In reading the Resurrection chapters of the four Gospels, the differences between the accounts are very obvious.
Not one of the evangelists recounts the actual Resurrection. It is an event that is taking place within the mystery of God between Jesus and the Father; by its very nature, the resurrection event lies outside human experience.
What lessons can we learn about the Resurrection from each of the Gospel accounts, particularly from Matthew’s story that we hear proclaimed today?
Mark’s call to the cross
In the earliest Gospel account in Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 16), the last scene is a startling one … for the story ends with “[The women] came out and fled from the tomb, for they were possessed by fear and trembling, and they said nothing to anyone” (16:8).
The most striking aspect of Mark’s ending is that we never encounter the Risen Lord. Instead, we see an awe-inspiring, almost eerie scene.
In the darkness of early morning, the women arrive at the tomb to accomplish a nearly impossible task. These women are the only ones who follow Jesus to the foot of the cross and to the tomb. They find the tomb opened and empty, and are greeted by a heavenly figure who gives them a commission: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you” (16:7).
Mark’s Resurrection account is meant to disturb the Christian reader; to undo the ease that makes one forget that the call to discipleship is the call to the cross. Readers of Mark’s account are invited to view their lives in the shadow of the cross.
Matthew’s living Christ
Matthew tells the story of the resurrection in four scenes: the women’s experience at the tomb (28:1-7); their short encounter with the risen Lord (28:8-10); the Jewish leaders’ attempt to suppress the story (28:11-15); the appearance to the disciples in Galilee (28:16-20). The final scene, ending with the Great Commission (28:19-20), stands on its own as a programmatic conclusion to the entire Gospel.
The women present in Matthew’s Resurrection chapter do not witness the Resurrection. They do experience the earthquake, the appearance of the angel, and the emptiness of the tomb — all of which are signs or traces of divine activity that has brought these things about.
Matthew literally makes Jesus present in the last scene of the Gospel on the mountain where Jesus had directed the disciples to go (28:16-20). At the end of the Gospel, he points us back to the first programmatic sermon of Jesus on the mountain in Galilee (5:1-7:21).
Matthew’s meek and humble Jesus is the teacher as well as the example of meekness and humility. In revising Mark’s Gospel, Matthew deliberately completes the picture of Jesus and of the Christian life.
The bleak image and invitation of the cross and the dead Jesus are filled out with a living and present Jesus, whose words, reflected upon the Scriptures of Israel, offer a consoling and learnable “way” for those disciples willing to learn. Matthew issues the call to learn of the meek and humble Jesus.
The Easter chapter of Luke’s Gospel (24), like a beautiful symphony, presents us with a biblically oriented pastoral practice and distinct way of Christian living. In the first movement (25:1-12), God alone breaks open a helpless situation. In the second movement of the marvelous story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus (25:13-35), God, in the person of Jesus, accompanies people on their journeys through despair. The stories of the third movement (25:36-53) lead people into an experience of community.
John’s Risen Lord
John tells of appearances of the Risen Lord in both Jerusalem and Galilee. The resurrection stories of the fourth Gospel are a series of encounters between Jesus and his followers that reveal diverse faith reactions.
Whether these encounters are with Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the disciples or Thomas, the whole scenario reminds us that in the range of belief there are different degrees of readiness and different factors that cause people to come to faith.
A new dimension of existence
Benedict XVI writes about “The Nature of Jesus’ Resurrection and Its Historical Significance” in “Jesus of Nazareth Part 2: Holy Week — From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, 2011).
I would like to highlight several points made by the Pope in this masterful text: “Jesus did not simply return to normal biological life as one who, by the laws of biology, would eventually have to die again. […]
“Jesus is not a ghost (‘spirit’). In other words, he does not belong to the realm of the dead but is somehow able to reveal himself in the realm of the living. […]
“The encounters with the Risen Lord are not the same as mystical experiences, in which the human spirit is momentarily drawn aloft out of itself and perceives the realm of the divine and eternal, only to return then to the normal horizon of its existence. Mystical experience is a temporary removal of the soul’s spatial and cognitive limitations” (pp. 272-273).
