More than 50,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience on April 11. The Holy Father dedicated his catechesis to the Octave of Easter and spoke about Jesus’ various appearances following his resurrection.
After our solemn celebration of Easter, we meet again today for our customary Wednesday gathering. It is my desire, first of all, to reiterate my best wishes to each of you. I am grateful that so many of you are here today and I am grateful to the Lord for the beautiful, sunny day he has given us!
“The Lord has truly risen! Alleluia!” These words resounded during the Easter Vigil. Now the Lord himself speaks to us. “I will not die,” he proclaims. “I am still alive.” To sinners he says, “Receive forgiveness for your sins. Indeed, I am your forgiveness.” Finally, he tells all of us once again: “I am the Passover of your salvation. I am the lamb that was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your life. I am your resurrection. I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your King. I will show you the Father.”
With these words, a second century writer, Melito of Sardis, interpreted realistically our risen Lord’s words and thoughts (Sulla Pascua, 102-103).
During this time, the liturgy reminds us of Jesus’ various encounters after his resurrection: with Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb early in the morning the day after the Sabbath; with the disbelieving apostles gathered together in the Upper Room; with Thomas and other disciples. His various apparitions are invitations to us to enter more deeply into the basic message of Easter. They encourage us to retrace the spiritual journey of all those who encountered Christ and recognized him during those first few days after the events of Easter.
John the Evangelist recounts that he and Peter, after hearing the news that Mary Magdalene gave them, ran to the tomb, each trying to arrive there first (see John 20:3-10).
The Fathers of the Church considered their race towards the empty tomb an exhortation to the only legitimate form of competition between believers: the race in search of Christ.
What more can we say about Mary Magdalene? She remained at the empty tomb weeping; her sole desire was to know where they had taken her Teacher. She finds him and recognizes him when he calls her by name (see John 20:11-18).
If we, too, seek the Lord with a simple and sincere heart, we will find him, or rather, he himself will come to meet us, he will let himself be recognized by us, he will call us by name, that is, he draw us into the intimacy of his love.
The Road to Emmaus
Today, Wednesday in the Octave of Easter, the liturgy encourages us to meditate on yet another encounter with the risen Lord: the encounter with his disciples from Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35).
As they were returning home saddened because of the death of their Teacher, the Lord joined them as their traveling companion but they failed to recognize him. His words commenting on the passages throughout the Scriptures that were about himself made the hearts of these two disciples burn within them and, having arrived at their destination, they begged him to remain with them. Finally, when “he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30), their eyes were opened.
At that moment, however, Jesus vanished from their sight. They recognized him the moment he disappeared.
In commenting on this Gospel episode, St. Augustine made the following observation: “Jesus broke bread and they recognized him. Therefore, we no longer say that we do not know Christ! If we believe, we know him! Indeed, if we believe, we have him! They had Christ with them at their table and we have him in our soul. … Having Christ in our heart is even greater than having him in our home. Indeed, our hearts are a more intimate place than our homes” (Discorso 232,VII,7). Let us truly seek to bear Jesus in our hearts.
Thomas the Doubter
In his prologue to the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that the risen Lord “presented himself alive to (the apostles) by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during 40 days” (Acts 1:3). We need to understand that when this sacred author says that “he presented himself alive,” it does not mean that Jesus came back to the life he lived before, as Lazarus did.
As St. Bernard notes, the Easter that we celebrate signifies a “passage” and not a “return” because Jesus did not return to his previous condition but “crossed over a frontier to a more glorious condition” that was new and definitive. For this reason, he adds, “Christ has now truly passed over to a new life” (see Discorso sulla Pascua).
“Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene (see John 20:17). His words are surprising when we consider everything that later happened with Thomas, the doubter. There, in the Upper Room, it was the risen Lord himself who showed the apostle his hands and his side so he could touch them and by doing so, reach the certainty that it was indeed him (see John 20:27).
In reality, these two episodes do not contradict each other; on the contrary, one is helpful for understanding the other. Mary Magdalene wanted to have her Teacher back again as he was before and considered the cross as a tragic memory to be forgotten. Now, however, there is no longer any place for a merely human relationship with the risen Lord.
To find him, we do not need to turn back; we need to move on in our relationship with him in a new way. We need to move on!
As St. Bernard emphasized, Jesus “invites all of us to this new life, to this passage. … We will not see Christ by turning back” (Discorso sulla Pascua). This is what happened to Thomas. Jesus showed him his wounds not so that he would forget the cross but so that he would remember it in the future.
Indeed, our gaze is now fixed on the future. The task of a disciple is to give testimony to the death and resurrection of his Teacher and to his new life. This is why Jesus invited his doubting friend to “touch” him: He wanted him to witness firsthand his resurrection.
Dear brothers and sisters, we, like Mary Magdalene, Thomas and the other apostles, are called to be witnesses of the death and resurrection of Christ. We cannot keep this great news to ourselves. We need to take it to the whole world: “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25).
May the Virgin Mary help us to experience fully the joy of Easter so that we, in turn, strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, will spread it wherever we live and wherever we work. Once again, Happy Easter to all of you!