Monday in the Octave of Easter
From Empty Tomb to Risen Jesus
The first day after Easter, the Church seems to go on the defensive by giving an apology. Both the first reading and the gospel take an apologetic stance; both defend the claims of the disciples against “the Jews.” In some ways, the gospel reading is more direct. The Easter Sunday liturgy ended with an empty tomb, as I noted yesterday. Easter Monday resolves this prominent absence. As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary leave the empty tomb, they encounter the risen Jesus. Matthew 28:9 makes clear the encounter is not with a ghost by noting the Mary’s touch the feet of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, perhaps the same as Mary of Bethany, who earlier anointed the feet of Jesus in preparation for his burial, now touches the feet that will never again die. However one resolves the issue of identities of the multitude of Mary’s, this is a beautiful scene of resolution.
A Secular Apology
While the Mary’s travel to the disciples, the author of the Gospel of Matthew inserts an intriguing aside. The guards of Jesus’ tomb are afraid because Jesus has disappeared. Together with the priests and elders of Judaism, they concoct the lie that the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus. The author then notes that this story remains in circulation. Clearly, the gospel is responding to a contemporary issue. The intertwining of Christianity and Judaism in the early Church demanded an answer to such rumors. It also serves a continuing value in the Church. The central proclamation of Easter to the world must be “the tomb is empty.” This is the historical and verifiable, at least in theory, claim. The proclamation that Jesus is risen —
has been raised, in the biblical idiom — requires the gift of faith to accept and believe. Therefore the Church provides a purely secular and worldly answer to a common objection.
A Faithful Apology
In contrast to the pericope in the Gospel of Matthew, the speech of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles is explicitly directed at the faithful. Peter announces he is speaking directly with the Jews, and he uses arguments that are compelling only for believers. Peter’s goal is to bring those who have rejected Jesus, but believe they cling to the God of Israel, to repentance.
Apology from Power
Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you. Peter’s essential claim, and essential to Lukan Christology, is Jesus’ messianic character has been revealed in the signs God performed. In the words and actions of Jesus, the power of God was made visible. For a faithful person, this should be compelling evidence. A basic intuition of faith is that God does not perform mighty deeds through the hands of sinners. Whether that intuition is sound or not, it is commonly shared and was surely believed by Peter’s audience. Therefore, if they are to claim to be the true children of Israel, they must acknowledge that their God has worked through Jesus. Jesus must be who he claims to be. However, rather than accept the logic of faith, they rebelled and killed Jesus.
Apology from Death
But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. The death of Jesus was not the end. Even though the people of Israel rejected him, God did not reject him. God raised Jesus and set him free. No power is given lasting authority over Jesus. Furthermore, the Resurrection vindicates the messianic claims of Jesus. In attributing, as the Scriptures always do, the Resurrection to the agency of God and not Jesus himself, Peter makes clear that God is testifying on behalf of Jesus.
Apology from David
I saw the Lord always before me…For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. Here Peter moves to a very different argument that is obscured by English and time. To understand Peter’s argument, Luke Timothy Johnson says we must recognize four presuppositions: the historical King David wrote the Psalms, David was the anointed/messiah, God promised David’s kingdom would never end, all references in the Psalms are to David or his descendants or events they would experience. Accepting these “rules,” Peter is quoting David speaking in the first person. Naturally then, one would assume David is speaking of himself. However, Peter argues, this cannot be true. David died, and his body corrupted. He did not escape Hades. Therefore David could not be talking about himself; he must be referring to one of his descendants. Peter claims Jesus is this descendent because Jesus has been freed from Hades and his body did not corrupt. Furthermore, David speaks of seeing
the Lord, i.e. the LORD the God of Israel. Jesus alone has beheld the LORD. This apology only makes sense within its context and after the fact. It is not a case of reading prophecy and predicting its fulfillment, but comparing events with past prophecies on the presupposition that they have already been fulfilled.
None of the attempts at apology from the Easter Monday liturgy are wholly convincing, but they are not intended to be. The articles of the faith are not subject to the scrutiny of the historical or physical sciences. Which is to say, there cannot be a proof of the faith. The actions of the supernatural within the natural world necessarily violate the laws of nature that form the basis of scientific inquiry. The best that can be hoped for is to make room for the gift of faith. Objections can be removed, and the intelligibility of the faith can be made clear.
Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 141.
Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Christopher R. Matthews, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 20.
Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary on the Book of Acts, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 81.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 5, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 54.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 31, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 250.