Lectionary commentary: Easter Sunday
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 10:34. 37-43
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 118:1-2. 16-17. 22-23. R/. v. 24
A Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, 3:1-4
A reading from the Gospel according to John, 20:1-9
The Lord is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
So in Jerusalem, Christians making their way though streets after the Easter Vigil, greet their sisters and brothers. It is, as I know, a great joy to walk through the emerging dawn in the Holy City, proclaiming what we have celebrated and what we know to be the beginning and end of our faith. As St. Paul insists,
if Christ has not been raised,
then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
I Corinthians 15:14
The fact that he is risen is proclaimed throughout the world on this blessed night as the dawn begins to rise on the first day of the week. But the praise and glory must be given to where it is due.
Alleluia is everywhere an Easter proclamations. It is our Easter shout in every Responsorial and every Gospel Acclamation up to and even beyond Pentecost Day. And yet Alleluia occurs only in Psalms 104 to 150, always in the introduction or conclusion of a psalm. Only in the Hebrew of Psalm 135:3 is the phrase given as two words, as it really is: Allelu Yah, Praise Yahweh!
Neither the Greek Septuagint (Jewish) nor in the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome (Christian) translate the word and so we come to learn two Hebrew words:
Allelu - Yah
Praise - Yah.
Praise the Lord!
The shout Praise the Lord, seldom in the Psalms, did, however, quickly become an everyday proclamation of praise to God. In Alexandria, the home of the Septuagint translation, Ptolemy IV, king of Egypt (221-204 B.C.) decreed that all Jews, men, women, and children, should be slaughtered. But two angels transformed the king’s evil intent into a determination to save the Jewish people. A declaration was issued that all Jews were to be protected and on departure safely to their homes “the whole multitude departed with joy, shouting the hallelujah”.The Hallelu-jah acknowledged that,
… the great God had perfectly accomplished great things for their salvation. Blessed be the deliverer of Israel forever and ever! Amen.
3 Maccabees 9:13
Our Alleluia comes to us from the Latin of the Vulgate (Alleluia), a rendering of the Greek Septuagint spelling Allēlouia.
What is of importance is that in Eastertime and beyond what is done for humanity by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the work of God. Our prayer is ever to be,
Praise the Lord!
While we sing praises around the empty tomb and celebrate the salvation given to humanity, there is really no understanding the central fact at the heart of God’s work. Why should the crucifixion of the Beloved Son be the means through which deliverance from all that is evil is given to creation? Why do we believe that life comes through death?
What are we to make of the Book of Revelation as it sings its Easter song?
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,
The salvation and the glory and the power are of our God, for his judgements are true and just;
for he has judged the great harlot
who corrupted the earth with her harlotry
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
Once more they cried out,
The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”
And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshipped God who was seated on the throne, saying,
There are just four occurrences of Alleluia in the New Testament and the four are in these sentences from the Book of Revelation. While the language is pretty torturous, the meaning is clear. The salvation, the power, and the glory of God are given to humanity and there is only one appropriate response:
Praise the Lord!
This is our prayer throughout Eastertime and, indeed, for ever and a day. For the Lord God the Almighty has done great things and holy is his Name.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 10:34. 37-43
Peter opened his mouth and said [to Cornelius and his household]: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.
The word of the Lord.
The Acts of the Apostles written by St. Luke is a second volume carrying on the story of his Gospel. It is very selective, dealing with the activities of St. Peter and then with the missionary endeavours of St. Paul and his companions. But the central character in Acts is the Holy Spirit, guiding and directing the growth of the Jesus movement. Luke’s overall plan was to begin with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day and carry the story on to the foundation of communities in Rome, the empire’s capital city.
The details surrounding the conversion of the Roman centurion named Cornelius form a key incident in the outreach of the growing movement. It concerns the opening of the pagan world to faith in Christ Jesus.
Today’s reading presents the middle of the story. The account begins with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and therefore a pagan. But he has embraced as much of Jewish faith as his pagan status permitted. He and his household prayed continually to God and gave copious alms to needy Jewish neighbours. An angel of God instructed him to send for Peter who was down the coast in Joppa.
Meanwhile Peter has a rooftop vision of a great sheet descending from the heavens full of all kinds of animals and retiles, and birds. A voice invited him to eat but as a strictly devout Jew Peter refused to eat anything unclean. The voice then declared,
What God has made clean, do not call common.
When the messengers arrived from Cornelius and called on Peter to see them, the Holy Spirit instructed Peter to heed what the messengers had to say. He set out with them and explained his new understanding to Cornelius:
You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.
Cornelius declares that he and all his household were ready “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33). Today’s reading gives us Peter’s own account of his conversion to a new vision of God and Jesus and a new vision of God’s determination to speak through Jesus to all who had ears to hear, Jew and Gentile alike.
