Scripture and the Liturgy

The Priesthood of the New Covenant: Easter Sunday

The Mass of Easter Day is one of the most joyful in the Church calendar, as the Church basks in the afterglow of the most remarkable intervention of God into human history, the resurrection of his own son.

1.  The First Reading is Acts 10:34a, 37-43:

Peter proceeded to speak and said:
“You know what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.
We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”

This Reading from Acts is a beautiful summary of the Gospel message and the faith of the early Church.  In this synopsis of Peter’s preaching (for he surely went on for some time: a half-hour, an hour, or more), we see a summary of the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark, which is traditionally held to represent Peter’s preaching and follows the ministry of Jesus from the Baptism of John to the resurrection.  Another important aspect of the Gospel is that “to him all the prophets bear witness,” in other words, it is integral to the Christian faith that the ministry of Jesus is rooted in the Scriptures of Israel (the Old Testament) and, in fact, is the “hermeneutical lens” or “interpretive key” for making sense of “the Law, Prophets, and Writings.”

Peter’s remark that the Apostles had “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”  We recall that, at the last Supper in Luke’s account, Jesus had spoken of not eating and drinking again until the coming of the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:16,18).  Yet after the resurrection (Luke 24:41-43), and during the forty days between Easter and the Ascension (Acts 1:4 in the Greek), Jesus shared meals with the Apostles, showing that the Kingdom of God had arrived.  These meals are also essentially Eucharistic celebrations: meals with the risen Christ.  As we go to commune in the Eucharist this Easter Sunday, we are “eating and drinking with Him after he rose from the dead.”  Our Eucharistic participation is a proclamation that the Kingdom of God has arrived on the earth, and that Kingdom of God is manifested in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which, for all the sinners within her, is still the “saving net” cast by the hands of the successors of the Fishermen, drawing people into eternal life (see Matt 13:47-50)!

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23:

R/ (24) This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R/ Alleluia.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R/ This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R/ Alleluia.
“The right hand of the LORD has struck with power;
the right hand of the LORD is exalted.
I shall not die, but live,
and declare the works of the LORD.”
R/ This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R/ Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
R/ This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R/ Alleluia.

Psalm 118 is such a powerful psalm, and so appropriate for this liturgy!  Psalm 118 is a todah psalm, as we have discussed before.  A key line of the psalm is “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his mercy (Heb. hesed!) endures forever.”  This refrain could be called the theme of the entire psalter, which is a book of praises in thanks for God’s covenant fidelity (Heb. “hesed”) to Israel.  God has shown his covenant fidelity most powerfully by raising Jesus Christ—the Son of David and Messiah, the true Israel embodied in one person—from the dead.  In raising Jesus, the only fully true Israelite who as King vicariously represented the entire nation, God has raised all Israel from the dead, in fulfillment of Ezekiel 37, which was read on Lazarus Sunday (Fifth Sunday of Lent). 

We also want to recall that Psalm 118 was the final Psalm of the Passover Hallel, the hymn composed of Psalms 113-118 that pious Jews sung during the Passover Seder.  This is likely the hymn spoken of in the Gospel accounts as sung when Jesus and the disciples left the upper room (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26).  As some of the last words Jesus chanted before entering into the “night” (John 13:30) of his Passion, this psalm has particular poignancy as we take it up now as a song of victory.  In Jesus, the full meaning of the Passover Seder has been fulfilled!  The psalm that was prophetic on Maundy Thursday has been realized, and is now a cry of triumph!

The “stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” of the Church, the Temple of God built of living stones (Eph 2:17-22), which replaces the Temple of Stone in Jerusalem that was destroyed within a generation (by AD 70).  As we enter into the Easter Season, we will be focusing on the growth of the Church, the building of this new living Temple, by reading the Book of Acts during daily Mass and Lord’s Days.

3.  The Second Reading is Col 3:1-4:

Brothers and sisters:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears,
then you too will appear with him in glory.

This short reading from the Apostle Paul can be understood as words of instruction to newly baptized Christians (and to older Christians as well!).  It describes the whole Christian life, in which we have died to ourselves, and now live for “what is above” until we “appear with him in glory.” This means our lives need to be centered around the love of God in Jesus Christ, not around money, material possessions, entertainment, food, sex, drugs, the acquisition of fame, or any other vain thing: the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life.”  When Christians get distracted with seeking those things, the Christian life falls apart.

or 1 Cor 5:6b-8

Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

There is strong Eucharistic imagery in this passage.  When Paul speaks of “clearing out the old yeast,” he evokes the image of Jewish preparation for the Passover, in which yeast had to be removed from the home.  The bread of the Passover was unleavened; in keeping with this principle, the Latin Rite continues to use unleavened bread in the New Passover, the Eucharist.  When Paul speaks of “celebrating the feast,” he refers to the Eucharist, our Messianic Passover.  But the unleavened bread of the Eucharist must be matched with an “unleavened” lifestyle, that is, a lifestyle free of “malice and wickedness,” and characterized by “sincerity and truth.” 

4. Gospel John 20:1-9:

On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark,
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
For they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.

