One of the striking things about the Easter and post-Easter narratives in the New Testament is that they are largely about incomprehension: which is to say that, in the canonical Gospels, the early Church admitted that it took some time for the first Christian believers to understand what had happened in the Resurrection, and how what had happened changed everything. In Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books), I draw on insights from Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright and Pope Benedict XVI to explore the first Christians’ unfolding comprehension of Easter and how it exploded their ideas of history and their place in history.
So, what changed after Easter?
The disciples’ understanding of history changed. The first Jesus community lived in expectation of the “last days,” even while Jesus walked among them in his public ministry; but they thought the “last days” involved a history-ending cataclysm. After the Resurrection, the disciples slowly began to grasp that the “last days” had already begun at Easter, even as history continued. The “last days” were unfolding in time, and the entire texture of time was changed because of that.
The disciples’ understanding of “resurrection” changed. The Risen Christ’s resurrection was not like the resuscitation of Lazarus, nor did it involve the decomposition of the corpse of the Jesus who was crucified, who died, and who was buried. The Risen Lord had a body, but it is a transformed body, and the tomb was empty.
The disciples’ understanding of how the Risen One was “present” to his brethren changed. For a certain period, the Risen Lord appeared to them in that transformed body: in the garden and the Upper Room, on the Emmaus Road and at the Sea of Galilee. But after that period ended in what we know as the Ascension, the Risen Lord remained “present” to his brethren sacramentally – in the baptism they were to offer the whole world, in the Eucharist they celebrated, and in their exercise of fraternal charity.
The disciples’ understanding of their responsibilities and their future prospects changed. The unexpected and expectation-exploding Resurrection of Jesus also revealed their own destinies. The life-transforming experience of meeting the Risen Lord impelled the first disciples to mission, after the outpouring of the Spirit had given them the words to tell what they had seen and heard. And knowing that what had happened in Jesus’ Resurrection was their destiny, too, they could, in the future, embrace martyrdom in witness to the truth of what God had done in Christ for the salvation of the world.
The disciples’ understanding of worship and time changed. The disciples of Jesus were all pious Jews for whom the Sabbath was a bottom-line reality of their religious identity. Yet the early Church quickly established Sunday, not Saturday, as the “Lord’s Day,” because it was on Sunday, the “third day,” that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, “Only an event that marked souls indelibly could bring about such a profound realignment of the religious culture of the week… [The] celebration of the Lord’s day, which was characteristic of the Christian community from the outset, is one of the most convincing proofs that something extraordinary happened that day – the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounter with the Risen Lord.”
Living as we do on the far side of Easter, it is sometimes hard to grasp just how profoundly shattering an experience the first Easter season was for those who lived it. That is why we should be grateful to the Gospel writers, and the Church that accepted and confirmed their witness, for including in the New Testament the first disciples’ perplexity about just what had happened. Encountering their confusion, we learn that Christ, raised from the dead, changes everything: time, history, prophecy, hope, the here-and-now, vocational responsibility and right worship all come into clearer focus through the encounter with the Risen Lord. The unity of God’s self-revelation to Israel and in his Son is confirmed.
The Church, witness to the truth of the Resurrection, is born.