Easter Morning: The night between Saturday and Sunday has well nigh run its course, and the day-dawn is appearing.
The Mother of sorrows is waiting, in courageous hope and patience, for the blissful moment of her Jesus’ return. Magdalene and the other holy women have spent the night in watching, and are preparing to start for the sepulchre. In limbo, the Soul of our crucified Lord is about to give the glad word of departure to the myriads of the long-imprisoned holy souls, who cluster round Him in adoring love. Death is still holding his silent sway over the sepulchre, where rests the Body of Jesus. Since the day when he gained his first victim, Abel, he has swept off Countless generations; but never has he held in his grasp a prey so noble as this that now lies in the tomb near Calvary. Never has the terrible sentence of God, pronounced against our first parents, received such a fulfilment as this; but, never has death received such a defeat as the one that is now preparing. It is true, the power of God has, at times, brought back the dead to life: the son of the widow of Naim, and Lazarus, were reclaimed from the bondage of this tyrant death; but he regained his sway over them all. But his Victim of Calvary is to conquer him for ever, for this is He of whom it is written in the prophecy: ‘O death! I will be thy death!’ [Osee, xiii, 14]. Yet a few brief moments and the battle will be begun, and life shall vanquish death.
As divine justice could not allow the Body that was united to the Word to see corruption, and there wait, like ours must, for the Archangel’s word to ‘rise and come to judgement,’ so neither could it permit the dominion of death to be long over such a Victim. Jesus had said to the Jews: ‘A wicked generation seeketh a sign; and a sign shall not be given it, but that of Jonas the prophet.’ [St. Matth. xii, 39]. Three days in the tomb, - the afternoon and night of Friday, the whole of Saturday, and a few hours of the Sunday, - yes, these are enough: enough to satisfy divine justice; enough to certify the death of the Crucified, and make His triumph glorious; enough to complete the martyrdom of that most loving of mothers, the Queen of sorrows.
‘No man taketh away my life from Me: I lay it down of Myself: I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ [St. John, x, 18].
Thus spoke our Redeemer to the Jews before His Passion: now is the hour for the fulfilment of His words, and death shall feel their whole force. The day of light, Sunday, has begun, and its early dawn is struggling with the gloom. The Soul of Jesus immediately darts from the prison of limbo, followed by the whole multitude of the holy souls that are around Him. In the twinkling of an eye, it reaches and enters the sepulchre, and reunites itself with that Body, which, three days before, it had quitted amidst an agony of suffering. The sacred Body returns to life, raises itself up, and throws aside the winding-sheet, the spices, and the bands. The bruises have disappeared, the Blood has been brought back to the veins; and from these limbs that bad been torn by the scourging, from this head that had been mangled by the thorns, from these hands and feet that had been pierced with nails, there darts forth a dazzling light that fills the cave. The holy Angels had clustered round the stable and adored the Babe of Bethlehem; they are now around the sepulchre, adoring the conqueror of death. They take the shrouds, and reverently folding them up, place them on the slab, whereon the Body bad been laid by Joseph and Nicodemus.
But Jesus is not to tarry in the gloomy sepulchre. Quicker than a ray of light through a crystal, He passes through the stone that closes the entrance of the cave. Pilate had ordered his seal to be put upon this stone, and a guard of soldiers is there to see that no one touches it. Untouched it is, and unmoved; and yet Jesus is free! Thus, as the holy Fathers unanimously teach us, was it at His birth: He appeared to the gaze of Mary, without having offered the slightest violence to her maternal womb. The birth and the resurrection, the commencement and the end of Jesus’ mission, these two mysteries bear On them the seal of resemblance: in the first, it is a Virgin Mother; in the last, it is a sealed tomb giving forth its captive God.
