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The first witness to the resurrection…

Benjamin God & Faith

If you have debated or discussed the Christian faith, one thing becomes clear sooner or later: the whole faith hinges on the Resurrection. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, you might talk about a “Christian philosophy of life” or about a “Christian theory of the world”, but you would have to admit that the world continues to exist as it always has. Christianity hinges on the idea that in Jesus Christ, God has begun a new creation, and the Resurrection was the first step in transforming the whole world by transforming individual human lives. Islam, Buddhism and many other religions offer to teach you how to live the life you were born with, but Christianity claims to give you a new life, “eternal life”, which comes from the Resurrection of Jesus.

How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Our first evidence is the empty tomb, but that alone does not prove the Resurrection, because His body could have been stolen. Our conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead is based on the testimony of people who encountered Him.

This Easter, as the liturgy has presented the different accounts of the Resurrection, I noticed that only a few favorite and cherished stories have been passed on in detail. The Gospel of Mark records a very clear and simple sequence: Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, then Jesus appeared to two disciples walking in the country, then Jesus appeared to the Eleven “as they sat at table” (Mark 16:9-18).

The Gospel of John gives much more detail about the appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), and it makes me think that Mary must have told this story over and over again to everyone who asked her about it. In the Gospel of Luke, we find much more detail about how Jesus talked with the disciples walking in the country on the road to Emmaus. This Gospel also adds a very interesting detail: when these two disciples went back to Jerusalem, they were told “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). This detail is confimed in the account that St. Paul puts down in writing, which seems to be a kind of creed formula that had been passed down as an official record: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthinas 15:3-5) Cephas is the Aramaic version of the name Peter (which is Greek).

What struck me this as I heard these readings is that after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, but before He appeared to the Eleven, he came and talked to Simon Peter alone. Peter must have told the Eleven that He had seen Jesus, and that Mary Magdalene was telling the truth, but Peter did not give details of what happened. It is possible that he shared his experience with a few who were very close to him, such as John, because it seems that John and Peter were pretty close. Yes, Jesus appeared, but it was too personal to tell everyone what happened. There is a profound connection to the truth here. Stories are easy to make up, but our real experiences are often too difficult to capture in words. For me, the silence on these important points is a sign of how personal these experiences truly were.

There is at least one more experience of Jesus that was not written down. I had heard the speculation that Jesus first appeared to His mother, Mary, when He rose from the dead. I used to think this was just a sweet and pious thought, until I discovered that it was confirmed in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. I consider Teresa to be a reliable source: not only was she a saint, but she was a woman who was always careful to get the story right, and never wanted to exaggerate or report things she was not sure were true. She wrote that Jesus had shared this with her:

He told me that immediately after His resurrection He went to see our Lady because she then had great need and that the pain she experienced so absorbed and transpierced her soul that he did not return immediately to herself to rejoice in that joy…But what must have been that transpiercing of the Blessed Virgin’s soul! He also said that He had remained a long time with her because it was necessary in order to console her.

(from The Collected Words of St. Teresa of Avila, Washington 1987, Spiritual Testimony n.12, pp. 390-391).

I was struck to think of the fact that there are so many stories from the life of Jesus that was never written down or passed on. I presume it is true that Mary was the first to see her Son risen from the dead, but she never talked about her experience, or she only talked about it with people who were very close to her. Peter also never talked about his encounter with Jesus, even though he was willing to say it had happened.

In fact, in the end it is not the qantity of testimony, or even the quality (are all the details in order?) that proves the reality of what happened. The jumbled, slightly disorgnized accounts that are a little hard to connect is really how things are reported when they happen.

We should not be concered that we are missing anything important in these “missing” stories, though, because we can (and often do) experience Jesus for oursleves. This is the whole foundation of Christianity, Jesus has risen, Jesus lives with the Father and, through the Church, Jesus is working in the world. Through the Church, we can come to encounter Jesus Christ, and not only can we encounter Him, but the power of the resurrection can flow into our lives and can begin to transform them. Because Jesus lives with the Father and comes to us through the Church, we have our own encounters with the power and love of God through Him. The stories written in the Bible don’t even begin to collect the experiences of Jesus that have happened since the Resurrection…and are happening today +