From the beginning, the proclamation of the resurrection of the Lord is inseparable from the memory of his appearances. In Luke we see this process right at its beginning. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus, after seeing the risen Lord, go back to the eleven apostles, they are told: ‘It is true, the Lord has risen, and he has appeared to Simon!’ (Luke 24:34)
St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, gives what we may take as a summary of the oldest tradition regarding the appearances of the Risen Lord: ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’ (1Cor 15:3-8)
Neither the eleven, nor Paul, apparently think it worth mentioning that the first appearance was to women. Not because it didn’t happen, but because it wasn’t important. The culture of the day placed no value on the word of female witnesses. The very insignificance of the women, even to the apostles, highlights how very significant it is that the Lord did appear first to women. When the time came for the Evangelists to record the appearances of the Lord in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this significance was not lost. So, the summary of the appearances of Jesus that is appended to the Gospel of Mark, says:
‘Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.’ (Mark 16:9-14)
There are personal, private appearances of the risen Lord, and public communal appearances. The evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke focus on the communal. Apart from Luke’s mention of the appearance to Simon, they describe only occasions when Jesus appears to a group or to a pair of disciples. It is John – as we would expect – who dwells on the personal element. He has three characters who are either alone when the Lord appears, or who, in the course of an appearance to a group, are singled out by Jesus for a very personal dialogue. The three are Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter. All these three have a great, and very personal, need for Jesus. In the case of Mary, the need is simply love. She loves the Lord so much that she cannot bear his absence. In the case of Thomas, it is his stubborn refusal to believe, the need to be convinced. In the case of Peter, the need to be forgiven, after his threefold denial of Jesus.
For each of them, it is their need, and not any special virtue they have, that draws the risen Lord to them. Their need also provides the theme for their conversation with Jesus. For Mary, there is simply one word, her own name, spoken by Jesus with tenderness: Mary. For Thomas, the sight of the sacred wounds. For Peter, the opportunity for a threefold affirmation of love, corresponding to his threefold denial. Each of them, because of their neediness, receives from Jesus a unique gift that is for the whole community of disciples. Mary bears the consoling message that though they had abandoned him, they are still his brothers, his Father is their Father, his God is their God. Thomas bears the promise that the blessedness that he had from being so close to Jesus will be given to everyone who does not see, but believes. And Peter bears the assurance that through his ministry the Good Shepherd will always protect his sheep.
Both the communal and the personal experience of the risen Lord remain alive in the Church. The proclamation of the Gospel by the successors of the Apostles, and the common faith of believers, testify that the Lord has risen. And with that common proclamation and that common faith, is the personal experience of believers, the Lord working in the heart of every believer to confirm the truth of the testimony, working more through our weakness than our strength, saying to each of us what he said to Paul: ‘My power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Cor 12:9)
Abbot Anselm Atkinson OSB