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Seasonal Reflection: Witnessing the Resurrection

by Brian Smail, OFM

smail1The reflection below appears in the spring 2012 issue of Be A Franciscan, the quarterly newsletter of the HNP Franciscan Vocation Ministry. In it, vocation director Brian Smail, OFM, encourages readers to remember that the Easter story is not a one-time event, but an ongoing journey throughout life as a Christian.

We can only imagine the shock, the wonder and the utter joy that the first witnesses of the empty tomb experienced on Easter morning. All of the scripture accounts reveal in stark detail that Jesus’ resurrection was unexpected and took his followers completely by surprise.

John chapter 20 begins: “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.’ So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”

In the passage from John’s gospel, Mary of Magdala assumes the body of Jesus has been stolen. In Mark’s gospel, we are told that Mary and her companions “went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment … they were afraid.” Matthew tells us that Jesus’ followers “went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed.” Finally, Luke writes they are terrified, yet “amazed at what had happened.”

resurrectionA People Transformed
The discovery of the empty tomb and the subsequent post-resurrection appearances of Jesus prompted a radical change in his followers. They were transformed from people who were huddled in fear behind locked doors (Jn 20:19) to bold proclaimers of the gospel.

The first of the scripture readings for the Easter morning liturgy describes Peter preaching the risen Lord before crowds, calling himself and the other disciples witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Easter message was later taken up by Paul, who preached that Christ’s resurrection was not only one belief among many, but the very core of Christian faith. In 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, he argues: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain.”

As Christians, we follow in the footsteps of these early witnesses. We were not present on the first Easter morning to peer into the empty tomb. We were not in the locked room when the risen Jesus suddenly appeared to his disciples. But through our baptismal commitment and our Christian faith, we are no less witnesses to the resurrection.

An Ongoing Journey
Yet our witness is not only to an event that occurred in the time of Peter, Mary of Magdala and the other disciples; it is very much about the here and now. As a people “baptized into Christ” — as St. Paul puts it — we are called to witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with our very lives. The Easter story is not a one-time event, but an ongoing journey in the Christian life as we strive to live the gospel.

St. Francis of Assisi was certainly an example of a person who lived a life in total witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire rule of life of Francis and his brothers consisted of one thing: “to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And his faith in the risen Lord was such that at the end of his life, he even welcomed “Sister Death” knowing that he would pass from this world to eternal life.

In Eastern Rite churches during the Easter season, it is traditional to greet a person with the words, “Christ is risen,” to which the other responds, “He is risen, indeed!” It is a simple, yet powerful statement of Easter joy and a proclamation of faith in the risen Christ who lives among us.

— Fr. Brian, a native of Massachusetts, has served as vocation director for Holy Name Province since 2007. His reflections on Catholic and Franciscan themes appear both in the Vocation Ministry’s quarterly newsletter and on its blog.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about seasonal topics.