Our Lord’s disciples have a curious reaction to His resurrection. It is a combination of hurry and hesitation, of racing and reluctance. The women go from the tomb quickly…fearful yet overjoyed. Something about their response is both swift and hesitant. Likewise, with Peter and John. They run to see the empty tomb, but still with some hesitancy. The passage ends with the curious statement that they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. As if they were still holding something back.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord rebukes the disciples on the road to Emmaus for being slow of heart to believe. When He appears later in the Upper Room, He again rebukes them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed. Even many weeks after, at His Ascension, when the disciples saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
For some reason, the disciples were slow to entrust themselves to the Resurrection. They saw the risen Lord in His human body – and yet held back the giving of their hearts and minds to this new reality. Why?
Well, their slowness to believe tells us something not so much about the disciples in particular but about the human heart in general. So, we should have a certain sympathy for them. We too believe and rejoice in our Lord’s resurrection and yet are reluctant to trust completely in it. In effect, we hesitate to entrust ourselves entirely to Him.
Two things about the human heart lead to this reluctance. The first is control. We like to determine our lives – what we think and say and do. We like our planned communities and planned families.
But the risen Christ is not under our control. In the resurrection accounts, He appears where and when He wills. He comes and goes suddenly, unbidden, and unexpected. He draws close to the disciples on the road unrecognized and then just as suddenly disappears from the table. He appears suddenly and unexpected in the Upper Room, etc.
He is not like the pagan gods that people kept in a temple or on a shelf at home. Even Mary Magdalene, one of His most devoted followers, had to learn this. Stop holding on to me, He says to her at the tomb, because she is trying to detain Him, to have Him on her own terms. The risen Christ is beyond human control.
Easter is not like Christmas. We can come and adore the baby in the manger as we wish. He’s not going anywhere. The risen Christ is, in a certain sense, untamed and dangerous. He might enter our lives and upset everything.
We try to prevent this by domesticating the whole event. It’s reduced to butterflies, pastels, and the Easter Bunny – or sophisticated theories that what really happened on Easter morning is that He rose. . . in the memories of His disciples…
So, one criterion for experiencing Easter joy is the surrender of control to Him. Only when we allow Him – unpredictable as He is – to fashion our thoughts, words, and actions will we be able to know fully Easter joy. If we do not, we will know not the risen Christ but only a caricature.
The second reason for our Easter reluctance is familiarity. We like what is familiar, even when it is bad for us. We draw back from the unfamiliar, even when it is good for us. Consider the account of the Gerasene demoniac. (Mk 5:1-20) The possessed man lived among the tombs. He wailed aloud and slashed himself with stones. The villagers could not subdue him even by chains or shackles. Our Lord arrives and frees him from possession. The villagers come out and find the man seated, fully clothed, and in his right mind – no longer a menace. Then they do a curious thing: they ask Jesus to leave. They ask the One Who had freed them from terror to leave. Why?
Because they had lost what was familiar. As threatening and terrible as the demoniac was, at least they knew what he was. They had fashioned their lives around his existence. He had grown familiar to them. To some degree they had grown comfortable with him. Now Jesus disturbed what was familiar and comfortable. They could not live their old lives. He required them to live a new life, one not determined by or shaped around the demonic.
The whole scene is an image of the resurrection. The man is as good as dead: he lives among the tombs – places of death – and he is under the dominion of the devil. His exorcism means new life, deliverance from the devil and from the tombs. And the townspeople cannot handle that new life. They prefer the old – not because it was good for them, but because it was familiar.
Here then is another criterion for Easter joy. Only when we are willing to leave sin behind – to leave behind the devil’s hold on our lives – will we be able to rejoice fully in Easter. Only when we are willing to set aside our comfortable, familiar old sins – really willing to have them taken away – will we know the risen Christ fully. This is why Mother Church always has us prepare for Easter by a season of repentance. We spend forty days considering our enslavement so that we can rejoice more in our freedom.
Our Lady is the one who rejoiced perfectly in Christ’s resurrection. She had perfectly surrendered control: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. She was completely free from sin and therefore capable of rejoicing in the new life the risen Christ brings. Let us then ask her intercession – so that we can surrender control to Him, earnestly desire to be free of our sins, and so come to know more perfectly the power and the mercy of the risen Christ.
*Image: Noli Me Tangere by Abraham Janssens, c. 1620 [Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dunkerque, France]