Peace of Christ.
All right. I admit it. I missed it. I really missed Easter as I have always experienced it. Every detail. Large and small. I missed the solemn majesty and the warm, energizing chaos of it.
If the truth were told, I think I missed the drama of the Easter Vigil most of all: from the lighting of the Easter fire and the Paschal Candle, to the soft glow of the flickering tapers (lit from that candle) that suffused the darkened church with an ethereal light, to the sudden blinding illumination of the Church as the first strains of the Gloria are heard. From the staid chanting of the Exultet to the full-throated singing of Easter hymns accompanied by a thundering pipe organ, a veritable exaltation of trumpets, and the full, rich pealing of bells. Clouds of incense filling the church with celestial fragrances. I missed leaving the Vigil singing The Strife is O’er, The Battle Won as I walked home. Off-key, of course. But let’s be honest. Easter is one of the only days of the year when even the tone-deaf find a few right notes and create rhythms, harmonies, and descants that rival those of the angels. (At least that is what I tell myself.)
And so, yes. I admit it. I missed a normal Easter. The kind of Easter that I remembered. The kind of Easter that I needed, especially this year. Admit it. You missed it too. While we are at it, I will also admit that I find it hard to speak of Easter in the oxymoronic terms that have been used to describe this year’s Easter. Subdued exuberance. Understated splendor. Muted glory. Spare beauty. Admit it. You find it hard too.
How then, can we describe the Easter that we have just celebrated? To tell you the truth, I honestly think that the best (and perhaps only) way to describe it is that it was an Easter of biblical proportions. Now, don’t get carried away. Or at least let me explain what I mean before you do get carried away. But before I tackle that challenge, let me come clean on another point. What I said above is absolutely true: I did miss having the chance to celebrate a “normal Easter” this year, but I have to confess (it would appear that I am doing a lot of confessing these days) that the Easter that we celebrated (with its subdued exuberance, understated splendor, muted glory, and spare beauty) was an Easter for the moment in which we find ourselves. To celebrate the feast in any other way would have been reckless and irresponsible. And yes: It did have a powerful beauty to it, just a kind of beauty that we were not expecting. Among other things, this Easter of Solitude (as Pope Francis has called it) was a defiant exercise of spiritual closeness in a time of social distancing. And spiritual closeness touched our hearts and carried the day. It allowed us to experience in a rich new way both our deep longing for God and our need to experience God’s presence in the sanctity of our homes in these very difficult times, surrounded by those whom we love most dearly. So there. I know that you will accuse me of being Jesuitical for saying this. So be it. I don’t mind. I am, after all, a Jesuit.
But back to what you may think is an absurd claim, namely that this year’s Easter was an Easter of biblical proportions. Let me stare down your doubts and allay your suspicion that I am being either insane or disingenuous in making that claim.
My dear friends, the first Easter was not a moment of splendor, exuberance, or trumpeted glory. Rather, it was a moment and an event that was experienced by the Apostles and the Holy Women in a surprisingly intimate way and on what we would call a small scale. Reflect on it. The appearance to Our Lady, the encounter with Mary Magdalene, the interrupted dinner at Emmaus, the first appearance in the Upper Room. They were all quiet, even understated, encounters with the Risen One. As intimate and consoling as they were, however, these encounters still left the Lord’s followers with questions. How could it have been otherwise?
