Becoming Easter witnesses

Have you ever wondered what it was like for the first disciples to see Jesus in the light of the Resurrection?

Imagine being inside a dimly lit, windowless room and then suddenly walking outside into the brightest part of the day. The sunlight is all around you; everything is bright. By reflex, you close your eyes to protect them. You try squinting, maybe even using your hand as a visor to cast a little shadow on your now teary, hypersensitive eyes. You may see a blurry figure here and another there, but you can’t focus or gaze at anything. You alternate between blindness and misperception.

From the Gospel testimonies, the first disciples’ experience of seeing the Risen Christ was pretty much like this. In fact, it would be better to call it unseeing.

Witnesses

John and Luke especially are keen on establishing this motif. Consider these four episodes:

Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning: “[Mary] turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus” (Jn 20:14).

On the Sea of Tiberius: “When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus” (Jn 21:4).

On the road to Emmaus: “Jesus himself drew near and walked with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).

In the Upper Room: “[H]e stood in their midst ... But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Lk 24:36-37).

Every time the Risen Christ appears to his disciples, they cannot see him, even when they see something. But in each instance, a change occurs, and they suddenly see.

We might be tempted to think that something about Jesus suddenly changes so he becomes recognizable, but in fact the Gospels attest something else. It is the disciples who move — or rather, they are moved. Yes, Jesus acts in each instance to bring about the change, but what unlocks vision and moves the disciples from a place of unseeing to a place of seeing and recognition is a change within themselves: Mary hears Jesus call her name. The seafaring disciples receive their calling again in the same way they had before. On the way to Emmaus, Jesus teaches the disciples the Scriptures before feeding them with the bread he blesses and breaks. In the Upper Room, Jesus gives peace and shows his wounds and forgives and commissions them.

With each of these actions, it is as if the disciples’ eyes grow accustomed to the light of day, and they see.

As the disciples see

As they become capable of seeing, the disciples no longer are limited by what they wanted to see or what their dim expectations had prepared them to see — now, they see Jesus as he is, in all his glory. They change; Jesus is the one who changes them.

St. Thomas captures what each of them has come to see in their various encounters: that Jesus is “my Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). Not only do they see him, but they also become his witnesses. They tell others who he is.

Easter is the time to become witnesses. For disciples today, being changed into a witness is no less demanding or dramatic than it was for those first disciples. It requires a change in vision, moving past dim expectations, becoming accustomed to Christ’s light.

This is painful at first — in fact, it has to be. We grow comfortable with wanting too little, and we confine ourselves to our own preferred ways of seeing things, which is like being holed up in a windowless room where we don’t realize how dark it is until we walk out into the light of day. To become witnesses means being shocked into seeing the dazzling beauty of Christ and proclaiming to others both what we have seen and how we see in this new light.

As the disciples tell

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus enact the basic pattern of witnesses: They are encountered, they learn to see, and then they tell. “So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them. ... Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:33, 35).

In Easter, the penance and longing that marked Lent give way to the duty of joy and proclamation. At first, this might seem easier than the preceding Lenten practices, but in truth it is more difficult and demanding. How do you tell others that you have glimpsed what matters most and that this has affected the way you see everything? That’s what it means to become a witness to Christ, who is himself the light by which disciples see.

The way to learn how to do this is not to try to do everything all at once. Instead, we learn this craft of witnessing to the grace of Christ in our lives the way we learn everything else: by practicing small, basic skills to which we grow more accustomed. For disciples to become witnesses, this means practicing the skills of storytelling, and to make our storytelling about encounters with grace (see sidebar above).

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of the book “ Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace that Illumine Our Lives” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).

7 Principles for Crafting a Story of Grace
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Stories of grace are sometimes dramatic and sometimes simple tales of particular experiences, relationships, obstacles, sufferings, joys and even epiphanies by which those whom the Lord has looked upon in love have begun learning to see themselves — and in some way, the world — in God’s light. In my book “Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace that Illuminate Our Lives” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), I offer excerpts from nine stories of grace. These stories reveal just how diverse the settings for grace may be, for Christ enters into every aspect of our human condition to bring the light of his love. In each case, seeing in the light of Christ requires a change in the storytellers themselves, and therefore in the listeners.