Brief synopsis the readings: Much like Christmas, we celebrate Easter a few times. Saturday night gives us Easter Vigil, not to be confused by the readings from Easter night. Finally we have Easter Mass During the Day. For our purposes I’ll choose the readings from the Mass During the Day. Many Catholics choose to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday night as we welcome those who have spent the past year studying and praying to join the Catholic Church. I, too, welcome them but for most of us Easter Mass happens on Sunday morning. We begin with the Acts of the Apostles (and will journey through this book for several weeks after Easter). Peter spoke of how Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God and was killed. But by God he was raised from the dead and will forgive the sins of all of us. We get used to this every year, but our first reading describes events that happened after the events we read in the Gospel. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene journeyed to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath for the purpose of honoring him. When she found the tomb empty she ran to Peter and John and told them she feared someone had stolen Jesus’ body. When they arrived at the tomb they saw that the burial clothes were still present even though Jesus wasn’t. They remembered the words of Jesus and recognized that he rose from the dead.
Last week I spoke about how the readings were so evokative, how we could read the Palm Sunday readings against the background of movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings. But our faith as Christins pivots not on the events of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday, but on Easter Sunday. And while the events of Holy Week occupy chapters of the Gospels (and Paul’s letters), accounts of Easter appear all too brief.
Also last week I spoke of Dante’s Inferno and his attention to detail, particularly to Judas’ fate. Now lest you think I’m particularly cultured, I read Dante as an assignment in college. As a class we were captivated by the first two volumes, the Inferno and the Purgatorio but felt the Paradiso was a bit of a letdown. Life in paradise appeared….a little boring. Several of us in my class suggested that perhaps Dante should have stopped after the Purgatorio and just said: “Ah, Heaven.”
The events of Holy Week can be seen as a crescendo which reaches it’s apex in, well, an empty tomb. In what is not there instead of what is there. When Mary Magdalene and Peter got to the tomb they were struck not by what they saw, but what the didn’t see. They were supposed to see a large rock instead they and a displaced rock and an empty tomb. And in that “what was not there” forms the foundation of who we are as disciples and Christians
From time to time I’ve gotten the question: “Where was Jesus between his death on the cross and his Resurrection?” It’s an interesting question and the Apostles’ Creed (not to be confused with the Nicene Creed we recite at mass) claims Jesus descended into Hell.
I’m not going to plumb the depths what that means, but instead wish to turn the question to “Where were Jesus’ followers between Jesus’ death and the discovery of the empty tomb?”
The events of Good Friday, let’s face it, don’t put the disciples in a good place. Most of them scattered, Judas hanged himself, and Peter denied Jesus three times. As a matter of fact, according to Matthew, none of the men were with Jesus when he died. Only Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Clearly things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped.
Much has been written on this, but most agree that Jesus’ disciples expected him to be the type of Messiah they longed for: he would overthrow the oppressive Romans and usher back in the “golden age” of King David. Seeing him arrested, tried, tortured, and killed was in nobody’s plan. I can imagine they were feeling some combination of fear, grief, and even perhaps anger.
Last week I suggested that perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus to slow things down and reign in some of Jesus’ rhetoric. This may be a stretch but perhaps some of the emotions skewed toward feeling that Jesus simply “overplayed his hand” and blew his chance to defeat the Romans.
Regardless of the emotions before Easter morning, the events on finding the tomb empty center their emotions. Mary Magdalene’s reaction makes sense: not only did they kill Jesus, they stole his body. I’m not certain I would have had Peter’s reaction: this must be what Jesus meant when he spoke about how he would be crucified and raised from the dead.
And so what happened? Did someone roll aside the stone and steal Jesus’ body? Did Jesus truly rise from the dead? Many of us have read the books of Rabbi Harold Kushner (who wrote When Bad Things Happen To Good People and several other excellent books); he was asked once about Jesus’ resurrection. As a Jew he does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and this is a question Jews get all the time. His answer was this: Jesus’ disciples were so convinced that he would rise from the dead that they convinced each other that it happened, even though it didn’t. They turned this mythology into a new movement that became the Christian Church we know today.
I understand this view, but as a Christian I disagree with Rabbi Kushner. We live with countless myths (the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York even though we all know that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball there in 1839). But the myth of Jesus’ resurrection shouldn’t have lasted. In baseball we can live with the reality of a myth we all understand. But I don’t believe so many of us have bought into a myth that didn’t happen, nor does our appreciation of baseball depend on it.
In 2011 a radio evangelist named Harold Camping claimed that from his calculations of the Bible, the Rapture (or “end of the world”) would occur on May 21, 2011 at 6:00 PM, though it was unclear which time zone. Frighteningly hundreds of people believed him and stopped their lives to spend April and May pleading with people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior before May 21st. When the day came and went with no change, Mr. Camping went into hiding before announcing that May 21st was a “spiritual judgement day” and that the true end of the world was really end on October 21st. This also didn’t happen. Mr. Camping died in 2013.
I don’t say this to make fun of Mr. Camping or others who claim to predict the end of the world. But I do make the point that Jesus’ prophecies are different. Disciples of Harold Camping (and countless others) put their hopes in false promises and dissipate when their hopes are dashed.
But the disciples of Jesus didn’t dissipate. They didn’t grieve and move on. They didn’t quietly move back into their roles in the Jewish society of the time. Instead, this disparate group of followers who (let’s face it) didn’t show themselves in their best light came to the front. Our first reading shows how the events of today’s Gospel embolden them to proclaim a new Kingdom.
Today begins the season of Easter. For the next six weeks we will read our first reading, not from the Old Testament, but from the Acts of the Apostles. Through these readings we will learn how this small group of disciples became apostles, and how this movement laid the groundwork for the Christian Church we all recognize today.
They were not the best and brigtest, and if Jesus wanted the smartest guys in the room he would have reached out to the Pharisees. But Jesus recognized what we should not look at the ones with the biggest brains but instead the ones with the biggest hearts.
Because, with apologies to Harold Camping, the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed with the empty tomb will not benefit from our smartest but from our kindness. Let us be kind.