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As spring returns, the blossoms come back to life, mirroring the spiritual fruits of love, hope, and faith that grow from Jesus’ redemption. This is a truly sacred time of the year. And it brings with it a profound tranquility, repose, and promise of renewal such as the world cannot give.

Trembling, Joy, and Wonder: Post-Easter Inspiration

“And they stood still, looking sad.”

—Luke 24:17

I have long been fascinated by how the feasts of Christian calendar intertwine with our experience of everyday life. And for me nothing can equal the distinctive “mood” of the period immediately after Easter. It has always had for me mixture of calm, wonder, sadness, and joy unique in human experience and never to be replicated in art or life. The gospel narratives associated with Easter week include, in Luke, the disciples’ walk to Emmaus in which they encountered the risen Christ (at first veiled, then revealed during the evening meal) and Jesus’ appearance in the closed room to the disciples. To this latter episode John adds another in which Thomas plays a central role—the great recognition scene, the Incredulity of Thomas. That there are differences among the evangelists’ recollections must surely reflect the confused wonderment of this strange pile-up of events.

During the Easter octave I light a candle or two and, in the quiet freshness of the spring evening, read and meditate on these great Gospel episodes, whether at church or at my prayer corner at home. I marvel at how these narratives capture a complex mixture of emotions that mirror our present human condition. Of course, we experience the post-Easter period in a very different way than the disciples did. Their mood was one of sadness mixed with a certain vague frisson of hope and mystery, yet dissolving into impossibility and doubt. Jesus’ crucifixion seemed to shatter all their hopes for the immediate achievement of God’s kingdom. Not only did they lose their dearest friend and teacher, but his death was of the most brutal, harrowing, and humiliating. And, to their shame, they had most of them fled the scene, leaving their Master in desolation. Cowardice and dereliction of duty by the apostles compounded the tragedy.

And so, two of the disciples (one of them named Cleopas) found themselves, on the evening of Easter Sunday, walking to a village called Emmaus, “about seven miles from Jerusalem.” We don’t know the reason for their journey, but commentators note the metaphorical significance of their traveling away from Jerusalem—away from the site of God’s glory and redemption. They are in the grips of a crisis of faith. All the promise, the hopes and aspirations of the years they had spent with Jesus seemed to have been snuffed out. The great project was but a noble failure. Now it was back to the traditional faith of Israel and the tenuous status quo with the Roman government. Life would roll on as it always had.

The depth of their demoralization becomes plain when a mysterious stranger draws near—his head covered by a cowl, in my imagining of the scene, protection against the desert sand but also serving to veil his identity. The evangelist has clued us in that this is Jesus himself, in the most nonchalant way possible: “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” In a moment of supreme (Socratic?) irony, Jesus—the Jesus who has just conquered evil by rising from the dead, the greatest event in the history of the cosmos—asks the pair what they are talking about. “And they stood still, looking sad,” Luke tells us. And even more ironic is Cleopas’ answer: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

And here the weakening of faith becomes clear: “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet might in deed and word before God and all the people…” A prophet; not the Son of God, not the Lord or the Savior, but merely “a prophet.” Yet, although crucified, Jesus has been rumored to be walking about. Mary Magdalene and her companions became heralds of the good news; but they were not believed, as the news seemed too incredible and a prejudice among men, hard to shake off, was reluctant to credit a woman’s testimony.

Such periods of despondency, of alienation, are all too common in all our lives. We can only overcome them by tapping into the source of our joy, which is God himself. And to this purpose God himself comes to meet us on the road: “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” And Jesus, still unrecognized by Cleopas and the other disciple (whom some scholars believe was Cleopas’s wife), sets them straight about everything. He expounds the history of salvation, explaining how the various details foreshadow his life and mission, how everything expressed a grand plan conceived from the beginning of time.

In other words, Jesus directs the disciples’ attention to the tradition, to the scripture, to the objective text. The newness is rooted there in the pastness and givenness; it only needs to be unlocked with a discerning eye. Hence Jesus, whom they still believe to be merely a friendly traveler, expounds scripture to them, showing the inevitability and rationality of everything that has happened the past few days. So attractive, so magnetic is this personality that they two disciples cannot bear to part company with him; they invite him to stay with them in Emmaus.

The scriptural exegesis, as important as it is, is not all; Jesus is finally recognized by them at table in the sacrament, in the breaking of the bread—reminding them of the Last Supper, his fellowship and ultimately his sacrifice. In all his living and acting, and in this single episode after his Resurrection, Christ joins together head and body, word and image, scripture and sacrament.