And while this Jesus, this Man-God, thus breaks the sceptre of death, the stillness of the night is un disturbed. His and our victory has cost Him no effort. 0 death! where is now thy kingdom? Sin had made us thy slaves; thy victory was complete; and now, lo! thou thyself art defeated! Jesus, whom thou didst exultingly hold under thy law, has set
Himself free; and we, after thou hast domineered over us for a time, we too shall be free from thy grasp. The tomb thou makest for us, will become to us the source of a new life, for He that now conquers thee is ‘the First-born among the dead ; and to-day is the Pasch, the Passover, the deliverance, for Jesus and for us, His brethren. He has led the way; we shall follow; and the day will come, when thou, the enemy, that destroyest all things, shalt thyself be destroyed by immortality. Thy defeat dates from this moment of Jesus’ resurrection, and, with the great Apostle, we say to thee: ‘O death! where is thy victory? O death! where is thy sting ? ‘
But the sepulchre is not to remain shut: it must be thrown open, and testify to men, that He, whose lifeless Body lay there, is indeed risen from the dead. As when our Jesus expired upon the Cross, so now, immediately after His resurrection, an earthquake shook the foundations of the world; but, this time, it was for joy. ‘The Angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow. And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror,’ and fell on the ground ‘as dead men.’ God has mercy on them; they return to themselves, and quitting the dread sepulchre, they hasten to the city, and relate what they have seen.
Meanwhile, our risen Jesus, seen by no other mortal eye, has sped to His most holy Mother. He is the Son of God; He is the vanquisher of death; but He is, likewise, the Son of Mary. She stood near Him to the last, uniting the sacrifice of her mother’s heart with that He made upon the Cross; it is just, therefore, that she should be the first to partake of the joy of His resurrection. The Gospel does not relate the apparition thus made by Jesus to His Mother, whereas all the others are fully described. It is not difficult to assign the reason. The other apparitions were intended as proofs of the resurrection; this to Mary was dictated by the tender love borne to her by her Son. Both nature and grace required that His first visit should be to such a Mother, and Christian hearts dwell with delight on the meditation of the mystery. There was no need of its being mentioned in the Gospel; the tradition of the holy Fathers, beginning with St. Ambrose, bears sufficient testimony to it; and even had they been silent, our hearts would have told it us. And why was it that our Saviour rose from the tomb so early on the day He had fixed for His resurrection? It was because His filial love was impatient to satisfy the vehement longings of His dearest and most afflicted Mother. Such is the teaching of many pious and learned writers; and who that knows aught of Jesus and Mary could refuse to accept it?
But who is there would attempt to describe the joy of such a meeting? Those eyes, that had grown dim from wakefulness and tears, now flash with delight at beholding the brightness which tells her Jesus is come. He calls her by her name; not with the tone of voice which pierced her soul when He addressed her from the Cross, but with an accent of joy and love, such as a son would take when telling a mother that he had triumphed. The Body, which, three days ago, she had seen covered with Blood and dead, is now radiant with life, beaming with the reflections of divinity. He speaks to her words of tenderest affection, He embraces her, He kisses her. Who, we ask, would dare to describe this scene, which the devout Abbot Rupert says so inundated the soul of Mary with joy, that it made her forget all the sorrows she had endured.
Nor must we suppose that the visit was a short One, In one of the revelations granted to St. Teresa, our Lord told her, that when He appeared to His blessed Mother immediately after His resurrection, He found her so overwhelmed with grief that she would soon have died; that it was not until several moments had passed, that she was able to realize the immense joy of His presence; and that He remained a long time with her, in order to console her.’
Let us, who love this blessed Mother and have seen her offer up her Son on Calvary for our sake, let us affectionately rejoice in the happiness wherewith Jesus now repays her, and let us learn to compassion ate her in her dolours. This is the first manifestation of our risen Jesus: it is a just reward for the unwavering faith which has dwelt in Mary’s soul during these three days, when all but she had lost it. But it is time for Him to show Himself to others, that so the glory of His resurrection may be made known to the world. His first visit was to her who is the dearest to Him of all creatures, and who well deserved the favour; now, in His goodness, He is about to console those devoted women, whose grief is, perhaps, too human, but their love is firm, and neither death nor the tomb have shaken it.
