message calls us to fix our eyes on heaven—always. Tragically, there are people in the world who can be more excited about finding a good bargain at a store than they can about the fact that heaven has been opened to them.

This is not to say that the more perishable goals or items that we pursue are wrong or evil in themselves. But Jesus is asking us to keep him and his kingdom in the forefront of our minds and hearts. He is asking us to place our other priorities in order behind this one. So let’s not allow these perishable goals—both the good and the bad—to take the place of honor that only Jesus deserves.

What Happened to Mary at the Tomb? If we look at the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, we can see that a group of women led by Mary Magdalene brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Why would they do this if they believed Jesus’ promise that he would rise again? They must have been convinced that he was dead. In essence, they allowed good human logic to replace faith in Jesus’ promises. But then, just as they were wondering how to roll away the stone that covered his tomb, they found that it had already been moved for them. They must have wondered what happened. They must have been puzzled as to why the guards had abandoned their post as well.

Even more disturbing than the missing guards and the rolled-away stone was the fact that Jesus’ body was missing. Still assuming that he was dead, they wondered whether someone had taken his body, perhaps as a hoax or worse, to defile it in some way. That’s when two angels appeared, dressed in pure white robes. “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” They asked. “He is not here, but he has been raised” (Luke 24:5-6).

Any doubts that Mary and the other women might have had were erased once the angels spoke to them. Any worries about where the body was or about what had just happened were removed. Their faith returned, and it even increased! They realized that Jesus had overcome even death itself. He did what he promised to do, and they were filled with amazement. Does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection fill you with joy and amazement? It really should!

Take a Second Look. What happened to Mary before she saw the angel can happen to us as well. We too can doubt Jesus. We too can be fooled by the philosophies of the world. We too can fall into the trap of making human logic the primary basis for our faith. But if we do this, we will end up minimizing Easter, seeing it as a good event but not giving it the highest place in our hearts. We will never find the living God among the “dead” ways of this world. We will find him only as we seek him in faith, only as we knock on his door and ask him to open to us.

While there are many similarities between John’s account of the resurrection and the three other Gospels, one difference is that according to John, Mary actually met Jesus before she went to tell Peter and the others about the empty tomb. At first, Mary didn’t recognize Jesus. It sounds incredible, doesn’t it? How could she not know him? She knew what he looked like and how his voice sounded. She had spent a lot of time with him, so she would have known his mannerisms. Still, Mary looked right at Jesus but couldn’t tell who he was. Is it possible that this happened because Mary was too convinced that Jesus was dead to believe otherwise, even when he was standing right in front of her?

Whatever the reason, Mary did recognize Jesus when he called her by name. It was in her second look that she finally saw him for who he is. Sometimes this is just what we need—a second look. Sometimes our first look doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes logic or fear or worry or doubt get in the way and keep us from looking deeper. Sometimes these distractions keep us from simply throwing ourselves into prayer, into the Scriptures, and letting Jesus set our hearts on fire.

Easter Is . . . Brothers and sisters, Easter is expectation. Easter is enthusiasm. Easter is anticipation. Easter is exhilaration. Easter is God’s own power and energy. It calls for a second look, and a third look, and even a fourth look. Easter is nothing less than the promise of eternal life.

So thank God for the miracle of Easter. What happened on that first Easter Sunday is incomprehensible to the human mind. But while no one can fully understand it, everyone can believe it. Why? Because people like Mary and the other women, the eleven apostles, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and everybody else who saw the risen Jesus could not possibly deny what they experienced. Why else? Because Jesus himself promised to bless those who could not see him and touch him but believed. And he never makes a promise he cannot keep.