The Resurrection Among Us: Commentary on the Gospel of John (20:19-20)
After the Resurrection of Christ, we witness Him appearing eleven times to his disciples. His purpose is only one: to assist them in their belief and to convince them about the fact of the Resurrection. It is important to understand what Christ aimed for by appearing to his disciples, because it confirms the fact that belief in the Resurrection of the dead does not constitute a matter of intellectual acceptance. The Resurrection cannot be understood by reason alone, but is revealed in the Holy Spirit to those who sincerely seek Christ.
It is not a matter of coincidence that people nowadays accept that Christ’s teaching is of value and importance, but they find it extremely difficult to believe that He was resurrected from the dead. If it was so difficult for His disciples—i.e. the persons who have lived with Him, heard his divine teaching and experienced His miracles (see Lk. 24:11; Mt. 28:17)—to believe in the Resurrection, imagine how difficult it is for all of us, the modern believers; for our faith is not strong and solid but weak. Faith, however, is not just a human question. Above all, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a revelation of God to humankind.
Thus, the fact of the Resurrection of Christ, which is the basis and the foundation of the Christian faith and the Church (“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” 1 Cor. 15:17), is not the result of reasonable thinking or an intellectual acceptance, but a gift of the Holy Spirit. One does not believe by learning to recite the Creed as an ideological proclamation, but because the Grace of the Holy Spirit has revealed to him the life of freedom and grace, a life beyond human limits.
Faith constitutes the revelation of God in the human heart and undoubtedly is characterized by human cooperation and consent as an act of sharing and freedom. However human acceptance is not enough without the presence of the Spirit. Salvation is not earned, but is offered by God. At which exact point did the disciples realize that the man in front of them was their Lord? At the moment when Christ began to interpret the scriptures and took the bread in his hands; that is, during the interpretation of the Word of God and the breaking of the Bread, in the Holy Eucharist. This fact confirms our position that faith in the Resurrection is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not our own accomplishment.
It is worthwhile to dwell on one of the many post-Resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples mentioned in the Gospel of John (20:19-20) and draw some important and useful conclusions: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
First, let us consider the frightened disciples. They have experienced a deep traumatic event. Their teacher died. The one in whom they believed and for whom they left all of their belongings to follow is not alive anymore; He has died in a disgraceful and horrible way. Everything is over. They were seized with fear and were hiding in various places worrying for their arrest and eventual abuse. Christ decided to appear right there, in the house where they were hiding, amongst their fears and insecurities. He decided to meet them not in an ideal situation but in their own reality, because God wants to meet us in our reality no matter how horrible it is. What He disdains is not our errors or our sin, but our lies and arrogance, especially when this arrogance is hidden in a religious and pious guise.
The only place that God decides to meet us is our daily life, with its joys and sorrows, with its victories and defeats. For this reason it is important to realize that God is not horrified by our sin but abhors the arrogance of our self-proclaimed virtue, namely our effort to give the impression of something other than who we really are. The great American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his book about prayer (Prayers Plainly Spoken), states that he could not pray in any other way, words, or style than the one with which he lives and worships in daily life, because otherwise he would be inauthentic. How can one really meet the One True God when one pretends to be something one is not? It must be made absolutely clear to us that God does not demand for us to become something that we are not but to accept ourselves as we are. God is a person, and only as persons can we relate to Him. The more we accept ourselves, the greater the chances are to have a shocking encounter with Him. The nakedness of our truth is the only garment that we can wear before God. Christ, as the Bridegroom, comes in the night of our life and seeks to illuminate our darkness through the unquenchable light of his Resurrection.
There is also one more reason for the resurrected Christ to appear among His disciples. Because in this way He wants everyone to experience the Resurrection, to behold and taste the reality of it. He is not hidden, but He is revealed in front of everyone. Actually this is an eschatological image. Christ is the One who unites and brings together the scattered people of God. He is the One who unites the divided humanity but also the whole creation. Everything is united in His person. Therefore Christ stands among the disciples in order to emit a calling for union from which no one is excluded. Every one of us will be united with the resurrected body of Christ, and no one will be left out from this union, because Christ is the archetype, the inclusion and the recapitulation of the whole Creation.
It is also worth noting that these frightened creatures, hidden “for the fear of Jews” (John 20:19), who disbelieve and marvel at the words of the myrrhbearers, in a few days only will be transformed into witnesses and confessors of the Resurrection. They will preach the Gospel and stand boldly before mighty kings and authorities. They will face horrible tortures and threats, and in the end, most of them will give their lives to bear witness to the Resurrection of Christ. What had changed? What exactly was it that made them overcome their fear and brought unshakable faith and outspokenness to them? It was clearly the experience of the Resurrection, Christ appearing among them and giving them His Peace: “and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” He provides them with the regenerative power and presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, conquering fear and bringing faith and hope. The disciples saw, spoke with, and touched the risen Christ. His resurrection was true. He had risen from the dead. Life had defeated death in His person.
Encountering His disciples, Christ will make another deep symbolical gesture. He will show them His wounds and the signs of His sacrifice. What does this gesture mean? He is alive among them, why does He need to reveal the wounds of the Cross? This is done because He wants to dispel every last slight doubt of the disciples that it may not be Him, that he may be a ghost, an illusion of their expectations. By this gesture, showing the wounds of the Cross is as if He were shouting at them: “See I am your Lord, these are the signs of my love and sacrifice.” Every true love is crucified. Every genuine love has to go through sacrifice; otherwise it is just only a romantic narrative or a fake ideology.
Christ invites them to look at His wounds, behold the signs of the Cross, and see in them the sins of the world, all the evil and the injustice that, however, could not win and destroy God’s plan. Let us not forget that the Resurrection is not something that can be derived by historical analysis or reason. It did not come as a natural event but as a paradox, it came as a surprise, a total reverse in a story of hatred and evil. When Christ is betrayed and put on trial, when He is crucified and eventually dies, evil seems to prevail. However God had not said the last word. Resurrection is God’s answer to evil and injustice, to death and the threat of nothingness. The message is clear, no crucified person in history will be left without resurrection. Every one of them will taste the eternal Kingdom of God in the person of the Risen Christ, a kingdom of love, joy, and unity. A place without pain, tears, or the agony of bereavement.
Because Resurrection means being able to kiss and hug one another without death penetrating our flesh. Resurrection means to taste the kiss with the flavor that it had before the betrayal. Resurrection means taking back everything that death has insidiously stolen from us: everything that was violently deprived from us, persons and things, moments and silences, sunsets and dawns. Resurrection means justice for all the crucified on earth. On the night of the Resurrection, there in the churches, among the candles and the embraces, death succumbs. Christ sheds light and hope to every one of us. He descends to the Hades of our heart, to the darkest hour of our existence, just before total despair conquers us and preaches that life has conquered death. Christ becomes the beginning of the eternal kingdom of God. “Christ is Risen” sounds like a cry of eternal victory over death, and what love builds will not be lost.
The Very Rev. Charalambos Livyos Papadopoulos is priest in the parish of St. Irini (Pyrgos Monofatsiou) of the Holy Metropolis of Gortyna and Arcadia in Crete.