The splendor of Easter is rightly reflected in the decorative elegance of even the humblest parish church. Budding tulips, blossoming azaleas, blooming hydrangeas and emblematic lilies accompany the brilliant candles, fragrant incense and solemn rites that confirm the central mystery of Christianity. Indeed, Christ has risen! The seriousness of the Last Supper and the severity of Good Friday have yielded to the cheering gladness of Easter Sunday. The return of Christ from the grave gives reassuring hope to all believers and even to much of mankind that the challenges and struggles of this life can yield to happiness and fulfillment in this life as well as in the next.
But the confidence that two thousand years of Easter morning services have instilled in Christians throughout the world is far from evident in the reaction of those first Christians on the initial Easter Sunday. Especially in St. Mark’s Gospel, there is much evidence of hesitancy, perplexity and bafflement on behalf of Christ’s closest followers. Verse 8 of St. Mark’s final chapter reads: “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Verses 9, 10, and 11 state: “When he had risen, early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told his companions who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.” Verses 12 and 13 offer, “After this he appeared in another form to two of them walking along on their way to the country. They returned and told the others; but they did not believe them either.” And finally an exasperated Jesus has had enough of his incredulous followers as verse 14 indicates: “Later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised.”
Certainly the resurrection of Jesus was more than challenging for his early disciples and followers. The resurrection was then and remains now a unique event. To expect these religious novices to grasp that which two millennia of theologians have struggled to explain is clearly expecting too much. The disciples had already expressed their confusion on the matter when Christ had predicted his Death and Resurrection after the Transfiguration: “They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” might mean.” St. Paul’s learned audience at Athens even had their misgivings, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again on this matter.” So the significance of the Resurrection was not to be absorbed on a single Sunday morning.
Jesus was always a man of the Holy Spirit. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, led into the desert by Spirit, rejoiced in the Spirit, and prayed in the Spirit. But before the Resurrection the Spirit was evident only as a personal, inner privilege for Jesus, interiorly guiding his every step. After the Resurrection the Spirit is seen not only to pervade Jesus’ soul but also his body. The resurrected Christ was the same but changed. He was still flesh and blood; but he could appear and disappear at will. This bodily spiritualization of the Risen Christ was the first step in the spiritualization of his disciples, his first followers, and the whole believing community. Confusion over the true significance of Christ’s resurrection would linger among the disciples until Pentecost when Christ would bestow his risen Spirit on the gathered infant Church. Only then would Peter and the disciples burst open the shutters of the Upper Room, forsake their bewilderment, and proclaim the Good News of universal salvation through Christ, now made available to all mankind.
Christ rose in order that all mankind may rise. The Spirit of Jesus permeated Christ’s risen body in order that the Spirit might eventually fill what has come to be called Christ’s Mystical Body, his Church. Indeed Easter anticipates that day when “Christ will be all in all.” The sharing of Christ’s own inner life, the Holy Spirit, with his first followers and eventually with all believers was heralded first of all by his own bodily Resurrection from the grave and then sealed by his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. Easter is the promise; Pentecost is the fulfillment — a fulfillment still in progress. Modern day believers have the thankful advantage of twenty centuries of ponderings on the Resurrection. Now the vast scale of the Paschal Mystery should indeed be clear. Modern day Easter observances should be all the more festive!