Even though they had indeed seen Him on Easter, the disciples and the Holy Women could not make complete sense of what they had seen and heard. Moreover, since they were known to have been Jesus’ friends, they lived with a strong suspicion that they were marked people. Therefore, they locked themselves away in the Upper Room and got to work trying to figure things out. Having lived in lockdown mode of late ourselves, we can imagine what that experience must have been like. The anxiety in the Upper Room must have been palpable. The smell of fear must have clung to them. And then the debates. Spirited, heartfelt debates during which they weighed what they had clearly seen and heard against what their minds told them, namely that what they had seen was utterly impossible. And let’s make no mistake here. The disciples were not rubes. Far from it. They were savvy sorts. Just think of Matthew, a man who knew his way around numbers. Or Peter, a man who was clearly a practical entrepreneurial guy very much at home in the challenging world of business. A worldly wise group, then, they knew that the outside world would find the secret that had been revealed to them simply incomprehensible. And so, as I said, they spent the week after Easter trying to figure out just what Jesus’ “rising from the dead” actually meant. Both for them and for the world. And trying to find words they could use to explain what they had seen to anyone outside the safe (but frightened) circle gathered in the Upper Room. Ah, my friends, the issues they debated were titanic, but the setting in which their debates took place was small, tight, and crowded. The biblical proportions of the first Easter.
And what of us? Well, my sisters and brothers, our experience of Easter this year was much the same as the disciples’ experience on the first Easter. Ours was an Easter celebrated (or experienced) in a locked-down setting, heavy with weariness, tinged with (mortal) fear, and filled with questions about what the Lord’s Resurrection means for us and our wounded world. Ours was an Easter dominated, therefore, by a desire for comforting certainty. And since our Easter was like the first Easter, I think that we earned our way into the Upper Room this year. Therefore, let us cross the threshold and join the disciples there.
Tucked away in a small corner of the Upper Room seven days after the Resurrection, in the company of the Apostles and the Holy Women, we get the answers to our prayers and questions in and through the Gospel for today. (Today’s Gospel in two ways: the Gospel that will be read in Christian churches throughout the world today, and the Gospel for the wearying today that we are living through.) Taken from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel, the scene opens with the appearance of Thomas the Apostle. A member of the Lord’s inner circle, he had not been in the Upper Room on Easter when the Lord had appeared after His Resurrection. Although he loved both Jesus and His companions, Thomas utterly refused to believe what the others had told him. In fact, he bluntly told them that he would not believe what they were saying until he put his own hands into the Lord’s wounds. God bless Thomas. He wanted to make sure that what they had seen wasn’t a ghost, a figment of their imaginations, or an imposter. (I say it again: God bless Thomas. Admit it. You feel the same way I do. You know that you are as grateful as I am for Thomas’ bold insistence on getting some proof for the Resurrection.) God bless his questioning heart.
The words are no sooner out of Thomas’ mouth than the Lord appears in the Upper Room. Much to our relief, He doesn’t berate Thomas. Quite the opposite, He invites Thomas to do what he asked for. The scene is irresistible. For us. For all who have ever yearned for reassurance. For all who want to believe. It has also been irresistible to painters. And no painter has captured the drama of the moment more powerfully than Caravaggio. In his The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, we see Jesus taking Thomas’ hand in His own and bringing it to His pierced side as two of the other Apostles lean in to watch. Thomas’ face is a study in determination, fascination, and embarrassment. I would imagine, however, that the rest of the onlookers were not at all embarrassed. Rather, I would imagine that they were grateful (as we are) for this moment. It is here, my sisters and brothers, that faith is born. With that faith comes hope. And with that hope comes courage. But a very specific kind of courage: the courage to love without fear and without boundaries.
And so, my dear friends, I rest my case. The first Easter was an Easter of biblical proportions: small, intimate, and suffused with urgent love. And our Easter, spent in the company of the Apostles in our own Upper Rooms and theirs, has also been an Easter moment of those same biblical proportions. There are no trumpets blaring. No thunderclaps. Nothing like that. This is the moment, however, that changed and changes everything. For the Apostles. For Christians across time. For us. This changes everything. This makes the courage to love and to console possible. Even urgent.
Let us love boldly and without fear in this Easter Season, when we were welcomed to the Upper Room, that sacred place where hope and courage were born. Let us continue to console the weary, comfort the grieving, accompany the dying with our prayers, honor the heroes who spend themselves in service, and sweep light into the hearts of those who are afraid.
Please be assured of my constant and fervent prayers for you and all whom you love. Every day.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, Your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend ourselves in loving service of others.