Benedict XVI continues: “[The resurrection] is a historical event that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it. Perhaps we may draw upon analogical language here, inadequate in many ways, yet still able to open up a path toward understanding: as already anticipated in the first section of this chapter, we could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence” (p. 273).
He added: “As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless has its origin within history and up to a certain point still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within history. Therefore it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new kind” (p. 275).
Fathoming a mystery
In our highly technological world, the reality of the Resurrection becomes increasingly difficult to fathom. So many spend their lives explaining it away rather than probing the depths of its mystery. And they try to do this alone, separated from a believing community of Christians, locked in the prison of self and of ideas, frozen before a computer screen as they try to fathom what happened on Easter morning.
Some people state quite frankly that the whole story is simply out of date. But the Resurrection is not a matter of the head, of theory and ideas, but a matter of the heart that can only be experienced and learned through a community’s worship and liturgy. To be fully experienced and grasped, the Resurrection requires an environment of hauntingly beautiful music, of smoke and incense, bread and wine, murmurs of greeting and shouts of joy, dazzling colors and most of all, three-dimensional bodies of real people, even those who aren’t necessarily “regulars” of our parish communities, who gather together every year to hear the Easter proclamation.
One doesn’t sit at a computer and tap out “Jesus is risen.” It has to be performed and enacted. If the Resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence, God wouldn’t have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. The Resurrection was an event transacted between God the Father and God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Not a single Gospel tells us how it happened. We don’t know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and squinting with wonder against the dawn of Easter morning in a garden in Jerusalem.
Finding the words
How shall we find words for the Resurrection? How can we give expression to the conquest of death and the harrowing of hell and the washing that has joined us to God’s life? There are no words — there are only the wrong words — metaphors, chains of images, verbal icons — that invite us into a mystery beyond words.
For four years I lived in the Holy City of Jerusalem and hundreds of times I visited the remains of the Church building that houses the place of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. It is truly holy ground for Christians, and being there never failed once to move me. That old building is truly a microcosm of our own lives, our hearts and our Church.
In the midst of the dark, dirty and chaotic Holy Sepulcher Basilica is the tomb of Jesus, a shrine to the risen Christ. But he is not there. All around that tomb are the remnants of 2,000 years of dreadfully human corruption. Nevertheless, it is the most important shrine and holy place for Christians. Christ is risen from the dead!
At Calvary, and elsewhere in the Holy Land, corruption seems so rampant … but God shall be victorious, because 70 feet away from Calvary there is a tomb that is empty.
And there is also another startling truth about that Church and the moments that it commemorates: Every single one of us has within us a shrine to the Risen Christ. That shrine is our first love for him, and him alone.
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Do we truly live as children of the light, of the Living One? The Resurrection of Jesus is the sign that God is ultimately going to win.
In the midst of all the chaos found in the Holy Sepulcher building, I found that if I knelt long enough in some corner of the Church amidst religious groups seemingly at war with each other, disquiet disappeared and I often experienced a strange peace and deep joy and consolation because of the resurrection of the man who was God’s Son and our Savior. The only way to discern, detect and discover the presence of the Risen Lord is on one’s knees, in the midst of the chaos of the Church and the world.
Jesus’ victory over death belongs to the Church’s ongoing pastoral and sacramental life and its mission to the world. The Church is the community of those who have the competence to recognize Jesus as the Risen Lord. It specializes in discerning the Risen One. As long as we remain in dialogue with Jesus, our darkness will give way to dawn, and we will become “competent” for witness. In an age that places so much weight on competency, we would do well to focus every now and then on our competence to discern the Resurrection.
What is the Resurrection? Benedict XVI explains it so well in “Jesus of Nazareth”: “It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him.
“And yet — is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great?” (p. 276).
[The readings for Easter Sunday are Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9 or Matthew 28:1-10 or Luke 24:13-35]