The readings from Acts in our Easter Lectionary are chosen from all over the place. There is no effort to plot the continuous story that St. Luke carefully crafts in his Book of Acts. This is unfortunate because at the heart of his work is his intention to display his version of the struggle the earliest Christians had in order to grasp the fact the God intended to gospel the whole world through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The matter comes to a head in Acts 15 when a top level meeting takes place in Jerusalem to resolve the contentious issue of admitting pagans into the Jesus movement.
The best way to cope with today’s first reading it to seek a quiet corner and read the whole incident beginning at Acts 10:1 and persevering until you reach 11:18. You will learn that, toward the end of the first century, seventy years after the death of Jesus, it seemed necessary to Luke to record his version of the deepest challenge ever to confront the Church. Is fellowship with Jesus to be confined to those who are Jews or who are prepared to adopt the identity markers that proclaimed to the world one’s Jewishness? To live with Jesus was it essential to live as a Jew?
While that issue is at the heart of Luke’s Acts and at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel, and had been the major issue in St. Paul’s confrontation with St. Peter, in reading these few chapters note how everything is beyond human control. It is the Holy Spirit who guards and guides, who directs and steers the Church to be what God intended it to be, a safe home for all humanity. In the chapters you have read, you will notice that there are ten references to the Spirit.
There is one sentence in this section of Acts that requires particular attention. In the above translation it reads,
As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea …
This is the translation that is to be found in all English translations I have consulted. What is wrong is that it conceals a peculiar insistence of St. Luke throughout his Gospel and his second book Acts. Luke seldom uses a noun such as “gospel” or “good news”. On 24 occasions in his two books he uses a verb. Some examples:
And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
ESV Luke 1:19
And the angel answering, said to him, “I am Gabriel who stands before God and I was sent to speak to you and to gospel you with these (words) …
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
ESV Luke 2:10-11
And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold! I gospel you with great joy that will be for all the people …
One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel ….
ESV Luke 20:1
And it happened on one of the days as he was teaching the people in the Temple and gospelling (them) …
You will notice that Luke uses a verb (which I have translated as “to gospel” or “gosspelling”). From Luke’s perspective, God “gospels” humanity. Gospel is not a thing, a book, a catalogue of advice or good counsel. Gospeliing is what God does. Gospelling is God embracing humanity with all the love and compassion that reside in God’s heart. Gospelling comes from a heart’s concern. Fifty-three times in the New Testament we are gospelled by God, forever a word of warm welcome, of well-wishing, tender love and compassionate care.
This Easter let us rejoice and be glad for we are gospelled by the One who is and who gives to humanity true gospel forever and a day. God does not have bad news days.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 118:1-2. 16-17. 22-23. R/. v. 24
R/. This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever”. R/.
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord. R/.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes. R/.
Psalm 118 is obviously a thanksgiving prayer. Its opening verse gives thanks for God’s greatest gift. It is the foundational gift, the one from which all blessings come. We are bidden to thank the Lord because the Lord is good. That divine goodness is identified:
His steadfast love endures forever.
The Hebrew word hesed is exclusively used for this steadfast love. There is no love comparable to God’s everlasting, unceasing, eternal love. And, note, it is a love poured out on every goyim, on every people. It is not confined to one people. God’s steadfast love knows no bounds.
Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm in the Book of Psalms (and the shortest chapter in the Bible). But it perfectly sums up all that the expansive Psalm 118 has to say:
Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord.
It is a perfect introduction to the psalm we pray today.
To be sure the enemies of the Lord do not escape God’s punishment. But it is God’s love that ultimately triumphs. The metaphor of the rejected stone is apt. God’s Temple in Jerusalem has been built by God and no stone in the building of it is cast aside. Indeed, the least of all the stones and pebbles lying around the building site is surprisingly picked up by the heavenly mason and becomes the cornerstone of the divine edifice.
The Christian insight is this. Jesus, the very presence of God, seems to be a stone utterly rejected. But in fact he is the chosen stone, the very foundation stone of the rebuilding of creation that happens around the empty tomb. Truly, Easter Day is a day for praise and thanksgiving:
This is the day the Lord has made!
Let us rejoice and be glad.
Alleluia is indeed, the truest of Easter songs.
A Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, 3:1-4
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
The word of the Lord.
Whether St. Paul wrote this letter to Christians in the city of Colossae (formerly in the middle of what we call Turkey) is a matter of dispute. I am inclined to the view that Colossians was written by someone acquainted with Paul’s writings but had come to a universalist view of Christian faith. By this I mean that whereas Paul did not, in his letters, address the Church but rather the little churches he founded, the author of Colossians presents the Church Universal, an initiative of God that embraces the whole of humanity. Colossians inspired the Letter to Ephesian Christians and both letters sing of the utter totality of God’s embrace of the whole of humanity. Both sing of the eternal destiny all who walk the earth. What humanity must embrace is God’s vision of the future, the vision that God in heaven, has begun to reveal in Christ Jesus. The destiny of humanity is the destiny of Jesus and humanity is destined to be revealed in all the glory that God will reveal in the fullness of our Lord Jesus. That is to say, all that God has destined for the Son is the destiny of all humanity.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 20:1-9
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus ' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Those who listen to the words that pour from the pages of our four Gospels would do well to listen to the women. Especially is this true when we listen to the confusing stories that seek to report on events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.
