A recent post on Psychology Today’s blog asked, “Jesus Who?” The author suggested that Jesus never existed, claiming “it took a long time before a hodgepodge of ancient legends, savior cults, pagan rituals and hero myths were all strung together to form what is generally accepted as the life and death narrative of Jesus Christ.”
A pithier example of historical illiteracy and chronological snobbery would be hard to find. Yes, some scholars used to claim the person of Jesus was created from piecing together Greek, Roman and Mithraic mythologies. And some said the Gospels were written a hundred years or longer after Jesus lived. But those theories fell apart in the early to mid-20th century as it became even more evident how trustworthy, historically grounded and rooted in Jewish culture were the Gospels and other early Christian writings.
What does this have to do with Easter, the greatest feast of the Church? Today’s epistle, by St. Paul, states: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Easter proclamation — Christ is risen from the dead! — was not, for Paul and his readers, a matter of wishful thinking or elaborate mythologies but of truth. Either the Resurrection happened, or it did not. Period.
Today’s Gospel reading describes Mary Magdalene, Peter and John entering the empty tomb on Easter morning. John concludes his Gospel by emphasizing the veracity of his witness: “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24).
Today’s New Testament readings — including those for an afternoon or evening Mass (Lk 24:13-35) — present a remarkable picture of faith rooted in real experiences and historical actions. Taken in chronological order, there is first the account of the disciples visiting the empty tomb. There is surprise, fear, confusion; Mary Magdalene weeps (Jn 20:11), the disciples hide for fear of their lives (Jn 20:19), and Thomas doubts (Jn 20:25). John wrote that he “saw and believed,” but admitted the disciples “did not yet understand the Scripture.”
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus recounts the gloomy puzzlement of followers of Jesus who were not sure what to think or do. They walked and talked at length with Jesus, who appeared as a stranger. But when he gave them Eucharist, their “eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Lk 24:30-31). A transformation began, one that cannot be explained adequately by clever tales or mere reason but is, nonetheless, grounded in historical fact and personal experience.
The transformation was dramatically manifested at Pentecost. Peter, who only weeks earlier had publicly denied the Lord, was suddenly preaching the Resurrection in the middle of Jerusalem (see Acts 2).
The reading from Acts 10 is from Peter’s sermon to the centurion, Cornelius. He testified: “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.” No mention of Greek gods, but proclamation of “the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.” Christ is risen!
Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.