It wasn’t until I was a Jesuit novice, age 28, that I even knew there was such a thing as an Easter Vigil. In 1989, when I was working in Kingston, Jamaica and went to my first Vigil Mass at a Jesuit-run parish—with the Paschal candle, the singing of the Exsultet, the baptisms and the marvelous readings—I said to the Jesuit scholastic working there, “That was great! Jamaican culture is so interesting!”
And he said, “What part did you find the most interesting?”
“The whole thing,” I said, “especially that song you sang!” It took him a few minutes before it dawned on him that this new cultural event was a new religious event for me, too.
Nothing that had prepared me for the Vigil. Who knew that the church had this tradition? How was I to know what it would be like?
It must have been the same—but on a colossally different scale—for the disciples on the morning of the first Easter. They had no idea what to expect. They were wholly unprepared for the event that would change their lives, and ours. The Gospel stories show this. Everyone is confused on Easter Sunday. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Others doubt her story when she tells it later. St. Thomas will doubt it even after many of his friends tell it to him.
That’s why my favorite painting of the Easter Sunday is this one, by Eugene Burnand, of Peter and John running, probably sprinting, to the tomb, looking both hopeful and confused and worried. How often this is the case for us. We don’t fully trust that God will really triumph this time—though God has always done so in the past. We hope. But we’re still a little worried.
But we know how it ends. We know what Peter and John are about to see in the tomb.
And more importantly, who they are about to meet.
May your Easter be filled with the joy of the Risen Christ, who waits for us after all of our crucifixions, holding out the promise of surprising new life.
James Martin, SJ