Take the resurrection story we are offered in St. Mark’s Gospel, the very first Gospel account to be written. Mark wrote sometimes between 64 A.D. and, say, 74 A.D. His story mentions three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and another women named Salome. These women had come to anoint the body when the Sabbath had passed and to whom “a young man dressed in a white robe” reported that “he is risen”. This figure urged them not to be afraid (a somewhat optimistic expectation) and commissioned them to “tell his disciples and Peter that he was “going before you to Galilee”. Notice the “before you”, meaning that the women are thus encouraged to hasten to Galilee with other disciples and to be included among those who “will see him”.
There is no further mention of disciples. None other than the women are addressed by the “young man”. All others are entirely dependent on the women to report what had been told them. However, Mark’s Gospel ends with a sentence that has intrigued his readers and hearers down through the ages:
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid …
Ancient writers added a least three bits and pieces to explain the enigmatic ending that seems to have appealed to Mark’s genius as a storyteller. I am of the opinion that he is saying to those who listen to his whole story that readers and hearers might work out what happened next for themselves. They might, perhaps turn the pages back to where the story began in Galilee and reread it with new eyes, the eyes of the women ...
Matthew’s account (28:1-10) is clearly dependent on what he read in St. Mark’s Gospel. This he embellished, omitting his and that, and adding bits of his own. His account supplies the Gospel Reading for The Mass of Easter Night Year A. Careful readers and listeners can spot where Matthew has considerably embroidered Mark’s dramatically sparse telling:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me”.
What is clear is that Matthew’s focus is on the women. Not only does “an angel of the Lord” descend from heaven, but there is a great earthquake as the women make their way to the tomb. The angel rolls back the stone and sits on it in dazzling splendour. The angel gives the women a guided tour assuring them that Jesus has risen and commissions them to be the first apostles of the resurrection who must hasten to “go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead”, commanding them to tell disciples that they must hasten to Galilee. The women run faithfully to do has the angel of the Lord had bidden them.
At this point Matthew adds a most astonishing sequel as the women ran from the tomb with fear and great joy to fulfil the angel’s command:
And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me”.
To whom does the Risen Lord first appear? The women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Who are the first people in all creation to worship the Risen Lord Jesus? The women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. To whom does the Risen Lord entrust the task of telling “my brothers” where to go and what they will see there? Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Do “his disciples, the eleven”, obey the words of the women? Yes: “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them”. The first apostles of the resurrection of Jesus were the women, whose vocation was delivered to them by the angel and confirmed by Jesus himself.
In Luke’s story it is “the women who had come with him from Galilee” who went to anoint the body and who discovered the empty tomb. Luke, never one to cut down on angels, presents two men in dazzling apparel appearing to the women. Again, Luke’s angels are never short of a word:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marvelling at what had happened.
Luke has his own very peculiar agenda. We must remember that for Luke the death of Jesus is the beginning of the story ot the Church. Every detail of the burying of Jesus, the women and the empty tomb, the reminders delivered by the “two men in dazzling apparel”, the report to the eleven and others and the failure of “the apostles” the grasp what the women reported, all these details point to the future, the future we will find in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The end of Part 1 - his Gospel - is the prologue to Part II, the Acts of the Apostles. Even Peter is readied for revelations to come.
Above all, there it the Emmaus story when Jesus walks the way with Cleophas and his companion (wife?). For in walking the way with him they learn that what is given them is the word and the bread and, seated around a table, their eyes are opened and they recognise him in whose presence they experienced burning hearts. The ultimate disclosure is for generations who walk the way:
Then they told what had happened on the way, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
We have met three women in Mark. We have met two women in Matthew. In Luke we have met Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them These are the resurrection women, the women who go to the tomb, the women who are taught by angels from heaven. These are the first apostles of the resurrection, the first to whom God in heaven reveals what has truly happened. It is the women who are taught by God and bidden to proclaim the truth of the matter.
In john’s Gospel, gloriously, all these wonderful women become Mary Magdalene. It is to her that heaven speaks. It is to her that Jesus speaks. It is Mary Magdalene who flings herself into the arms of the one who knows her so well: Mary!
At the heart of this love story is greatest revelation of all, the revelation to Mary of what must be told to all “the brothers’ Down through the ages the meaning of it all has been compressed into one sentence:
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
The last words of Jesus as he bowed his head and gave up his spirit were these:
It is accomplished.
His life, his mission, his vocation, his purpose, was to bring humanity into the embrace of love that he himself experienced from and in the Father. If it is true as Jesus tells, that the Father and I are one, so it is true that now it has been accomplished and we are all one with the Father.
This Easter Sunday - especially this dark Easter Day - that is all we know and all we need to know.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.