In the responsorial psalm, we pray, “This day was made by the Lord: we rejoice and are glad.” Do we really mean what we say? Can we share that same joy of the Israelites when they were set free from Egypt, or with the early Christians when they encountered the Risen Lord? If we are to share their joy, we must enter into their experience to be able to truly rejoice with them. If we cannot, it is because we have no real experience of liberation and deliverance. Isn’t this true in any event in life? If we are not part of the story, the history, we cannot feel with those who are rejoicing or mourning. When we see a tragedy, we will feel with the people who are suffering. Otherwise, it is just an event.
So, if we are to connect with the sentiments of the Israelites we must know their context. They were in slavery, suffering harsh treatment from the Pharaoh. Through the intervention of Moses and the miracles worked through him by the Lord, they were eventually delivered from the power of the Egyptians. They were set free from slavery, walked across the waters of the Red Sea dry-shod, and given new life and new purpose. This was the context of the psalm when they sang the song of thanksgiving and rejoicing. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love has no end. The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; his right hand raised me up. I shall not die, I shall live and recount his deeds.” It was an unimaginable experience of being liberated and redeemed from the slavery of the Egyptians and the powerful Egyptian army.
In the same vein, we must seek to understand the joy of the Church in celebrating Easter, the feast of the resurrection. Those outside the Church will never understand what is so great about Easter. For them, Easter is just another day. This is because they think our faith in the resurrection of Jesus is a myth. Even among Catholics and Christians, what excitement do we have when we think of Easter? Are we overjoyed, like the early disciples when the Lord rose from the dead? Perhaps not as well. Again, we do not have the context. We might have the doctrines but we do not have the experience. We have not seen the Risen Lord. We have not even seen the Jesus of Nazareth in His ministry, not even His passion and death. What we do not see, we do not feel. So, how can we ever rejoice as they did?
Again, we must recapture the context of their experience of the Crucified Lord. St Peter said, “God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil.” For the disciples, Jesus was truly a man of God and the anointed One. They saw His miracles and they were inspired by His teaching. They were edified by His life and inspired by His love and compassion for others. His tragic death was totally shocking. So we can imagine how distraught they were, thinking that Jesus, their political liberator, was killed by the Romans. All their hopes about the establishment of the kingdom of God as preached by the Lord were crushed. What was a great hope became a shattered dream! They were totally disillusioned.
But when they heard that the Lord was risen, it was yet another unthinkable experience. Again, we can imagine the excitement of the disciples of Jesus. It began with Mary Magdalene who was in tears after discovering the loss of Jesus’ body. After which, Peter ran to the tomb with John and the body was not found. But it was too good to be true that Jesus had been raised. We read that “till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Indeed, it took them some time before they could grasp the fact of the resurrection. It was too far-fetched and amazing.
Perhaps this is so for most of us as well. We say that the Lord is risen. Is this what we are celebrating? Is it true? Do we really believe? Are we happy? Do we feel liberated? Or are we just repeating what others are saying. If we are, then the signs can tell. We would be excited about Easter. We would be ready to announce Jesus as our Risen Lord to the world. The truth is that, like the women, we are silent because we have not yet seen the Risen Lord. Our encounter with Him is not a personal encounter. For many of us, it is just a testimony, part of the scriptures, but “of him, we have not seen!”
In the case of the apostles, upon encountering the Risen Lord, they could not resist telling the whole world about Christ. “Now we are those witnesses – we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.” They had a first-hand encounter of the Risen Lord. Hence, their testimony was convincing because they knew the Risen Lord was the same Jesus of Nazareth, now risen and transfigured. It was not a concocted story but a personal encounter with Him. Indeed, they underscored the fact that they ate and drank with Him. He was not a ghost. Only a body can eat. Spirits do not.
Their witnessing of Christ was not just the fact that He was raised. More importantly, they also drew out the implications of a criminal condemned to death for claiming to be king, and now raised from the dead by the power of God. If the Father had vindicated Jesus in the resurrection, He was at the same time, putting His divine seal on all that Jesus had said and done. This means that the words of Jesus were identical with the Father. As such, to reject Jesus is to reject the Father. The conclusion therefore is that Jesus is the one who was appointed by the Father. St Peter said, “he has ordered us to proclaim this to his people and to tell them that God has appointed him to judge everyone, alive or dead.”
So, how then can we enter into this Easter Experience? Since we do not have the privilege of encountering the Risen Lord as the early disciples did, our access to Him is via the testimony of the Church. In the gospel, we read that like John, we must defer to the judgment of the Church, represented by St Peter as the head. Although John reached the tomb first, he was not the one who announced the resurrection. It was the task of Peter as the head of the apostolic college.
By believing in their testimony, we too can enter into that experience. Without faith, we cannot see the Risen Lord. Faith is the key to entering into the Easter experience. We must be ready to let go of the intellectual and cultural prejudices of the Jewish leaders. Even Mary Magdalene was not able to see the Lord initially because she was looking for Jesus of Nazareth. She did not yet have the faith to see the Risen Lord. We too can allow our limited knowledge and study, ego and pride to prevent us from being open to the reality of the Risen Lord simply because we cannot explain how it was possible. Intellectuals often cannot encounter Him because they want to reduce God to their own level of understanding instead of admitting that the mysteries of God can only be revealed by God Himself. Indeed, in conducting retreats, I always find that those who use too much of their intellect often have great difficulty experiencing the power of God at work in their lives. Only when they humbled themselves before God, was the Lord then able to work in their lives and reveal His love to them through a miracle, a healing, a vision or receiving the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, it is because our sins hinder us from being receptive to God’s grace. When we are angry, bitter, resentful and proud, we cannot see the Risen Lord. Our sins will blind us from the light of the Risen Christ. This is why St Paul urges us, to “celebrate the feast, then, by getting rid of all the old yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The yeast of sin darkens our intellect and causes us to look inwards instead of outwards. Our intellectual pride finds excuses and justifications to reject Christ, lest in accepting Him, we have to give up our sins and the life of slavery to the Evil One.
Following the surrender of our sins, especially of pride, we must follow the way of St John who loved the Lord. We read that “the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed.” Real believing does not come from physical seeing but the seeing of the eyes of love. Intimacy causes one to believe without physical sight. Indeed, when there is love, no proof is needed. We take the word of one whom we love for granted without the need to verify. But when there is no love, we will doubt whatever the person says. So too, our faith in the Risen Christ is strengthened by love that comes from prayer.
Finally, the experience of the Risen Lord is real when we experience a true liberation from fear, anxiety and sin, which comes from living in Christ. St Paul wrote, “Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” Now, we no longer live for this earth and this life alone but we live for the fullness of life in love and service which is our share in Christ’s resurrection.