by Rev. Dr Frank O’Loughlin PP
The death of Jesus was not the only death that occurred on Good Friday! Something else died with him: the hopes and expectations of those who had become his disciples. In essence, the group around him came to an end with his death as that group that had its origin and meaning in him. They were all still alive as individuals and maybe even as a group of friends, but what had given them their purpose and an identity beyond themselves was gone with him.
The kingdom he talked about had died with him. For the moment, they were held together by fear and by the emptiness his absence left among them. There was no body for the women to anoint. The empty tomb soon lost interest for them: some of them went to see it, but there was little point to that. He was not there, even as a dead body. So the tomb faded into the background. His death was their death as his disciples.
They began to be roused and raised up by a word: a word from white-robed messengers of God, who sent them away from the tomb; words from women among them sounding hope, which they did not know how to believe.
It was all very precarious! There was nothing to get their hands on, no fulfilment of their earlier vivid and very concrete expectations of a kingdom, no obvious evidence of Jesus that they could show off to others. What did they have? Words sending them to discover ‘One who is risen, the one who is not here’.
Then it began to happen! They began to recognise him still among them—almost slipping in and out among them.
Two of them going to Emmaus, downcast, with their expectations dashed, are met on the road by a stranger who speaks words that set their hearts afire, who leads them to see. He leads them by starting with Moses and taking them through the Old Testament to see how it all leads up to ‘himself’. Their eyes are opened at the breaking of the bread and they recognise him. But he then disappears from sight!
So they came to recognise him strangely among them. So did they find their unity, their identity and meaning as his disciples by this discovery of him among them in a way unrecognisable according to their earlier expectations. It was different, strange, outside their expectations and plans.
They had to discover the different Jesus. They had to come to the discovery of this more tenuous, less obvious presence of Christ among them by giving up their very concrete, power-orientated expectations and plans.
He had been raised out of death by the Father, and he now raised ‘his own’ out of the death they had died with him.
He raised up a body for himself, the community of his disciples, his Church. This frail community, formed from the soil of the earth, he raised up by breathing his Spirit into it. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate and bring about this mystery of being his body, but it is most especially at the Easter Vigil that this wonderful mystery finds expression.
It is no accident that the Missal gives the instruction that the Easter Vigil is to be celebrated between the sunset of Holy Saturday and sunrise of Easter Sunday. It is to be celebrated during that blessed night that saw Christ rising from the dead. That night is on the one hand just night, but on the other hand also symbolically, liturgically, all that night and darkness can mean for human beings.
It is in the darkness that we gather in expectation of the rising of the sun who will shatter all darkness, the rising of that Son who has known the darkness with us and whose rising out of death will filter his light through all our darkness.
But we cannot see this victory, this unadvertised, quiet, patient victory—it has to be believed in! We have to discover this gift. We have to allow our hearts to be spoken to by his word and so come to recognise him in the breaking of the bread.
As we gather for the Easter Vigil, we begin following the light through the darkness as we are called upon to recognise that light with the simple words ‘The Light of Christ’, to which we respond, ‘Thanks be to God.’ For a long time, that seemed to me to be an insufficient response to such words. But how else could we put all our response into words? In heightened moments of appreciation, when words fail us, we often just say ‘Thank you.’
We are then taken through the Scriptures, where, beginning with creation, we see how all things lead up to himself. We are led again to proclaim that he is risen! This is the heart of this community: to know in faith that he is risen. This is the joy-filling news that we, such earthen vessels, hold for all the world to come to know. This is not just our rejoicing alone, but we call ‘all creation’ to exult ‘round God’s throne!’ We call upon the earth to rejoice as ‘radiant in the brightness of your king’. We call on our Mother the Church to exult in glory, for ‘the risen Saviour … shines upon you.’ We stand at the heart of the world on this night and gather everything around us to exult in the risen Saviour. This is not just for us. This is for all! But we are the body raised up by him, and to us the secret of the kingdom has been revealed.
It is on this same night that we, following on the custom of centuries, baptise those who are to become members of the Church. This is utterly fitting, because here we have the Lord adding to the numbers of those who believe; here we have the Lord raising up new members of his body. On this night of nights, it is right that we should celebrate Baptism and bring the baptised to confirmation and Eucharist, because it is the night when in celebrating his resurrection, we celebrate his doing—raising up a body for himself, which body is his Church.
As we look back through the history of the Church, there has always been great fragility and great strength in its life. Our history makes it clear that like all things human, we are indeed made from the soil of the earth. We are subject to human weakness and have often soiled the image of the Lord, who raises us up as his body. There is also the constant evidence of the Breath of Jesus in this same Church—that Breath that is his Spirit and that he keeps breathing into us, his living body.
The one who raised his ‘dead’ group of disciples to life after they had died at the time of his death is the same one who faithfully, unremittingly, will keep raising up this body for himself, now and in the future. He who raises us up is with us ‘all days, even to the end of the world’.
The pattern by which he gave life to his disciples after his death is the same pattern by which he will continue to give us life. He will take us through this present time of difficulty, seeming diminishment and feared death by helping us to see what must fall away in our expectations, presumptions and blindness. He will be active through his Spirit, enabling us to see anew and find new ways of being his disciples, as he did with those disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The resurrection celebrated by the Easter Vigil is Christ’s being raised out of death. It is his raising up of his disillusioned, fearful and lost disciples to be his body. It is his faithful breathing of his Spirit into the community of his disciples, on their pilgrim way to the banquet table of the Father’s kingdom.
This is a slightly adjusted version of an article first published in The Summit in February 2004.