Yesterday, when sun-set proclaimed to the Jews the end of the great Sabbath and the commencement of the Sunday, Magdalene and her companions went into the city and bought perfumes, wherewith, this morning at break of day, they purpose embalming the Body of their dear Master. They have spent a sleepless night. Before the dawn of day, Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome, axe on the road that leads to Calvary, for the sepulchre is there. So intent are they on the one object, that it never occurs to them, until it is too late, to provide for the removing of the heavy stone, which closes the sepulchre. There is the seal, too, of the Governor, which must be broken before they can enter; there are the soldiers who are keeping guard: these difficulties are quite overlooked. It is early daybreak when they reach the tomb. The first thing that attracts their attention is, that the stone has been removed, so that one can see into the sepulchre. The Angel of the Lord, who had received the mission to roll back the stone, is seated on it, as upon a throne; he thus addresses the three holy women, who are speechless from astonishment and fear: ‘Be not affrighted! Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: He is risen, He is not here.’ Then encouraging them to enter the sepulchre, he adds: ‘Behold the place where they laid Him ! ‘
These words should fill them with joy: but no; their faith is weak, and, as the Evangelist says, ‘a trembling and fear seize them.’ The dear Remains they are in search of are gone: the Angel tells them so: his saying that Jesus is risen fails to awaken their faith in the resurrection: they had hoped to find the Body! While in the sepulchre, two other Angels appear to them, and the place is filled with light. St. Luke tells us that Magdalene and her companions ‘bowed down their heads,’ for they were overpowered with fear and disappointment. Then the Angels said to them: ‘Why seek ye the Living with the dead? flemember how He spake auto you, when He was yet in Galilee, saying: “The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again!” “ These words make some impression upon the holy women, and they begin to remember something of what our Lord had said of His resurrection. ‘Go!’ said one of the Angels, ‘tell His disciples and Peter, that He is going before you into Galilee.’
The three Women leave the sepulchre and return with haste to the city; they are full of fear, and yet there is an irresistible feeling of joy mingled with their fear. They relate what they have seen: they have seen Angels, and the sepulchre open, and Jesus’ Body was not there. All three agree in their account; but the Apostles, as the Evangelist tells us, set it down to womanish excitement: ‘Their words seem idle tales and they believe them not.’ The Resurrection, of which their divine Master had so clearly and so often spoken, never once crosses their mind. It is particularly to Peter and John that Magdalene relates the wonderful things she has seen and heard; but her own faith is still so weak! She went with the intention of embalming the Body of Jesus, and she found it not! She can speak of nothing but her disappointment: ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid Him !
Peter and John determine to go themselves to the sepulchre. They enter. They see the ‘linen cloths lying‘ upon the slab whereon the Body of Jesus had been placed; but the Angels who are now keeping guard in the holy cave appear not to them. Saint John tells us, that this was the moment he received the faith in the resurrection: he believes. We are now merely giving the history of the events of this greatest of days, in the order in which they occurred: we will afterwards meditate upon them more leisurely, when the holy Liturgy brings them before us.
So far, Jesus has appeared to no one save His blessed Mother; the holy women have only seen the Angels, who spoke to them. These heavenly spirits bade them go and announce the resurrection of their Master to the disciples and Peter. They are not told to bear the message to Mary; the reason is obvious: Jesus has already appeared to His Mother, and is with her while all these events are happening. The sun is now shedding his beams upon the earth, and the hours of the grand morning are speeding onwards: the Man-God is about to proclaim the triumph He has won for us over death. Let us reverently follow Him in each of these manifestations, and attentively study the lessons they teach us.
