“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Hiddenness is a theme that runs through all three of this morning’s Scripture passages. It might seem odd that on Easter Sunday we would reflect upon someone being hidden. After all, Easter Sunday morning is about the Risen Jesus appearing and dispelling doubts and fear. Nonetheless, consider how the Scripture passages focus our attention.
Throughout the entire season of Easter, the First Reading comes from the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles. This is a departure from the usual practice at Sunday Mass, where the First Reading comes from the Old Testament. But the Easter Season, in an important sense, focuses upon the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Acts of the Apostles is the first book of Church history ever written, authored by St. Luke the Evangelist.
Today’s First Reading is not from the beginning of the book of Acts. Rather, it’s taken from the tenth of Acts’ 28 chapters: in other words, about a third of the way through Luke’s account of the early Church. At this point in Acts, the Church’s mission begins to reach out beyond Jewish Christians to the Gentiles. It’s to a group of Gentiles that Peter speaks in the First Reading.
In the midst of preaching, Peter says about Jesus: “‘This man God raised on the third day and granted that He be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance’”. Following His Resurrection, Jesus was not visible “to all the people, but” only to “the witnesses chosen by God”.
Why is that? During the forty days between His Resurrection and Ascension, wouldn’t more people have believed in His power over sin and death if the Risen Jesus had appeared openly and directly to large crowds of people, instead of choosing only certain persons to witness Him? Wouldn’t the Church have been off to a stronger and swifter start? If the Risen Jesus had appeared to the high priest Caiaphas and to Pontius Pilate, wouldn’t even they have become disciples of the Risen Christ?
Before trying to answer these questions, consider this morning’s Gospel passage. It comes from St. John’s account of the Gospel. Throughout John, the evangelist uses double meanings and seeming paradoxes, so it shouldn’t surprise us that on Easter Sunday morning, Jesus is nowhere to be seen! That fact prepares us for the contrasting responses of Mary of Magdala and the Beloved Disciple to seeing the tomb empty.
Mary of Magdala sees the empty tomb “early in the morning, while it was still dark”. She then cries to Peter and the Beloved Disciple: “‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put Him.’” The darkness of early morning symbolizes Mary of Magdala’s lack of sight: that is, her lack of faith.
The Beloved Disciple, on the other hand, sees what is hidden. He sees the empty tomb, the burial cloths and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head, but he also sees something beyond them. Beyond what he sees with his eyes is what he sees with faith. In the midst of loss, the Beloved Disciple sees through the light of faith, and believes.
We might also recall here the conclusion of Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Abraham—our “father in faith”—explains that the rich man’s brothers would not believe and change their lives even “if someone should rise from the dead” [Lk 16:31]. Those who are not open to the gift of faith will always find a reason not to believe, even to the point of denying what their own senses tell them. However, history doesn’t allow us to know whether Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas would have believed in the Risen Jesus had He appeared to them directly.
But the larger point is that the Risen Jesus didn’t appear to the multitudes because He didn’t need to, for the same reason that He doesn’t appear to us in that way this morning, on Easter Sunday 2017. The Risen Jesus has chosen a different way: the way of the Church.
Earlier in the chapter from which the First Reading is taken, the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter and sends him into the home of the Gentile Cornelius [Acts 10:19-20]. There Peter gives the testimony we hear in the First Reading. Immediately following the events of this passage, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word” [Acts 10:44].
As it was in Acts, so Jesus wills for the whole of the Church’s history, unto the end of the age. Consider the dynamics at work here: the Holy Spirit sends Jesus’ disciples to proclaim the Faith to others. The same Holy Spirit engenders faith among those listening to Jesus’ disciples, and bestows the divine virtue of faith upon the elect when they’re baptized. These newly baptized, in turn, are chosen by God to further witness of Jesus.
The Risen Jesus chose not to appear to the multitudes between His Resurrection and Ascension because He’s not about appearances, or numbers. During these forty days, Jesus didn’t start building His Church. He left that work to His chosen witnesses for the ages. But He prepared the foundation by choosing His builders, equipping them with the tools of faith, and preparing them for the Gift of the Holy Spirit.