26 Apr 2009
“[Jesus] stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” (Luke 24:36-37) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
About a month ago, Ellen Skroski and I attended a talk at Amherst College. I hadn’t been there in years and I figured the parking would be a problem so we left early. But there was absolutely no problem parking and we arrived at the lecture hall so early that the lights weren’t even on yet. We started walking around the building, an art department building. Ellen saw a display of photographs on the wall and stopped to look at them. I kept walking around. At the end of the hallway I saw an open door and a light on. I walked over in that direction, peeked inside and made unexpected and unwanted eye contact with a man standing in the center of the room with a bunch of students sketching him: he was stark naked! I don’t know how long I stood there. It was probably just a split second, but it sure felt longer. It took a while for me to register what I was seeing. It was like my eyes were saying yes there’s a naked man standing there while at the same time my mind was telling me no there can’t be. Then I had to notice that he was looking back at me. Do you smile politely, wave or just rudely get out of there? Then you ask yourself why don’t they at least close the door? All of this is going through my mind and I’m still standing there. I was like a deer caught in the headlights of a car, but it was even worse because I was a deer wearing a priest’s collar. Finally, I quickly turned around and went back down the hallway. I was startled by the whole thing, caught by surprise. I didn’t know what to do.
Now obviously it’s not the exact same thing, but the Bible tells us today that Jesus’ followers were startled and terrified when He appeared in their midst on Easter. Today’s Gospel reading is still talking about Easter Sunday. It had been a long day. The women had gone out to the tomb early in the morning and there they discovered that it was empty. During the course of the day, Luke tells us that Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter the apostle. Then the evangelist tells us about two followers of Jesus who were heading to the small village of Emmaus, when along the way a stranger meets up with them. It is early evening when they reach their destination and they invite the stranger to have supper with them. As the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks the two men recognize Him as Jesus, and He immediately disappears. Now it’s much later that night. They have walked back to Jerusalem. Everyone there is excited. The two tell of Jesus at the breaking of bread. Others interrupt them and inform them of Jesus’ appearance to Peter. Then all of a sudden, without any warning, the resurrected Jesus is standing right there in their presence.
All of this has happened in the single span from dawn to night. I thought trying to process the unexpected scene of a naked man in an art class was difficult. Can we even begin to imagine what those first followers of Jesus were dealing with on that one, single day of the resurrection? The conflicting thoughts of hope and disbelief, of excitement and common sense, of seeing Jesus with your eyes and then wondering if you’re dreaming or seeing a ghost? Is this really happening, and if it is, who of us could not understand why they would be startled and terrified by what they are witnessing? All of their confusion seems completely normal to me. What is extraordinary, however, is that Jesus charges them with being “witnesses of these things.” (Lk. 24:48) At Amherst College I skedaddled back down the hallway as quickly as I could and told Ellen, “Let’s get out of here.” But these few terribly confused followers of Jesus didn’t skedaddle; they became witnesses to the resurrection for all the world. Because of what they saw, we can believe.
I don’t think they completely understood the resurrection at that moment, but they did realize that they had witnessed something absolutely extraordinary. This past Wednesday was Earth Day. It’s been around for almost 40 years, but for a lot of those years few people took the idea of protecting the environment very seriously. It may have been O.K. to go out and plant a tree here or there at a schoolyard, but few were talking about changing economies and lifestyles and going green. We saw then what was happening to the planet. We knew then if we continued doing what we were doing that we would run into problems of shortages and pollution. But it took decades for us to do something about what we were seeing. These first followers of Jesus didn’t have that luxury of time. I think “startled and terrified” are just the tip of the iceberg. Jesus shows Himself to them pointing out the wounds on His hands and feet. He asks them to touch Him to see that He’s for real. And still Luke tells us that they were “incredulous for joy and were amazed.” (24:41) And yet, they were not silent. They hadn’t even processed for themselves what Easter meant and yet they were charged by Jesus to be “witnesses of these things.”
Jesus was in Jerusalem, in Emmaus, inside the room even though the doors were locked. His body is obviously not earthly, but then again He says to His followers, “Touch me.” He eats in front of them and says, “Can a ghost do this?” Try to explain the colour red to a person born blind and I think we approach the difficulty of humans trying to express their experience of the resurrected Jesus. It is a reality not in our experience or vocabulary. The witnesses do the best they can, however, and that’s all we can ask. Now it’s our turn. Faith is a deeply personal experience, and we may not be able to share it exactly with someone else, but even so our experience of God, of Christ is real. We are direct witnesses to faith’s reality; we have directly experienced its reality. We may not completely understand the mystery of our faith, but just like the first followers of Jesus, we are called upon to give witness to that faith as best we can. We needed others as witnesses, and others may now need us. That we may be there for them, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)