Earlier this week, a friend began a conversation, “Now that Easter’s over …” I didn’t remind him that Easter wasn’t really over, that we were still in the Octave of Easter. Today, however, I want to speak in liturgical time and say that Easter is still very much with us - and thankfully so!
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of the disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something wonderfully and completely new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and so old. But, if all we had were the story of an empty tomb, we would be as confused as were the disciples, who did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead (John 20:9). So we have to listen to the experience of the very first Christians as recorded in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles - to be filled in on what happens next,. Hearing their story, the story of those who first experienced the presence and action of the Risen Lord in their own lives, only then can we begin to consider the difference the Risen Christ is making right here and now in us.
Hearing their story, we hear how confused, perplexed, and frightened those disciples of Jesus were that first Easter Sunday. We hear how they hid behind locked doors. It is sometimes suggested that they were hiding in the same “upper room” where they had recently celebrated the Last Supper with Jesus and where they would gather again soon after his Ascension. If so, how appropriate! Since the time of the apostles, Sunday, the first day of the week, has been the special day, the privileged day, when Christians everywhere assemble in church to experience the power of the Risen Lord, present through his gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
On the evening of that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19) – as, ever since, their successors, the Bishops of the Church, have greeted their assembled congregations with those same words, “Peace be with you.”
Surely that was no mere wish on Jesus’ part. Christ, the Risen Lord, who once was dead but now is alive forever and ever, brings peace – not a worldly, secular peace, nor some social or political peace, but the peace that conquers fear.
Many of us do in fact still spend much of our time behind locked doors – a sensible practice, perhaps, but one obviously rooted in fear. There are also the many locked doors one doesn’t see, but feels nonetheless. We here may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were – and as many present-day disciples around the world still have reason to be – but our fears too are real, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.
Yet when Jesus appeared to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side. And the disciples rejoiced (John 20:20). As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the identity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart this forgiveness in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (John 20:23).
Forgiveness is what gets us out from behind our locked doors – forgiveness given and (what makes that possible) forgiveness first received. In daily life, forgiveness functions, I think, like oil, lubricating our lives, literally eliminating the friction that at best makes relationships difficult and at worst burns them beyond repair. The Risen Lord has made his Church an instrument of his forgiveness. Through the many signs and wonders done through the apostles (Acts 5:12) and experienced ever since in the unique sacramental community of the Church, the Risen Lord has revealed his heavenly Father as a God of mercy and forgiveness. It is that powerful experience of Divine Mercy which empowers us in turn to become people of forgiveness, doing what doesn’t come naturally - any more than dead people naturally rise from the dead.