In this book Phelim McGowan SJ encourages us to reflect on parts of the mystery of Jesus' life up to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
This book encourages us to reflect on parts of the mystery of Jesus’ life up to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
1. Easter Silence
2. Easter and Watching
3. Appearances of Jesus
4. The Holy Spirit and Presence
5. Easter Faith
6. Touch and Reassurance
7. Easter Joy
8. Easter Maker
9. Mary of Magdala: Waiting in silence
10. Jesus appears to Mary of Magdala.
11. Jesus appears to the apostles
12. Jesus appears to Thomas
13. The Road to Emmaus
14. Jesus appears to the apostles at Tiberias
15. Jesus speaks to the apostles at Tiberias
16. The Ascension
17 To be an apostle of the risen Jesus
18. Pentecost: Sending the Holy Spirit
19. Come Lord Jesus
128 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
There are many good books to help us ponder and pray the great seasons of Advent and Lent. Yet there are few to help us enter the beautiful season of Eastertide. It almost seems as if, in practice, devotion to Jesus and, through him, to his Father, stops at his death. Maybe, like his friends, we are emotionally exhausted and cannot grasp the awe-filled and joyful events that were to follow.
Lent deals with the momentous events of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. The Christian can identify with all this to a certain extent, but what of Jesus’ resurrection and risen life as experienced by those first disciples? Could the Christian enter into and share Jesus’ joy? Newman, in one of his sermons for Easter, makes the point, ‘At Christmas we joy with the natural unmixed joy of children, but at Easter our joy is highly wrought and refined in character.’ This part of Jesus’ life is elusive and the Christian is not totally at ease with it. Part of the reason is that Jesus’ presence has changed and is totally new. The whole atmosphere, both physical and relational, is different from those meetings he had with his friends and people in general. Now it is calmer, usually taking place in the early morning or late at night, in a quiet place.
Here the risen Christ comes as Consoler to his grief-stricken fiends, bringing them back to life so that he can send them out on a mission with the good news that death has been overcome and that he is risen. It is a call to faith, faith that the aim and goal of life is to be joyful with the risen Jesus before his Father. Therefore, the Easter experiences must be read, pondered and prayed in a different manner from the events of Jesus’ mortal life if we are to experience the joy to which Newman refers. The aim of He is Risen is to help the Christian savour that joy.
Phelim McGowan SJ
Sacred Heart Church
8 September 2000, Birthday of Our Lady
There is a strange, somewhat awesome silence between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, so what do we do with Holy Saturday? We face a confusing nothingness between the Good Friday liturgy and the Holy Saturday night vigil, so how do we cope with it? How do we cope with a day that seems so empty; a void that offers no hint of life or hope? It is the only day in the whole of the church’s year when there is no liturgy, and yet we feel an instinctive impulse to ‘do’ something.
It is much the same experience we have when anyone very close to us dies — we find ourselves at a loss about what to do from the time of the actual death until the burial. It is the most difficult time, because it is the in-between time. Somebody has gone and no one can take his place. We need time to absorb what has happened, to adjust. Shrouded in loss we don’t know what to do. There is little anyone can do. A strange silence descends.
This is the silence that we experience on Holy Saturday. It is not like any other silence; it is a silence proper only to the state of ‘being dead’. There is a sense of awe, a realisation that something tremendous has happened. This is the silence that enfolds the dead Jesus on the cross and in the tomb. Holy Saturday silence is, at the same time, both the silence and the feast of the ‘dead God’. Silence in this context is not the same as ‘not talking’, for there is more to it than the mere absence of words. A lot is happening. In the presence and moment of death, communication takes place without words, because no words can express the emotions experienced by those left behind.
It is difficult to share the silence of loss — it is not that words are not useful at such moments, but rather, that in such moments no words are adequate to express the sense of loss, and so it’s only silence that seems appropriate. Perhaps the only way we can pray at such a time is by expressing helplessness in silence before the Lord.
