“How can I lay open before you the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection, the saving grace of his cross and of his three days’ death?” asked St. John Chrysostom in a Holy Saturday homily. “For each and every event that happened to our Savior is an outward sign of the mystery of our redemption.” This mystery isn’t an event that can’t be known; rather, it’s an event whose meaning and power cannot be fully plumbed. The mystery of the empty tomb is not a puzzle to be solved, but a saving truth to be proclaimed.
This has always been confusing and controversial. This is understandable, for many people feel the story of Easter seems too good to be true. Also, if it is true, it demands a radical and transforming change in perspective, which is one reason some try to turn the Resurrection into a “spiritual” event whose meaning differs according to the needs of the individual. Some insist, for instance, the Gospel accounts depict a shaken community finding solace in a shared narrative that is not meant to be historical and objectively true, but internal and subjective.
However, the vast majority of people are not willing to completely change their lives, and to even die, for a consoling story rooted in wishful self-deception. There is also the grounded, historical nature of the Gospel accounts, which depict the disciples acting as we would expect they would after Jesus’ death and then the discovery of his empty tomb. Throughout the three years of Jesus’ ministry, the disciples often misunderstood the words and works of their master; he regularly had to explain and interpret for them. This was especially true of his words about his approaching passion, death and resurrection.
This confusion is deftly indicated by John, who writes that when Mary of Magdala went to the tomb “it was still dark.” She, like the others, was in the dark about what had happened and what it meant; she immediately assumed someone had stolen Jesus’ body. When Peter and John arrived at the empty tomb, the head apostle rushed past the younger (and faster) apostle and saw the burial cloths. “Then the other disciple also went in,” John writes of himself, “the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.”
That belief was an instance of light penetrating the darkness. And so the transformation began, culminating on Pentecost with the power of the Holy Spirit filling the upper room with tongues of fire and setting the newborn Church aflame with grace. How else to explain Peter’s bold sermon on that day and also later, when speaking to the centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert?
Notice that the head apostle, in preaching to a clear-eyed Roman soldier, did not appeal to subjective experience or use emotional ploys, but to actual experience and firsthand knowledge. “We are witnesses,” Peter said, “of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” And after Jesus rose from the grave, he appeared “not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
We see, then, the reality of the Resurrection and the reliability of the witnesses. And also, as St. Paul writes, the responsibility each of us has been given: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.