The stunning news we must repeat each year because we can scarcely believe it is this: Jesus bodily rose from the dead! He is risen! We forget what an earth shattering revelation this “resurrection news” really is!
To underscore the point, note that all along Italy’s ancient Roman road, the Appian Way, today’s tourists can still see tombstones with epitaphs with a longing to know what happened beyond death and beyond the grave: “O Horatio, how I miss you! Where are you!” “O Cecilia, we loved you but where have you gone?” “Oh Felix you are dead. What is your fate?”
For Christians, the Rising of Jesus points to God’s ultimate intervention in our human history. In Jesus, God takes his place among us so fully that he willingly suffers and dies for us. He shares our mortal human fate but – and this is unique – he conquers death in a real and physical way so that we might rise with him to new life too.
Our Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil build up this decisive choice of God to show us his face – not only in the human person of Jesus – but in the resurrected body of Jesus: Genesis tells us that God chose life and light over darkness and emptiness in creating this world. Then, Genesis recalls God sending Abraham to a new life in a new land. Exodus tells of a God who chose freedom for his chosen people Israel over the slavery of the ancient Egyptian taskmasters. Isaiah speaks of a God who weds himself to his chosen people. Then Isaiah goes on to proclaim a God who chose the poor and lowly, the hungry and the thirsty to plant the seed of his word. Baruch encourages Israel to mirror back to God the faithfulness God has shown to them. Ezekiel promises that God will cleanse his followers of their idols, their infidelities, their sinfulness, taking away their hardened hearts and giving them hearts of flesh. In Jesus who lived and died we grasp a God that we can see. At the birth of Jesus we see the human face of God. But with Jesus rising from death to this new, resurrected life, we now see the transfigured face of God.
What does this risen body look like? Note that when his followers encounter the risen presence of Jesus after his earthly death they initially do not recognize him. Rembrandt’s “Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene” is one of my favorite artistic examples. A master at the use of light, Christ appears as a clear figure but initially not recognizable. A hoe in hand, he looks ready to go out to the fields in the early morning like all other farmers.
Our scriptures note the same mistaken identity: The women first misidentify him as a gardener, the men as a fisherman, and early followers mistake him as a stranger on the road to Emmaus. The misnamed “doubting” Thomas recognizes him only by his nail marks, thus not only overcoming his doubts but reminding us – that even today – the risen Christ can only be recognized by his wounds. Where we see human wounds that need tending then we will see the risen and transfigured presence of Christ – even now.
“There is one last little element that I would like to emphasize in the Gospel for this Easter Vigil,” Pope Francis concluded at his first Easter Vigil homily. “The women encounter the newness of God. Jesus has risen, he is alive! But faced with an empty tomb and the two men in brilliant clothes, their first reaction is one of fear: ‘they were terrified and bowed their faced to the ground’, Saint Luke tells us – they didn’t even have courage to look.”
But then “…the two men in dazzling clothes tell them something of crucial importance: ‘Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee… And they remembered his words’ (Lk 24:6,8). They are asked to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others (cf. Lk 24:9).” To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have traveled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future.”
And thus we’ve come full circle. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Appian Way has become the way to heaven, the way to happiness, the way to an abundant and new life! May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives too! Happy Easter!
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson
Bishop of Yakima