It is said that ‘birth is the beginning of death, but death is the beginning of life’. In one sense this sums up what is happening during the silence of Holy Saturday. When a human being is conceived, and in the first weeks that follow, there is little or no perceptible activity, and yet we know that the greatest of events is taking place; life itself is being created (Ps 139:13-15). In the darkness of the womb, the child is satisfied with what it has because it is ignorant of the world outside until the moment comes when it is painfully thrust into the light (Jn 1:5) and welcomed by those who are ready to love it. A community of love awaits it. Yet, from the moment we are conceived we are preparing for another birth; sooner or later, we will suffer the birth pangs that thrust us into the presence of God, our Father (Jn 19:30b). God the Father, Prodigal of Love, awaits the moment of rebirth when he will welcome his child home, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord’ (Mt 25:34). Silent prayer is perhaps the only way of rehearsing that moment, a way of entering into the atmosphere of two people in love being reunited. It is a welcoming home. The Holy Spirit will effect this quality of presence in us, because it is she who brings the Father and Jesus together in awesome silence.
The silence of Holy Saturday will eventually merge into the silence of Easter Week. This experience of Easter silence will deepen as we reflect on how the risen Jesus brings the gift of life to his friends during his many appearances to them. It is no mere accident that Jesus chooses to appear to his friends at times and in places when nature itself is stilled and peaceful; he doesn’t ‘break through’ or ‘shatter’ the silence with a great burst of noise; rather, he enters into it and through it shares its strength with those he loves. This silence is almost tangible when Jesus appears apparently from nowhere; ‘at dawn’ (Mt 28:1), ‘while it was still dark’, ‘on the evening of the same day’ (Jn 20:19), in the garden’ (Jn 20:11), ‘in a locked room’, ‘on the quiet country road on the Sabbath’ (Lk 24:13), ‘by the lakeside in the early morning before breakfast’ (Jn 21:1), ‘on the mountain’ (Mt 29:16). It is not that Jesus refuses to meet his friends in the Temple or in Jerusalem but, to begin with, they need this silence in order to grasp what has really happened to their friend and Lord. It is essential that they have this time away from the noise and bustle of the temple (Jn 2:13-14), or the busy streets (Mk 5:31), where his voice was often drowned by the noise of the crowd. They are trying to come to terms with his absence, an absence which, at first, they can perceive only as something negative. We need this silence too, if he is to come to us. ‘Father, if you do not speak, fill my heart with your silence’ is a good prayer for Holy Saturday and Eastertide. This is a time when we need the divine silence which comes from God the Father (Wis 19:14-15).
We need this silence in order to hear the voice of Jesus, and also that of his Father in the voice of other people. The word ‘person’ comes from the Latin root ‘per-sonare’, to sound through, and throughout the gospels, Jesus, whose listening is total, shows us what this means in practice. For example, the woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery says only a few words: ‘No one, Sir’ (Jn 8:11) and yet Jesus is also listening to what she is not saying; he listens simultaneously to the words and the person since the two are one. The actual words she utters are less important than what her whole being is expressing. Jesus is aware of her own unique giftedness and personality (Mt 10:20). By listening to the whole of her, by resisting the temptation to listen only to what she’s saying and to settle for seeing her only as an interesting character, by not allowing himself to be distracted by her special qualities, by focusing totally on her, Jesus helps her to recognise her own giftedness. He listens respectfully to the one who is speaking to him, and sees before him a daughter loved by his Father. He can only do this because he is already filled with divine silence. This enables Jesus not to be distracted by the present circumstances, her reputation or prejudice. Imbued with divine silence, Jesus can look beyond the present and see the woman’s true self, the person she could be.
John’s gospel is filled with such examples; e.g. the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4:19-40), the Blind Man (Jn 9:7, 38-39), the Demoniac who was cured (Mk 5:19-20) and many others. Having enabled these people to reveal their real selves, the people God created them to be. Jesus goes further and helps them to become aware of the love and truth they, in their turn, reveal to him and to others. For the apostles and for us to do the same we, too, need divine silence and the only to acquire it is to pray to the Holy Spirit:
‘If you do not speak, fill my heart with your silence.’
EASTER AND WATCHING
There is another reason for Easter silence. Mary of Magdala and the women were waiting for the dawn that would end the Sabbath so that they could come and anoint their friend, Jesus (Mk 16:1-2). They are forced to wait before they can tend his body. Meanwhile, there is nothing they can do and they wait in silence. Silence usually accompanies waiting and watching, which is often a negative experience. We become impatient. We keep glancing at our watch, looking constantly in the direction from which we expect the train or bus to arrive. Perhaps we walk up and down in silence, or utter a few expressions of anger or irritation. Stuck in a stationary train just outside the station, we feel frustrated and may be tempted to get out and walk the short distance to the platform, regardless of the danger. The frustration grows because we feel we have no control over what’s happening. It is a sign of our helplessness when we want to shout ‘Don’t just sit there … do something!’ It all appears such a waste of time.
