This article appeared last weekend in the Scottish Catholic Observer. The full text is here for those who missed the publication.
Now Easter is behind us, Jesus is risen and all is well with the world. I imagined what that first Easter was like. The followers of Jesus can happily go about spreading the word of the good news to the world. Well, that’s perhaps what we might expect but it was far from the truth. For a start the resurrection was a bit of a mystery to the apostles. The tomb was empty and there were strange stories of angels talking to people but what did it all mean? The apostles were waiting to be arrested. They were at a loss as to what they should do next.
Even the Jewish authorities were confused. They had a report from the guards at the tomb. The tomb was empty and an angel had appeared. According to Matthew, the Jewish elders paid the guards to say that the followers of Jesus had stolen the body away in the night. The confusion of the time seems to be carried forward in the Gospels. Matthew says that Jesus came to meet the women who had first come to the tomb. In Mark’s version the women went away saying nothing because they were afraid and Jesus appeared to Mary of Magdala later. Luke does not mention Jesus appearing to any of the women. John’s account is more detailed. He says that John and Peter went into the tomb first and saw an empty tomb. Later Mary of Magdala went in and saw two angels and then Jesus appeared to her.
If we think about the trauma the apostles had come through in just a few days and probably had little sleep in that time then the confusion and uncertainty they experienced seems reasonable. In short they felt lost and had no understanding of what had just happened. Far from being ready to spread the good news, they were intent on hiding and avoiding imprisonment.
It is interesting that Jesus chose to appear to Mary of Magdala first. There is no mention of Jesus appearing to his mother Mary. I wonder if he did. If I was a betting man I would put money on it. However, he did not appear to the apostles immediately. That day, we learn, two followers were on their way home to Emmaus and met a man on the road. It was Jesus although they did not recognise him. He explained the whole story, starting with Moses and pointed out the scriptural reference to the Messiah. It was only when they took him home with them and he broke bread with them that the suddenly recognised him and he vanished from their sight.
These two disciples went straight back to Jerusalem to report to the apostles. By this time the apostles knew that Christ had definitely risen from the dead. I find this story significant because of the passage;
“they had recognised him at the breaking of bread”
There seems to be a message for us here. If we want to find Jesus them we can do so at the ‘breaking of bread’, in the Eucharist. We live in a time in the western world where attendance at mass has fallen and fewer Catholics are receiving the Eucharist. When I made my first communion we had to fast from midnight before going to communion. The opportunities for receiving communion have increased since those days because the Church recognises the importance of giving us the opportunity to meet Christ frequently.
Jesus appeared to the apostles on a number of occasions. We read of Jesus coming to the apostles in their closed room when Thomas was not there and how Thomas doubted what the others told him. Jesus later came back to show Thomas the holes in his hands and his feet. Thomas thus earned the name ‘Doubting Thomas’. That’s all we hear about Thomas in the gospels but a few years ago I was in India and visited the basilica of Saint Thomas in Chennai. The church is built over the tomb of Thomas who was killed there. The spear head that killed him is on show. So, despite having doubted, Thomas went on to spread the good news to distant people.
When Jesus visited the apostles he breathed the Holy Spirit into them and gave them their mission and the power to forgive sins. Their mission was to spread the word of the gospel to all people. That is the mission of the Church and is as vital and as valid today as it was in those early days.
The apostles were still afraid. They had received the Holy Spirit but were still confused and didn’t really understand what they were being called to do. They were just ordinary working men. They never expected to be given such responsibility. How could they possibly be expected to go out to a hostile world and convert the people? It never really struck me that they were just like me. They had been chosen by Jesus himself and had been given the power of the Spirit but did not realise what they had. I wonder if we, baptised Christians, realise the power the Spirit gives to us.
Things changed at Pentecost. We can all recall the image of the apostles, gathered in a closed room, and suddenly a noise filed the whole house and something like tongues of fire came to rest on them. What could be more dramatic? The apostles were suddenly empowered and went out and began to speak to the crowds in Jerusalem. Everyone listening heard them in their own language.
That must have seemed incredible then. Even now we can’t comprehend such a thing. I have always rationalised this. These men were special. They had been given special powers. God can’t expect such things from believers today, surely? But He does.
The apostles didn’t receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They had already received the Spirit from Jesus. At Pentecost the Spirit activated them. He gave them the gifts they needed to perform the specific tasks they were set. What can that mean for us today? We received the Holy Spirit at Baptism and at Confirmation. We are expected to play our part in spreading the good news of the Gospel.
We sometimes feel that we are in a world that is hostile to our values and that it might be wiser to keep a low profile, hide our faith. The world the apostles found themselves in was far more hostile than our world today as we will see later. Will the Holy Spirit give each of us the power and strength he gave the apostles? When we look around us we see examples of people here who are willing to stand up for the values of their faith even though it might mean they will lose their job or face prosecution. In the Middle East we see people who are ready to give up their lives, facing barbaric treatment rather than deny their faith. Where do they get the strength to do that?
It seems to me that The Holy Spirit is the source of these things. When we need to stand up for our faith in what we say or in how we behave then we can call on the Spirit for all we need. There are plenty of devotional prayers to Jesus, Mary and favourite saints but the Holy Spirit is often forgotten. I think I’ll make a point of directing my prayers to the Paraclete when I find my faith waning. Perhaps if we all did then the Church would grow stronger.