Have you been following the “March Madness” of collegiate basketball games seeking the national championship? It seems to be a major national pastime! We like to sit back, relax, watch the games, and be entertained. Entertainment is such a big part of our culture. However, there may be a tendency that going to church can fall into the trap of being viewed as another sort of another spectator sport. We come to church, preferably in an air-conditioned building, sit back and hope to experience an inspiring homily and uplifting music. There’s nothing wrong with any of that -in and of itself, – since we do, in fact, seek to provide a worship experience in a beautiful church building with decent artwork, an inspiring homily and uplifting music. The problem is when we go home tucking the church experience away as something that is now concluded so that we can go back to our usual daily routine.
The experience of the first Christians makes clear that Christianity wasn’t a spectator sport (except for those who liked to watch Christians being killed by gladiators and wild animals in the amphitheater). The first Christians who experienced the impact of the resurrection of Jesus were profoundly changed by this extraordinary event. In an article in a weekend edition of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL a few years ago by George Weigel, the biographer of Pope Saint John Paul II, describes what happened to those first Christians as the “Easter Effect.” Although it took time for the first Christians to figure out what the events of Easter meant—not only for Jesus but for themselves—as they worked that out, their thinking about a lot of things changed profoundly. Weigel lists several of them: The way they thought about time and history changed. During Jesus’ public ministry, many of his followers shared in the Jewish messianic expectations of the time: God would soon work something grand for his people in Israel, liberating them from their oppressors and bringing about a new age in which the nations would stream to the mountain of the Lord and history would end. The early Christians came to understand that the cataclysmic, world-redeeming act that God had promised had taken place at Easter. God’s Kingdom had come not at the end of time, but within time—and that had changed the texture of both time and history. History continued, but those shaped by the Easter Effect became the people who knew how history was going to turn out. Because of that, they could live differently. The Easter Effect impelled them to bring a new standard of equality into the world and to embrace death as martyrs if necessary— because they knew, now, that death did not have the final word in the human story.
The way they thought about “resurrection” changed. Pious Jews taught by the reforming Pharisees of Jesus’ time believed in the resurrection of the dead. Easter taught the first Christians, who were all pious Jews, that this resurrection was not the resuscitation of a corpse, nor did it involve the decomposition of a corpse. Jesus’ tomb was empty, but the Risen Lord appeared to his disciples in a transformed body. That insight radically changed all those who embraced it.
The way they thought about their responsibilities changed. What had happened to Jesus, they slowly began to grasp, was not just about their former teacher and friend; it was about all of them. His destiny was their destiny. So not only could they face opposition, scorn and even death with confidence; they could offer to others the truth and the fellowship they had been given. Indeed, they had to do so, to be faithful to what they had experienced.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter and the Apostles were witnesses to all that Jesus did. They ate and drank with Him even after He rose from the dead. Saint Peter reminds the Christians that they are not merely passive spectators, but that Jesus “commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that He is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.” All of us who call ourselves Christians are called to do the same.
That message of being stirred to action pertains to us as much as it did to the first Christians. The account of Our Lord’s resurrection should not leave us mystified by this mystery of our faith or mesmerized by this extraordinary event. Rather we are sent as missionary disciples to bring others to believe in the Resurrection of Christ. To be a disciple means to be a follower of the Risen Lord; to be a missionary means to be sent out to bring others to share this faith. This, of course, isn’t easy, for there are many obstacles along the way.
St. John notes that, when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, she “saw the stone removed from the tomb.” That stone is a metaphor. It represents all the obstacles to accepting Jesus Christ as our Sovereign Lord and saving Redeemer. Yet, for those willing to approach the tomb, the stone is rolled back. It takes faith to accept the resurrection. It takes faith to encounter the Risen Lord. It is God’s grace that rolls back that very large stone and beckons us to enter the realm of faith.
Our celebration of the Easter mystery is an act of faith; it is our coming to the tomb; it leads us to look up and see that the stone has been rolled away. This encounter leads us to the Risen Son of God. Like the disciples at the tomb, we see that He is risen and we hear the most joyous good news! Now we, like the first Christians, must go out and live the Good News! Have a blessed Easter!