Yet, waiting and looking can be a very positive experience; for example, waiting to meet your best friend whom you have not seen for ages. Being a close friend, he or she is on your mind. As you become more aware of your friend, your thoughts start to preoccupy you. You become excited anticipating his arrival. The very act of waiting colours the whole of your day; he may be late or early; may be wearing clothing you don’t immediately recognise etc. Aware of this you will be more attentive, searching for your friend, you will notice keenly all that is going on around you. While you are waiting you cannot really ‘settle’ down to do anything. You are aware of all that interferes with the anticipation of the arrival; you do not really pay attention to the weather, to your hunger or to anything that happens around you, or in you (Jn 20:11). You do not speak because you do not know what to say … you’re just simply waiting’. You are too caught up in expectation. It has all been worthwhile; the more the heart longs to see and welcome your friend, the greater the love and welcome your friend will receive when he or she arrives (Jn 2,0:17). The present can only really begin again once he or she comes.
This waiting can be a good entrance into prayer, as Jesus himself tells us (Mt 24:44, 25:13). In fact, in I Tim 5:2, Paul describes Jesus’ coming as ‘like a thief in the night’. Maybe this is what happens to Mary of Magdala and the other women in Mk 16:1ff. Their only reported words are: ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ Yet, by being there, waiting and looking, they are rewarded with the gift of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It is by being quietly present and open to the awesome, earth-shattering news that ‘He is risen’ enters their hearts and terrifies them ‘out of their wits’. This is their first reaction to the resurrection of Jesus (Mt 28:5, Lk 24:37).
The women run off telling no one because they are afraid. Their fear is understandable because of what had happened to the apostles and to them a couple of days before Jesus’ capture in Gethsemane, his trial and suffering, his being whipped and crowned with thorns, his walking the Way of the Cross, enduring a criminal’s death by crucifixion, and finally his burial (Mk 16:6, Mt 28:5). They are simply overwhelmed. They desperately need to hear Jesus’ greeting, ‘Do-not-be-afraid …’ (Mt 28:10), but they also need silence and attentiveness to be able to hear it.
This first reaction is important for us as we try to appreciate the power of the resurrection and its meaning. If we are not terrified as they were, then perhaps we are missing its real meaning. We might be tempted on hearing the good news to be astonished, but then, filled with joy, go on to tell everybody we meet that ‘Jesus has conquered death and is risen’. Then everybody would rejoice, but it would not be enough. This is why we need the Holy Spirit: firstly, to help us meditate on the events of Jesus’ death and the resurrection but then to help us become immersed in the atmosphere of Easter (Lk 24:11). When Jesus actually appears in their midst, they are (verse 35) ‘in a state of alarm and fright’. Initially, as a result of waiting and looking, they feel alarm and fright, fear and doubt although they had joyfully exchanged the good news. Jesus, who throughout his ‘public’ life as a preacher, who waited on his friends to understand his good news (Jn 14:9), is willing to wait once again for their return to him. When they do return, they are rewarded with the words ‘Do not be afraid’ (Jn 28:10). That is the beginning of their understanding of the resurrection, and it is ours as well. It is could also be our prayer.
Appearances of jesus
Òn my bed, at night, I sought him
whom my heart loves.
I sought but did not find him.
So I will rise and go through the City;
in the streets and the squares
I will seek him whom my heart loves.
… I sought but did not find him (Song of Songs 3:1-2).
We need to watch and wait because Jesus appears and disappears suddenly and without explanation. It was obviously quite frightening for the disciples, hence Jesus’ words of reassurance: `Peace be with you’ (Jn 20:19). The evangelists never elaborate on these comings and goings, because they do not know or understand any more than we do. On only one occasion is there a description of Jesus’ disappearance. It is in the account of the Emmaus scene when the writer records: ‘He vanished from their sight.’ Realising this, we should ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand: ‘Lord, let me know your ways; Lord, teach me your paths.’