As soon as Peter and John have returned, Magdalene hastens once more to the tomb of her dear Master. A. soul like hers, ever earnest, and now tormented with anxiety, cannot endure to rest. Where is the Body of Jesus? Perhaps being insulted, by His enemies? Having reached the door of the sepulchre, she bursts into tears. Looking in, she sees two Angels, seated at either end of the slab on which her Jesus had been laid. They speak to her, for she knows not what to say: ‘Woman! why weepest thou? ‘—‘ Be cause they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.’ Without waiting for the Angels to reply, she turns as though she would leave the sepulchre; when lo! she sees a man standing before her, and this Man is Jesus.’ She does not recognize Him: she is in search of the dead Body of her Lord; she is absorbed in the resolution of giving it a second burial! Her love distracts her, for it is a love that is not guided by faith; her desire to find Him, as she thinks Him to be, blinds her from seeing Him as He really is,—living, and near her.
Jesus, with his wonted condescension, speaks to her: ‘Woman! why weepest thou : Whom seekest thou?’ Magdalene recognizes not this voice; her heart is dulled by an excessive and blind sentiment of grief; her spirit does not as yet know Jesus. Her eyes are fixed upon Him; but her imagination persuades her that this man is the gardener, who has care of the ground about the sepulchre. She thinks within herself, ‘This perhaps, is he that has taken my Jesus!’ and thereupon she thus speaks to him:
‘Sir, if thou hast taken Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away. How is our loving Redeemer to withstand this? If He praised her for the love she showed Him in the pharisee’s house, we may be sure He will now reward this affectionate simplicity. A single word, spoken to her with the tone of voice she so well understood, is enough:—’ Mary ! ‘—‘ Master! ‘ exclaims the delighted and humble Magdalene. All is now clear: she believes.
She rushes forward: she would kiss those sacred feet, as on the happy day when she received her pardon; but Jesus stays her; this is not the time for such a demonstration of her affection. Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, is to be raised, in reward of her love, to the high honour of publishing the great mystery. It is not fitting that the blessed Mother should reveal the secret favour she has received from her Son: Magdalene is to pro claim what she has seen and heard at the sepulchre, and become as the holy Fathers express it, the Apostle of the very Apostles. Jesus says to her:
‘Go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
The second apparition of Jesus, then, is to Mary Magdalene: it is the first in testimony of His resurrection, for the one to his blessed Mother was for an other object. The Church will bring it before us on the Thursday of this week, and we will then make it the subject of our meditation. At present, let us adore the infinite goodness of our Redeemer, who, before seeking to fix the faith of His resurrection in them that are to preach it to all nations, deigns to recompense the love of this woman, who followed Turn even to the Cross, was faithful to Him after His death, and loved Him most, because most forgiven. By thus showing Himself to Magdalene, Jesus teaches us, that He is more anxious to satisfy the love He bears His faithful creature than to provide for His own glory.
Magdalene loses no time in doing her Master’s bidding. She hastens back to the city, and having come to the disciples, says to them: ‘I have seen the Lord, and these things He said to me.” But as yet, they have not faith; John alone has received that gift, although he has seen nothing more than the empty sepulchre. Let us remember, that, after having fled like the rest of the disciples, he followed Jesus to Calvary, was present at His death, and was made the adopted son of Mary.
