The Cathedral of St Stephen
The Gospels are full of gaps and silences. There are so many things we would like to know but about which the evangelists say nothing. What did Jesus actually look like? What was he doing through all the years of his so called hidden life? And so on ad infinitum. No wonder James McCauley said of Jesus in the Gospels that “he spoke to the dust, the fishes and the Twelve as if they understood him equally, and told them nothing that they wished to know”. Because there is so much that we’re not told, the Apocryphal Gospels appear eventually to fill in the gaps and make the silences speak. They’re full of fantastic detail that takes us more into the world of fairy tale than into the more sober world of the Gospels.
When it comes to the key event of the Resurrection, we know what happened before it – Jesus was executed and laid in a tomb. There were eye-witnesses to both the death and the entombment. We also know that some disciples went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning and found it empty and then for many days encountered him who was dead but was now alive in some extraordinary and unexpected way. But we don’t know anything of what actually happened in the darkness of the tomb when Jesus was raised from the dead. This is one of the reasons why there’s such enduring interest in the Shroud of Turin: was there some tremendous burst of energy like a nuclear blast which caused the image of the dead Christ to remain on the shroud? Who knows?
In the end, such speculation goes nowhere. If the Gospels don’t tell us what happened, it’s not just because they didn’t know, but because they thought it didn’t really matter. What did really matter was what is reported in the Gospels – that Jesus did in fact die, he was in fact laid in the tomb, and he did in fact appear to the disciples. It was also important to see these events as the fulfilment of a divine plan reaching back to the very beginning and unfolding through all time until the first Easter. That’s the story we’ve heard in the Vigil this evening.
The Gospel accounts almost never satisfy our curiosity. They tell us little that we wish to know, but they tell us everything that we need to know. That’s because they seek not to satisfy curiosity but to stir faith. It’s faith alone that opens the eye to see the Risen Lord and that opens the ear to hear his voice.
Recognition of him isn’t immediate. Mary Magdalene at first thinks he’s the gardener, and recognises the Risen Lord only when he calls her by name. The disciples in their boat on the lake at first don’t recognise him on the beach. It’s only when John cries out: “It is the Lord” that Peter jumps into the water and swims ashore with the others following behind in the boat. So too the two disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognise Jesus at first. It’s only once he breaks the bread with them at journey’s end, in a clearly Eucharistic moment, that their eyes are opened and they recognise him.
Faith alone opens the eyes and the ears to see and hear him who has been raised from the dead. Faith alone opens up a whole new horizon of possibility within which the Resurrection of Jesus makes sense to the point where it becomes the pivot not only of my life and yours but of the whole of history.
Faith enables the encounter with Christ crucified and risen which is Christianity. In that encounter and only there, the human being discovers the full and magnificent truth of who God really is and who the human being really is. This discovery stirs a sense of amazement; and as Pope St John Paul II says in his first Encyclical Letter in 1979, “the name for that deep amazement…is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity” (Redemptor Hominis, 10).
Christianity then is an experience of deep amazement born of the encounter with the crucified and risen Lord; and into that experience we call those who are baptised and received into full communion with the Church this Easter night. The Church into which they are incorporated is the community of those who cry out with the first disciples, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25). Each of these new brothers and sisters has their own story of seeing the Lord, because each encounter with him is unique; and each of them has come to faith in him, which is why they have been able to see him.
Their initiation has been a journey, and the journey doesn’t end tonight. That’s because the encounter with the Lord crucified and risen is a never-ending journey, at least in this life. We can never say that we know of Jesus all that there is to know. The more we come to know of him, the more we see there is to know. In that sense, even those of us who were initiated long ago are neophytes of a kind. We have come to know much about Jesus, and we have come to know and love him deeply. But there is still in him an infinity to know and love. That’s why the experience of amazement will not end until that final moment, which we call heaven, when amazement will give birth to the ecstasy that knows no end.
Curiosity will never open the door to that, but faith will – the faith that lives with doubts and hesitations, uncertainties and questions, all of which are part of the journey of faith and each of which can lead to deeper faith, as they do for doubting Thomas (cf John 20:27-28).
Ours is a culture that finds faith difficult and prefers to trust in the works of reason – science and technology in particular – which implies that you have to choose between the two. Yet according to John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth” (Fides et Ratio, 1). You can’t fly with one wing; you need both.
The truth we are called to contemplate on this Easter night is the truth that life triumphs over death, light over darkness, love over violence. Rising on the wings of faith and reason, we stand before the Risen Lord, deeply amazed as we hear him say, “Peace be with you”. These are his first words after rising from the dead. He means by them that he has seen the worst and we have nothing to fear. “Do not be afraid”, he says. In dying on the Cross he has gone to the very bedrock of human destitution, to the heart of the horror where death, darkness and violence seem to have the victory. But in rising from the dead, Jesus proclaims forever another victory, his victory, which is why he can say, “Peace be with you. You have nothing to fear; your fears are a bluff”.
Hearing him this night, we place our faith in the Risen Lord, knowing that he who “spoke to the dust, the fishes and the Twelve as if they understood him equally”, the Lord who tells us nothing that we wish to know, tells us all that we need to know; and that is enough. Amen.