Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Sin is defeated, and we have been redeemed!
These are the thoughts that often come to mind when we think about Easter. The tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive once more.
But look more closely at the Gospel stories we hear at Mass during this Easter season. You’ll find something else there: stories of encounter. You’ll read about how the first disciples came face-to-face with the risen Lord and what happened to them afterward.
Clearly, these stories are important. For one thing, they confirm that Jesus truly did rise from the dead. But even more important, because there are so many of them, they tell us about the different ways that people have experienced the Lord. He didn’t appear only to Peter, the chief of the apostles, or to Mary Magdalene, the faithful disciple who came to the tomb. He also appeared to Thomas the doubter. He appeared to two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus. He even appeared to a Pharisee named Saul, who was bent on destroying the Church!
In this Easter edition of The Word Among Us, we want to look at some of these personal encounters with Jesus so that we can get a sense of how we can meet him in our own lives. And because we will be celebrating the canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II this month, we will also take a look at what these two great saints can teach us about finding the Lord.
Seeking the Wounded. Let’s begin by looking at the stories of Mary Magdalene and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (John 20:1-18; Luke 24:13-35). Both of these stories give us a dramatic illustration of the psalmist’s words: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirit is crushed” (Psalm 34:19).
Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, but now she was faced with an empty tomb. Jesus, the rabbi who had delivered her from seven demons and who had given her life such meaning and joy, had just died a painful and humiliating death. It’s no wonder that she stayed behind and wept while Peter and John returned to the other disciples. Her grief was still too strong to be with everyone else. Her heart was too broken.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were brokenhearted as well. While the other disciples stayed together in Jerusalem, these two headed out on their own. Jesus had given them such high hopes, both for their own lives and for the future of their people, but now everything seemed lost. So they left Peter and the others behind. Jesus’ mission looked like it had failed, so what was the point of staying together anymore?
And so it was into these situations—a grief-stricken woman and two perplexed, dispirited travelers—that Jesus first chose to appear. Rather than go to Peter or John or even the chief priests, he chose to seek out the ones whose sadness and confusion caused them to isolate themselves.
He Can’t Stay Away. We can see here that Jesus is especially drawn to the lonely and the hurting, those who are hungry for his presence. Mary Magdalene’s grief, combined with her faithfulness, acted like a magnet to Jesus. He couldn’t stay away from her. He rushed to her side and showed her that his love is stronger than death. He went out of his way to dispel Mary’s sorrow and fill her with joy.
We could say the same thing about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. As Mary was consumed with grief, they were consumed with questions. Luke tells us that they were “conversing and debating” as they walked (Luke 24:15). Then, when they met Jesus, disguised, their tale of woe came tumbling out of them (24:19-24). They just couldn’t hold it in—not even as they spoke with a complete stranger. Because they were honest about their grief, because they were seeking answers, Jesus was able to bring them back to faith.
If they were with us today, both Mary Magdalene and the Emmaus disciples would tell us to linger beside the “tombs” in our lives—the memories or thoughts that make us feel sad or isolated. They would tell us, of course, not to drown ourselves in sorrow. But they would also tell us to let Jesus can meet us in our sadness. In a world that urges us to “move on” with our lives and put a brave face on every situation, Jesus asks us to give voice to our worries, our wounds, and most important, our hunger for him. We shouldn’t be afraid of pouring out our hearts to him or asking him challenging questions. Why? Because he wants to heal our sadness and satisfy our hunger. He wants to find us in that place where we are most vulnerable and most open to his presence. That’s when we are able to experience our own resurrection with him.
Imagine Mary Magdalene telling herself, “This is no way for a disciple of Jesus to act. I’ve got to pull myself together! The other women are depending on me.” She might have been able to offer some comfort to the others, but she also might have missed seeing Jesus altogether. Or imagine the Emmaus disciples telling the stranger that everything was okay, when they were filled with questions and doubts. They might have had a superficial, casual conversation, but they would have missed seeing Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
Brothers and sisters, the Lord truly is close to the brokenhearted. Like a doctor running to tend to a sick patient, like a lover rushing to his beloved’s side, Jesus comes to us when we need him. He calls everyone who is poor in spirit “blessed” (Matthew 5:3). And that’s what we are: needy, poor, and hungry for God. So don’t be afraid to ask Jesus to come and save you!
Running Home to Witness. These stories don’t end with Jesus’ appearance. They end with happy reunions. Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples what she had seen. But he didn’t do it just so that she could deliver a message for him. He could just as easily have appeared to them himself. No, he sent her back so that she could be surrounded once more by fellow believers.
Likewise, after Jesus had broken the bread and disappeared, the Emmaus disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples everything that had happened (Luke 24:33). Having met the risen Lord, they changed course and returned to the place where they knew they belonged: with their brothers and sisters.
This is how Jesus wants to help us. He doesn’t want to just take away our pain and answer our questions. He wants us to share the good news with our brothers and sisters. He wants us to surround ourselves with fellow believers so that we can build each other’s faith by sharing our stories.
Mary Magdalene and the Emmaus disciples returned to the disciples because that’s where they belonged. They needed to be in an environment of worship, trust, and surrender to the Lord. They needed the Church.
And so do we. We are all part of one family. This is why the Letter to the Hebrews urges us not to “stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).
If you want to find Jesus this Easter, don’t isolate yourself. Spend time with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, there are Bible studies, service projects, and parish committees to join. But your options aren’t limited to these “official” activities. You don’t always have to be talking about Jesus or doing works of charity. You can find the Lord in simple events like parish social gatherings and impromptu conversations after Mass. We can meet Jesus in each other even as we are simply being ourselves—children of a loving Father!
He Will Show Up. Mary’s grief drew Jesus to her side. The Emmaus disciples’ questions moved him to join their conversation. In both situations, Jesus came disguised at first—but he did come. Just so, you may be surprised by the way Jesus comes to you. It may be through an unexpected encounter. You may get a powerful sense of his presence at Mass. Or he may simply set your heart on fire as you ponder his word in the Scriptures.
However it happens, Jesus will show up. He loves you too much to stay away. You’ll know it’s him if your heart begins to burn with love. You’ll know it’s him if you feel compelled to tell people about him. You’ll know it’s him if you find yourself reversing course and running to be with other believers. So open your eyes, open your heart, and let him show himself to you.