Witnessing to Easter

A visiting priest once told the following story at Mass, and I have always remembered it as a great paschal-Easter witness.

Early in the priest’s first assignment, a man named John introduced himself and invited the priest to a family dinner. When he arrived on the appointed evening, the young priest was struck deeply by two things. First, John’s wife Rachel was disfigured. Her face was quite scarred, as were her hands and arms. She also moved haltingly. The second thing was the extraordinary love and solicitude everyone in that family had for each other, especially John for Rachel.

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The next time he saw John alone the priest asked about Rachel’s appearance. This was John’s story: “A few years ago we had a house fire in the middle of the night. The whole place went down. When we woke up, we were in a panic. I grabbed Melissa, our 5-year-old, and Rachel grabbed Liz, who was 3. That’s what I thought at least, but Rachel thought I had them both. Outside, we realized Liz was still in there. Rachel immediately bolted back into the house, which by now was really ablaze. She found Lizzy crouched behind the toilet hiding. She threw off her coat, wrapped Lizzy up and ran out of there—but obviously not before getting terribly burned herself.”

“I’m so sorry,” the priest responded. “Thanks, Father,” John replied. “But, you know, the whole ordeal forced Rachel and me to rely on God totally. And we’ve learned to love each other with a depth we never knew we had. When we were married, we were barely Catholic; now our faith dominates our lives. We’ve never been happier or more in love. And every time I look at her I see not only my beautiful wife; I also see my eternal hero, who saved our baby’s life.”

Today’s Scripture readings are filled with this sort of urgent Easter faith. In John’s account, Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who dash to the tomb in response. Mary returns and meets the risen Lord. The Easter faith of the Beloved Disciple comes simply from seeing the empty tomb: “He saw and believed.” Mary’s faith comes from hearing Jesus call her name. She thought him the gardener, at first. Then “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni.” She then returns to the disciples to tell them.

In the first reading, we hear Peter speak to the household of Cornelius, a devout gentile whom God sent Peter to visit. Peter recognizes that “God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” While Peter shares the Gospel, the Holy Spirit interrupts by anointing the household (though this last event falls outside our reading).

What is most impressive about Peter, the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene—and John and Rachel, as well—is not simply their experience of Easter faith, but their subsequent witness to it. Peter refers in his speech to witnessing three different times, being himself one of the “witnesses chosen by God in advance.” I see the Beloved Disciple witnessing by being the first to recognize the Lord in Galilee: “It is the Lord” (Jn 21:7). And Mary has become known as the apostola apostolorum (apostle of the apostles).

Expressing Easter faith can take many forms. Peter’s witness was quite public and bold. For most, however, our faith expresses itself in the context of the mundane and in humbler circumstances. Here our Easter faith can show itself powerfully, even if subtly. Paul recognizes this in the second reading. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.”

Easter faith is a gift. Witnessing to it, however bold or subtle, is an imperative. And this witness, this gift that we give back, is itself a great grace.

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