There is a great deal of meaning in this famous “running to the tomb” of those two great Apostles Peter and John.  John was far younger, almost certainly a teenager, and thus he outruns the middle-aged Peter with ease.  Nonetheless, he defers to Peter and allows the older Apostle to enter the tomb first.  Spiritual writers have often seen in this—and correctly, I believe—an example of the proper relationship of the mystic and the magisterium in the life of the Church.  John is the mystic who always seems to perceive the truth about Jesus one step before Peter, who represents the teaching authority and hierarchy of the Church.  Nonetheless, John is not arrogant: he waits patiently for the Peter (the magisterium) to catch up.  So those believers gifted with spiritual insights should not break from the Church or become “mavericks” in pursuit of their vision or charism, but should wait for the rest of the Church, and particularly its leadership, to “catch up.”

John’s sight of the burial clothes is one of the most powerful testimonies that this was truly a supernatural resurrection, and not a case of corpse theft.  No one intent on stealing Jesus’ body would take the time in the tomb to unwrap the corpse from its burial clothes!  Not only was that unnecessary, but there were the Roman guards outside—presumably “knocked out” by the body-snatchers, but soon to wake up at any moment.  The whole scenario was too dangerous: why stay in the tomb to unwrap the body, risking being discovered, arrested, and executed for defying the authorities?  Why take the time to fold up the head cloth and set it aside? Moreover, the grave clothes, by this time, were rigid and adhered to the corpse, because myrrh and aloes were sticky (John 19:39), and formed a kind of “embalming glue” after they had dried on the linen (John 19:40).  In fact, unless Jesus’ burial was unusual, what John saw was probably a hollow “cocoon,” a semi-rigid empty mummy-shape made of the linen formed around the now-missing body and stiffened by the dried embalming fluids.  How could anyone have gotten the body out?  He resurrected right “through” the burial clothes.  Something supernatural had taken place.  So he “saw and believed.”

At this Easter Sunday Mass, we do not see the grave clothes in the empty tomb, but John has born us witness, and “we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).  Moreover, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).  We have the testimony of the Apostles, many historical evidences, and the witness of miracles and apparitions in our own time.  Nonetheless, it still requires faith to say “Amen” to the radical assertion, “The Body of Christ.”  And this is part of God’s pedagogy: he reveals Himself clearly enough that we have reason to believe, but not so directly as to compel us and force our will.  He always leaves room for us to exercise faith, because he desires children who will trust him, not servants forced to serve him.  Let’s come as children to this Eucharist, confident in the testimony of the Apostles Peter (in the First Reading) and John (in the Gospel) that Christ has risen, and exercising faith to believe the Eucharist we receive is the same body that was missing from the tomb.


For afternoon masses, the account of Our Lord’s appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus may be read:

Gospel Lk 24:13-35

That very day, the first day of the week,
two of Jesus’ disciples were going
to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus,
and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
He asked them,
“What are you discussing as you walk along?”
They stopped, looking downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply,
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem
who does not know of the things
that have taken place there in these days?”
And he replied to them, “What sort of things?”
They said to him,
“The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,
who was a prophet mighty in deed and word
before God and all the people,
how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over
to a sentence of death and crucified him.
But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel;
and besides all this,
it is now the third day since this took place.
Some women from our group, however, have astounded us:
they were at the tomb early in the morning
and did not find his body;
they came back and reported
that they had indeed seen a vision of angels
who announced that he was alive.
Then some of those with us went to the tomb
and found things just as the women had described,
but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them what referred to him
in all the Scriptures.
As they approached the village to which they were going,
he gave the impression that he was going on farther.
But they urged him, “Stay with us,
for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem
where they found gathered together
the eleven and those with them who were saying,
“The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!”
Then the two recounted
what had taken place on the way
and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

This is a fun Gospel story where Jesus shows up “incognito” and “plays dumb”, like the detective “Columbo” of the classic crime-mystery TV series of the same name.  “What are you discussing?” Jesus says, as if he doesn’t know what’s going on.  But once Cleophas mildly rebukes him for “living under a rock” (actually, he had been under a rock for a few days), Jesus starts “monologuing” about biblical theology and prophetic predictions of the messiah.  Cleophas and his colleague (perhaps St. Luke himself?) are fascinated and invite Jesus to stay for the evening meal.  It there, in the context of “breaking bread,” that Jesus reveals himself.

As many have noted, this narrative has the basic structure of the Mass: first, Jesus celebrates the “Liturgy of the Word” by explaining how all the Scriptures point to himself and his redemptive work on the cross.  Then, Jesus celebrates the “Liturgy of the Eucharist” by breaking bread for the disciples.  The point of Jesus’ disappearance after distributing the bread to them is that His presence is no longer to be sought in apparitions, but in the bread itself.  It is early “Real Presence” theology.  From now on, in the economy of salvation, Jesus will not usually be known from apparitions, but through the Sacrament. 

We note, however, that Jesus’ explanation of Scripture “made their hearts burn”!  Would that homilies would still make our hearts burn!  But for that to happen, we need to teach the Scriptures in seminaries in a different way than they have been taught for generations.  Source, form, and redaction criticism have never made anyone’s heart burn, except perhaps with indigestion.  These methods may have their place, but aside from often being based on presuppositions prejudicial to Christian faith, they are also too speculative to serve as a foundation for theology.  We need to learn to read the Bible as a unity and in its final form once more, employing a hermeneutic of faith. 

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