The risen Jesus is different insofar as he does not seem to be the Jesus of Nazareth the disciples had known before his death. In fact, there is an atmosphere of unreality about him, an unreality that renders him a total stranger to them. Even when the disciples do know who he is, when he appears on the Tiberias shore, they hesitate to speak his name (Jn 21:12). Somehow he has changed. The old familiar feeling
of companionship associated with knowing and being known by Jesus of Nazareth, the ordinary man of flesh and blood, has gone and, in its place, he is a man whose heart is filled with a deep sense of peace, trust and belief. Why this change? Perhaps it is due to the terrific joy that swept over his Father’s face as he raised his Son to eternal life. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord. Because you have been faithful over small things, I will place you over great. Come and join in your Master’s happiness’ (Mt 25:21). Was it the overwhelming joy, with which the Father greeted Jesus that changed the old familiar Jesus of earth into the Christ of heaven? In his joy, a joy fully charged with the Holy Spirit, Jesus says: Abba, Father’. Jesus’ prayer has reached its climax; he can enter into the heart of the psalmist’s joy: ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say, Let us go to God’s house’ (Ps 11:22). These words are fulfilled as Jesus returns home. The goal of Jesus’ life is to be ‘at home’ with the Father (Jn 17:24) and it is ours, too. As Jesus prayed (Ps 122) to his Father through the Holy Spirit, so too, the Spirit can give us the power to hear Jesus praying, not only for his friends, but for each of us individually.
The change in Jesus could also be due to the fact that love is only complete when everything is shared with those you love. Jesus now wants to share his divinity with his relatives and friends, to show them who he really is: the Son of God (Jn 15:15). Given their religious belief of God being One (Deut 6:4-5), Jesus had to meet them frequently over a period of time in order to help them assimilate this amazing truth. Perhaps this is why he appeared only to his devoted followers. He was able to create in them a Christian faith, because their love for him opened them up to receive such an unexpected favour. He could have appeared to Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate etc., but his purpose was not merely to persuade people that he was alive again. His purpose was to allow them to see that he had entered into a completely different existence with his Father. Because they really knew Jesus, the disciples were able to understand his actions and his teachings. They realised the significance not only of what was said and done, but also what was left unsaid and undone. Jesus needed them to have this understanding so they could be his interpreters to the world. He was divine and he turned the world upside down! Through Jesus, God was finally revealed as a God who is Father, someone who is completely self-effacing, a loving father who will go after the ‘lost’ sheep, the depressed and the lonely. This Christian knowledge is not a purely verbal message that can be relayed to others; it is the experience of a divine relationship, a message which is intended not only to change peoples’ ideas but radically to alter their lives (Lk 24:32). It is not just a story about a man. It is an unimaginable phenomenon. The God-made-man has become alive again in a different way (Jn 11:25). That is why the Holy Spirit has to ‘remind’ the disciples of all that Jesus had said to them (Jn 11:z6) and this is also why his Father sends the Holy Spirit on us (Jn 14:26).
Somehow this new life, this new existence with his Father, does not separate Jesus from his mortal body. Jesus is still able to eat with his friends (Lk 24:42-43), Thomas is able to touch his wounds (Jn 20:27), Mary can hear him speak her name (Jn 20:16). It is clear that he is still the old Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus shows that all the relationships he’s had during his lifetime, all the emotions, experiences, events, growths, joys, sorrows, disappointments and so forth have made him the person he is and always will be.
The risen Jesus has chosen to remain human forever (Lk 2:52). In this way he teaches his friends, and each one of us who have lived thereafter, that our vocation is to be truly ourselves, to be thoroughly human, to believe, despite external appearances. We may and indeed must hope to enjoy God even within the corporeal and material side of our personalities. The more human we become, the more true to ourselves and the more Christ-like we become. Jesus lived on earth in order to teach us how to become completely human (Mt 5:44-48)• Jesus came to redeem the whole person, not merely to ‘save our souls’. We always need to thank God our Father for creating us human beings (Ps 139:13-14), and to thank Jesus for overcoming our refusals of love and reintroducing us to his Father (Lk 23:34)• Paradoxically, the more we, his followers, are drawn into Jesus’ humanity, the greater the faith, hope and love we will need because now we need to have Christian faith, Christian hope and Christian love (Jn 20:29).
Our inherent human gifts of believing, hoping and loving will be deepened. Because Jesus himself believed, hoped and loved, he was able to assist his friends, the disciples, and us, his friends and disciples of today, in recognising these gifts and gradually become permeated by them. How rarely, if ever, do we thank him for these gifts.
Very often, a person is only fully appreciated after his or her death. The full meaning of the scriptures, which Jesus announced during his earthly ministry, was that he would become a living and dynamic force for all, but only after he was delivered up to death. Jesus’ humanity, his believing, hoping, loving and dying, sum up everything that united to make him what he is. In his own words: `I am the Resurrection and the Life’ (Jn 11:25).