March 30-31, 2013
At daybreak on the first day of the week
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus
took the spices they had prepared
and went to the tomb.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;
but when they entered,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold,
two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.
They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.
They said to them,
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners
and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”
And they remembered his words.
Then they returned from the tomb
and announced all these things to the eleven
and to all the others.
The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;
the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,
but their story seemed like nonsense
and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb,
bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;
then he went home amazed at what had happened.
In 1957, Lieutenant David Steeves walked out of the California Sierra Mountains, 54 days after his Air Force trainer jet had disappeared. He related an unbelievable tale of survival after parachuting from his disabled plane. For almost three months, he said, he had eaten berries and dug snow tunnels in which to sleep, had seen no one during the entire time, and finally walked out on his own. By the time he had showed up alive, he had already been declared officially dead and his story was viewed with much skepticism because during that same time frame his assigned unit had been sent to the Korean War. When further search failed to turn up any wreckage, a hoax was suspected and Steeves was forced to resign under a cloud of doubt. For over two decades, he was branded as a deserter and a possible spy. At the same time, incredible stories, based on not a shred of evidence, were told about him: he had sold his plane to the Russians, or shipped it piecemeal to Mexico. Steeves died in 1965.
In 1977 a troop of Boy Scouts hiking through Kings Canyon National Park discovered wreckage from a plane which was eventually confirmed as that of Steeve’s aircraft. His family was issued an apology from the military and was told that Lt. David Steeve’s hame was reinstated with honor. One of Steeve’s friends after the ceremony told the Associated Press: “This is nice,” but then added, “I just wish someone would have believed Dave back then.”
When we do not possess personal evidence, our reaction, as was the case of Lt. Steeves, can often be one of skepticism. In many ways, we live in a skeptical world, where belief is not embraced without so-called “proof.” While, at the same time, we can too easily ascribe confidence in sensational stories without the least shred of evidence. But, let us not consider our age special in this capacity. Just as many were skeptical about Lt. Steeve’s resurrection story, so too were those who heard, some 20 centuries ago, and through the centuries since, another story of seeming resurrection, that of Jesus.
The evidence instead seemed to point to another overwhelming conclusion, for the people had actually seen Jesus suffer an excruciatingly real death—and now, he has reported alive. The result, then and now, about this report: skepticism. When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James report the empty tomb and the two messengers testify that Jesus had been raised, the other disciples react with skepticism: the gospel details: “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.”
Such skepticism, quickly overcome in the appearances of the risen Christ, did not end with the disciples. Ever since the first Easter morning, persons have attempted to suggest the resurrection a myth, nothing more than a conspiracy. This spreading skepticism is evident even in the Gospels, particularly that of Matthew, which reports: The chief priests, hearing the report of the empty tomb, “gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘tell the people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the Governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed, and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” The implication of this suggestion is that the disciples made up the whole story of Jesus’ resurrection. Let us consider if such a conspiracy is possible.
The most credible refutation of this “conspiracy” theory is the behaviors of the disciples themselves:
They had no motive to lie. Rather, they had every reason to recant, but did not. One writer, Peter Kreeft, said: “What advantage did the “conspirators” derive from their “lie”? They were hated, scorned, persecuted, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, crucified, boiled alive, roasted, beheaded, disemboweled and fed to lions—hardly a catalog of perks!” The message was preached with the courage and boldness that only comes with deep conviction—a dramatic change from the “scattered” disciples to the first martyrs of the faith: The same writer goes on, “Their sincerity is proved in their words and deeds. They preached a resurrected Christ and they lived a resurrected Christ. They willingly died for their “conspiracy.” Nothing proves sincerity like martyrdom. They change in their lives from fear to faith, despair to confidence, confusion to certitude, runaway cowardice to steadfast boldness under threat and persecution, not only proves their sincerity but testifies to some powerful cause of it. Can a lie cause such a transformation? Are truth and goodness such enemies that the greatest good in history—sanctity—has come from the greatest lie?”
It is the life and faith of the disciples that is the most compelling evidence of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. It is evidence that did not end with the original disciples, but continued with new generations of believers, who, though the message lacked a certain appeal, yet accepted it in large multitudes. St. Thomas Aquinas commented: “In the midst of the tyranny of the persecutors, an innumerable throng of people, both simple and learned, flocked to the Christian faith. In this faith, there are truths proclaimed that surpass every human intellect; the pleasures of the flesh are curbed; it is taught that the things of the world should be spurned. Now, for the minds of mortal men to assent to these things is the greatest of miracles. . . . This wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is the clearest witness.”
Above all, the greatest of the followers of Jesus, the saints, provide in their lives the most compelling proof of the truth of the Risen Christ—still present, still active, still changing lives: St. Francis—twelve centuries after Jesus’ death, leaves behind everything to follow Jesus in poverty. St. Francis Xavier—fifteen hundred years after the crucifixion, travels to the ends of the world in great hardship to preach a message not frequently met with indifference or hostility. St. Maximilian Kolbe—in the mid 20th century, gives his life in a concentration camp for a father with a family out of imitation of Jesus. And, all down the ages, millions of Christians running hospitals, schools, orphanages, soup kitchens, etc.
The Risen Christ is still changing lives. Even those of us who again gather on Easter are not immune to the general skepticism that pervades our world. When a skeptical eye is cast towards our faith, or when we begin to entertain doubts, let us look to a most compelling proof of Christ’s resurrection—his followers, whose lives have been changed dramatically by a very real and very present love.
It is that same Risen Christ, whose spirit is very much alive and present today, who has drawn all of us here today. Christ is undeniably risen and alive—just look to his disciples, from the first, through all the saints, to today—just look around you now. Jesus is truly risen, as seen in the lives of his followers. Only the most stubborn of skeptics would think otherwise.