And then everything makes sense. There is a moment we all experience time and again when things click together and one perceives the design behind all the mass of data. Our lives can disintegrate into a lot of momentary impressions, sensations, and facts. God alone can give coherence and meaning to it, show us where everything is leading and what the master plan is.

Meanwhile, back in the Holy City, the other disciples huddled in the upper room of their house. The cloistered evening atmosphere was deceptively peaceful, tinged with fear and uncertainty. The Master was dead, and there was no saying that they, as his closest companions, would not be taken as well. Their lives were not safe. Not until the entire Jesus movement was stamped out would the (fragile and false) peace in Judea be secured and business could go on as usual.

But what was now the basis for the disciples’ belief? The Teacher was gone, his message seemingly extinguished. Yet did he not always say that he must suffer, die, and be raised? What to make of the women’s claim to have seen angels proclaiming him to be alive? If this was true, why did Jesus not appear to them? All was suspended in doubt.

And then came the great overturning, the great clarification. In the midst of this confusion and uncertainty Jesus himself steps into the disciples’ midst on that Easter evening. Jesus seems to be appearing here and there, unlimited by space and time—there is mention of another appearance to Peter as well. Jesus says “Peace to you” and breathes on the disciples, conveying the Holy Spirit. He shows them his wounds and eats a meal of fish in their midst, proving that he is neither mirage nor ghost. Here, as at Emmaus, eating, the meal, emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ presence and illustrates the essence of his fellowship with humanity.

For the benefit of Thomas, who was not there that evening, Jesus appears again in the upper room eight days later. Thomas would not believe that Jesus had risen without seeing proof—perhaps so traumatized was he by the crucifixion that he could not get past the harrowing sight of Jesus’ wounds. Jesus does not upbraid Thomas for wanting proof—far from it. He honors the apostle’s desire for empirical verification; yet he goes beyond it and urges Thomas and us to do so too, daring to make an act of trust in eyewitnesses that have gone before us, taking our place in the community of faith, the church. Nothing, for me, can surpass the serene joy of these scenes of reunion and wonder in the upper room.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by the noted art historian Elizabeth Lev. The theme was “Return to Wonder: Artists Confront the Darkness.” Lev expounded on how the concept of wonder has informed art from ancient times forward, receiving a boost from the Christian witness and the richness art that followed from it. Artists have tried to convey wonder and surprise in the midst of a seemingly regular and matter-of-fact world, and certain tropes (like high ceilings or domes and open skies) have evolved as ways of conveying this mystery. Think too of the classic paintings illustrating the Easter texts: Caravaggio’s rendition of The Supper at Emmaus, for example, or Titian’s Noli me tangere (the scene of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden after the Resurrection), and how shadow, light, and space are used to bring out the awe and the mystery. They too enrich our experience of Easter and complement—visually realize—the biblical texts for us.

Surely it was the irruption of God’s redemption and love into a world made banal by a false peace, security, and complacency that gave the inspiration to the world that we still experience today through the Christian texts and liturgical seasons. Wonder bursts into the world through the Easter narratives; it burst for the earliest Christians and it continues to do so for us when we read and reflect on them and participate in the liturgy. Our subsequent civilization was formed from this initial explosion, this joyful shock that, along with an unearthly peace, defined the mood of the first Easter. The dramatic reversal, the wondrous and astounding eucatastrophe—in short, the “Easter Effect” (as George Weigel has termed it)—formed our culture and is the event that continues gives us hope.

“We are an Easter people,” my religion teacher told us in the eighth grade; the statement made a strong impression on me. Among many other things, the Christian feasts structure our time and give it meaning. Further, they provide a world-picture that shapes the mind and imagination and gives direction to our life. We belong to, live our lives in relation to, a historical reality. Secularism as such has been unable to generate such an imaginative world-picture, a cultural atmosphere that inspires life and to which one returns again and again in reflection, finding new layers of meaning.

Only the biblical witness and the rites of the church can do this, and they do it in tandem with nature, not in opposition to it. As spring returns, the world outside contains such freshness and promise, rife for the realization of great hopes, for the fulfillment of God’s plans for individual lives and for history as a whole. A chill in the evening air reminds us of the pang of uncertainty and danger, the strangeness and mystery that the disciples felt. Yet even now the blossoms come back to life, mirroring the spiritual fruits of love, hope, and faith that grow from Jesus’ redemption.

This is a truly sacred time of the year. And it brings with it a profound tranquility, repose, and promise of renewal such as the world cannot give. As I bring this layman’s meditation to a close, let me suggest that we stop what we are doing and meditate on these great texts during these blessed days.

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The featured image is “Gang nach Emmaus” (1877) by Robert Zünd, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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