“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.” – Luke 24: 5-6
In Luke’s Gospel, these are the very first words spoken aloud after Jesus dies and is laid in the tomb. The speakers are, “two men in dazzling garments,” messengers of God, who appear to Mary Magdalene and a few other women who are coming to the tomb with spices and perfumed oils to anoint the body of their Lord. The words of these angels have vast significance not only because they are the first proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, but also because of another important message that they extend to the early disciples.
These women, early disciples of Jesus, know that Jesus has died – how recently it was that they beheld His terrible crucifixion, and saw Him give up His spirit freely to His Father. But in their limited understanding of Jesus’ teaching (they are, after all, only human), what they fail to understand is that Jesus is not dead. Certainly, He has died, but He cannot be held by the bonds of death, in His divinity, in His perfection, and therefore He lives. This is how it must be; it could not be otherwise with Jesus, who said of himself, “Just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to the Son the possession of life in himself.” So it is fitting that the angel should speak thus, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”
According to human wisdom and earthly experience, however, this makes no sense, as we see when Mary Magdalene and her companions recount their experience to the other disciples: “But their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” Only Peter (in John’s Gospel he is accompanied by the beloved disciple) thinks it worth seeing for himself. When he finds the tomb empty, he is amazed, yet he still does not understand what has taken place.
After this, Luke does not describe Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, as the other evangelists do. Instead, he proceeds to the appearance on the road to Emmaus, a narrative that illustrates beautifully the glorious fact that Jesus has been raised and brought to new life by the Father. It clearly shows how the nature of His life in the New Covenant takes on three main forms, which are at the heart of Christianity:
- The Resurrection of the Body
- The True Presence in the Eucharist
- The Presence in Humanity
Jesus walks alongside two disciples as they make their way to the little village of Emmaus, near Jerusalem, but they are unable to recognize Him. He asks them about “the things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,” although, of course, He knows all. When they express to Him their confusion at the Crucifixion, and their astonishment at the rumors of the Resurrection, He proceeds to explain to them all of the scriptures relating to the Messiah, and His purpose and task on the Earth.
When the three reach Emmaus, the disciples ask Jesus to stay with them, and He agrees. Here, Jesus makes Himself known to the two disciples in the breaking of the bread, then disappears from their sight.
The walk to Emmaus and Jesus’ speech with the two men, along with the physical breaking of the bread, shows that He has truly been raised from the dead, and that He, in His own human body, is alive among them. This is an important truth to accept and believe – Jesus did not merely rise again in spirit, but is truly alive and reunited with the body originally given Him by God. At the same time, however, His body is changed, and is no longer limited by the world. This is proven when Christ vanishes, something only distantly approached once before, when He walks from the midst of an angry crowd. This miracle gives us a foretaste of the glories that await us in the life of the New Covenant.
The breaking of the bread is the ultimate sign of Christ’s true presence – it is in this act that the disciples finally recognize Jesus. He repeats precisely the actions of the Last Supper: “He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” And so Jesus wills to continually reveal Himself to us, body and blood, soul and divinity, through the same Eucharist He offered the apostles on the night before He died.
Finally, Jesus reveals at Emmaus His presence in every human soul. In Matthew’s Gospel, He says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” and He illustrates this presence also at Emmaus. The two disciples, who are open to Jesus’ words and accept Him, though they do not know His identity, encounter Jesus in the stranger, as well as in His resurrected body and in the Eucharist. And after He leaves them, they say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?” So too, we often realize Christ’s presence in others when we examine our encounters in retrospect, though we were oblivious to Him at the time.
Jesus takes these three wonderful forms in His resurrected life, and in all of them He is still present to us today, just as He was to the two disciples at Emmaus. So why do we so often look for Jesus as though He is distant? Why do we still “seek the living one among the dead?”
The next time we are in a tight place and trying to decide what path to take, let’s not ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do if He were here now?” Let’s ask, “What will Jesus do, here and now, through me?” Or even better, speak directly to Christ, “Lord, what do You want to do through me? What is Your will for me in this moment?”
And when we are in doubt and unsure of the right path, we should pray with confidence to the risen Jesus, knowing that He sits at the right hand of the Father in glory, we should receive Him in the Eucharist, knowing that the gift of His body, blood, soul and divinity can only increase our faith and make us more Christ-like, and we should strive to see Him in all people, especially the lowly of the world, for “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Above all, let us stop looking for God in the tomb, and realize the wondrous fact that “He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22: 32).
© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.