The Liturgies of the Easter Season are filled with an abundance of glorious Gospel narratives concerning the Resurrection. And, yet, one aspect of these stories which appears a bit disconcerting is a similar pattern involving a difficulty in recognizing Jesus.
For example, in the Gospel of John 21:1-19, seven of the disciples of Jesus are fishing just off the coast of the Sea of Tiberias, and Jesus appears on the shore. Yet, at first, the disciples do not realize that it is him. Similarly, in the Gospel of John 20:11-18, Mary Magdalene stands outside the tomb of the Lord. She sees a man nearby and draws the conclusion that he is a gardener in the cemetery, only later learning that it is her beloved Rabbouni, her teacher and Master. Moreover, in the Gospel of John 20:19-23, the disciples have locked themselves in the Upper Room for protection from the Jerusalem authorities, but when a figure emerges in their midst proclaiming a message of peace, it takes the repetition of this greeting to alert them that the visitor is Jesus. And, finally, in the Gospel of Luke 24:13-35, two followers of the Christ, Cleopas and another disciple, are making a journey toward the village of Emmaus. A fellow traveler draws near them, joins them on the walk and engages them in conversation. Still, they do not perceive that their companion is the Lord.
I suspect that a number of Biblical scholars likely would conclude from their study of these passages that one of the purposes of these narratives is to emphasize the unique status of Jesus following his Resurrection. That is, the delayed recognition of the Jesus is a means of emphasizing that the risen Lord has a different kind of appearance, a transformed or resurrected body, which explains why it takes a while for recognition to take place. And, while I certainly would support such a theory, I would like to suggest another possible motive that the Evangelists are following in presenting these stories. I would propose that it is not just the new form of the appearance of Jesus that is making recognition more difficult. I would like to make the case that the recognition of the Lord also is difficult because the disciples are allowing obstacles to block their faith and thus cloud their perception.
When you examine these stories from this perspective, it is very apparent that each of the narratives has such an obstacle or hindrance at play. In the story taking place at the Sea of Tiberias, it could be said that the obstacle is the failure of the disciples to stand behind Jesus and defend him when he is arrested. In addition, one might conclude that the guilt of this failure extends to the fact that the disciples seem to have made a decision to return to their former occupation as fishermen rather than embrace the Gospel mission Jesus had entrusted to them. In the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, it would seem that she is struggling with the grief of the death of Jesus and the uncertainty of not knowing why his body is no longer in the tomb. Previously, she had assumed that his body had been stolen. In the story of the disciples assembled in the Upper Room, the hindrance affecting the followers of Jesus appears to be fear. The matter of their seclusion behind the locked door seems to indicate the apostles are intimidated by the possibility of their sharing a fate similar to the arrest and execution of their Lord. And, in the story of Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, the impediment likely is the matter of their hopes having been dashed. Recall what was said to the stranger about the disillusionment that accompanied the fate of the one they considered a prophet mighty in deed and word, “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
In all of these cases, something is getting in the way of the faith of the followers of Jesus. They are pre-occupied with other factors — negative realities — that are literally crowding out faith. Things like shame, frustration, grief, uncertainty, fear and hopelessness are blocking their ability to see things more clearly. The light of faith cannot illuminate the presence of Christ in their midst. He is right there, the Evangelists are trying to show us — almost urging us to let go of these negative factors and let faith shine.
Thankfully, in each of the cases of these narratives, Jesus takes the initiative to dispel the darkness. He does something to remove the obstacle which is blocking recognition. In the story unfolding at the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus offers promise and new possibilities, inviting his disciples to “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” In other words, try something new. In the story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, Jesus reaches out to her in a personal and intimate relationship of love and calls her by name, “Mary.” In the story of the disciples assembled in the Upper Room, Jesus strives to take away their fear. In addition to the offer of the words “Peace be with you,” he breathes on them the reconciliation and healing power of the Holy Spirit. And, in the narrative of Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, Jesus turns their minds to the Sacred Scriptures. He points out how the Scriptures tell how it was necessary for the Messiah first to suffer before liberating and saving his people. Jesus is portrayed in each of these stories as taking away the obstacle that blocks perception by redirecting the disciples toward faith in him and all of the positive blessings that can bring.
And, to me, that could well be the other motive the Evangelists are proposing for how these stories of the Resurrection can also speak to us. After all, there are certainly times in our lives when we struggle to recognize the presence of the risen Lord. There are times when we cannot find him or feel his presence, and it can become so bad that we begin to doubt that it is even possible for him to be present.
The message of the Resurrection stories of the Gospels would tell us that — in these cases — we have allowed obstacles to block our faith. We have let our mind become obsessed with the negativity that presses upon us — whether that be problems, worries, anxiety, confusion or sadness. That is what we have let take front and center in our minds. And, in that position, such negativity blocks the view our faith can offer us. It crowds our mind, and it shutters the light.
So, in those cases, the Resurrection stories would tell us that we need to let go of such stumbling blocks and to make room for faith. We have to turn our minds off those obstacles and begin to think of those positive realities associated with the faith of our Lord. We have to focus on things like the promise and new possibilities that Jesus can give us, the reassurance of love that our intimate relationship with Jesus can offer, the peace and forgiveness that the Holy Spirit can bestow upon us and the revelation of the plan of God that the Sacred Scriptures can reveal to us. It is turning our minds to those positive realities that makes room for the light of faith to shine.
With our focus on the positivity of the saving interventions of our Lord, then, the curtain of dark realities will be torn down, and the brightness of faith will be allowed to shine in all of its splendor and glory. And, then, in this radiant light of faith, we will see the risen Lord — right there beside us — to help us, to rescue us, to save us — right where he has been all along.