Brief synopsis of the readings: For most of Easter our first reading will come from the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Here Peter addressed Cornelius and his family. He recounted how Jesus of Nazareth went around healing people, how he was betrayed by Judas, and was killed. He also described how Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to his apostles and will return to judge the living and the dead. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb while it was still dark and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Thinking someone had stolen Jesus’ body she ran to Peter and another disciple. They also looked into the tomb and finally recognized what Jesus had told them about being resurrected.
Happy Easter! The unbelievable has happened. Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead.
That’s true, but there is so much more. This man was no ordinary man: he is the Son of God. And his resurrection isn’t just a wonderful thing that happened: his resurrection foretells what awaits all of us. And it’s the cornerstone of our faith. If you believe this you are Christian. If you don’t, you may be a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, or whatever. But you are not Christian.
And as Christians we have completed Holy Week. Both on Palm Sunday and Good Friday we read the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and how Jesus was arrested and crucified. For many of us, every year it feels like a crescendo as we all journey closer to the cross. But it’s almost as if the climactic point of this happened on Good Friday. The events of Easter Sunday appear almost…quiet.
And what do we do with the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? The only clue we have is a line from the Apostles’ Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” But what does that mean?
I remember as a child I was told that when Jesus died he opened the gates of Heaven to all those who awaited entrance, as if all those who had died before were standing (or floating) outside waiting for him. Or similarly, Jesus’ death and resurrection would not have had its full impact unless he plumbed the entire depth of death.
Regardless, it meant he wasn’t here. I had a conversation several years ago with a friend who spoke about the time between Good Friday and Easter as a time of abandonment, where not only did we not know where Jesus was, we didn’t have access to him.
It reminded me of a parable I once heard. It describes an indigenous society where teenage boys were required to spend a night in the forest all alone. They needed to do this to transition from boyhood to manhood. And this forest wasn’t a sanitized park; it was a place of predators and danger and his survival was far from guaranteed. He survived the night but spent it in fear and even though it was the custom he felt that his father abandoned him. At sunrise when he reunited with his father he told him how disappointed he was.
The newly minted man wasn’t certain how his father would react, but was puzzled when his father chuckled. His father explained that while his son was in the forest, he (the father) was on top of the ridge and stayed awake the whole night to ensure his son’s safety. He told his son: “I knew you would be frightened but I also knew you needed to know you could do this. And even though you thought you were alone you weren’t. You may not have seen me, but I saw you. And someday you will do this for your son.”
This should give us hope because even when we feel the most alone, even when we’re convinced that Jesus has forgotten us, we are not forgotten. And let’s face it: while we all feel abandoned and alone at times, our belief in Easter tells us that Jesus’ resurrection it at hand.
But his disciples didn’t know that. When they saw his body hanging on the cross, when they saw him laid in the tomb, when they saw the stone rolled over the entrance they had no idea he would rise from the dead, even though he foretold it.
This will be a recurring theme throughout the season of Easter, but they went from their worst low to their greatest high in a matter of days. The empty tomb led to the appearances of Jesus and that gave them the strength to do great things. Much like the boy in the parable, who could claim the mantle of manhood, they knew that they had achieved something new.
It’s easy to read the Gospels and see how Jesus’ disciples stumbled through much of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps preeminent among them was Peter who three times denied Jesus out of fear of what would happen to him. But in our first reading (that actually occurred after the events in the Gospel) Peter was now the leader of a group that fearlessly proclaimed Jesus as their Savior.
During this season of Easter we will read about how Jesus appeared to his apostles but we will also read a great deal from the Acts of the Apostles how they had the courage to speak when it would have been easier to remain silent.
The quiet and the solitude of the empty tomb eventually crescendoed to what we now call the early church. That led to its expansion beyond the Jewish population in and around Jerusalem, and eventually to the worldwide faith that we now know.
Not bad for something that began as a silent and empty tomb.