Meanwhile, Magdalene’s two companions, Salome, and Mary the mother of James, are following her, though slowly and at some distance, to Jerusalem. Jesus meets them, and greets them, saying; ‘All hail.’ Overcome with joy they fall down and adore Him, and kiss His sacred feet. it is the third apparition; and they that are favoured with it, are permitted to do what was denied to the more favoured and fervent Magdalene. Before the day is over, Jesus will show Himself to them whom He has chosen as the heralds of His glory; but He first wishes to honour those generous women, who, braving every danger, and triumphing over the weakness of their sex, were more faithful to Him, in His Passion, than the men He had so highly honoured as to make them His Apostles. When He was born in the stable at Bethlehem, the first he called to worship Him in His crib, were some poor shepherds; He sent his Angels to invite them to go to Him, before He sent the star to call the magi. So now,—when He has reached the summit of His glory, put the finish to all His works by His resurrection, and confirmed our faith in His divinity by the most indisputable miracle,—He does not begin by instructing and enlightening His Apostles, but by instructing, consoling, and most affectionately honouring, these humble but courage ous women. How admirable are the dispensations of our God! How sweet, and yet, how strong! Well does He say to us by His prophet: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts ! ‘
Let us suppose, for a moment, that we had been permitted to arrange the order of these two mysteries. We should have summoned the whole world, kings and people, to go and pay homage at the crib. We should have trumpeted to all nations the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of the Crucified, the victory over death, the restoration of mankind to immortality! But He who is ‘the power and wisdom of God,” Christ Jesus our Lord, has followed a very different plan. When born in Bethlehem He would have for His first worshippers a few simple minded shepherds, whose power to herald the great event was confined to their own village: and yet the birthday of this little Child is now the era of every civilized nation. For the first witnesses of His resurrection, He chose three weak women; and yet, the whole earth is now, at this very moment, celebrating the anniversary of this resurrection. There is in it a mysterious feeling of joy unlike that of any other day throughout the year: no one can resist it, not even the coldest heart. The infidel who scoffs at the believer, knows at least that this is Easter Sunday. Yea, in the very countries where paganism and idolatry are still rife, there are Christians whose voices unite with ours in singing the glorious Alleluia to our risen Jesus. Let us, then, cry out as Moses did, when the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, and were keeping their first Pasch: ‘Who, O Lord, is like unto Thee, among the strong ?‘ We will resume our history of the resurrection, when we come to the hour of each apparition. It is now time for us to unite with the Church in her Office of Matins. She has spent the greatest part of the night in administering that holy Sacrament of regeneration, which gives her a new people; and now she is about to offer to God the wonted tribute of her praise.
The Office of Lauds being over, the faithful retire from the church: but they will soon return, to assist at the solemn Sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. In order the better to understand the holy Liturgy of our Easter, we will again imagine ourselves to be in one of the cathedral churches of the 4th or 5th century, where the sacred rites were carried out in all their magnificence.
The city is filled with strangers. The priests of the country churches have come to assist at the consecration of the oils, at the administration of Baptism, and at the grand functions of Easter. The inhabitants are not allowed to undertake any journey that would prevent them from assisting at the Offices of the Church; for we find several councils forbid ding even the nobles to go beyond the city walls until the Paschal solemnity is over. We shall not be surprised at these regulations, if we remember what we have already stated with regard to Palm Sunday, how the monks of the East, who had obtained permission from their Abbots to leave their monasteries at the beginning of Lent, and retire into the desert, there to live with God alone, were obliged to return for the celebration of Easter. St. Pachomius, - who was the first to organize, in the desert of the east, a congregation or confederation of all the houses that had sprung from his celebrated monastery of Tabenna, - insisted upon all his disciples convening every year in this central monastery, for the purpose of celebrating the 1~esurreet.ion. On some of these occasions, there were to be seen encamped around Tabenna as many as fifty thousand monks.
Even now, notwithstanding all the deplorable injuries done to the spirit of Christianity by heresy, our churches are crowded on the great Paschal solemnity. Even they that never think of entering the House of God on any other day of the year, make an exception for Easter Sunday, as though they could not resist the i)o~~’er of the great mystery of Jesus’ triumph. It is the last remnant of faith left in these men; it keeps them from total forgetfulness of their religion. When their last hour comes, their celebration of Easter, though so imperfect, may draw down upon them the mercy of their Saviour ; but if their Easters have been but so many neglects of the Sacraments, what consolation, what hope, can they yield? those slighted invitations to mercy will then cry out for vengeance, and give to the Resurrection the awful triumph of justice !—But these are thoughts far too sad for our festivity: let us turn them into a prayer to our risen Jesus, that He ‘break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax ; ‘ I let us delight in the thought of those bright days of the past, when faith made Easter so glorious a sight for heaven and earth; let us exult in the reflection, that the same faith is still that of millions, and will be so till the end of time!
And before going to Mass, let us aid our enthusiasm by a remembrance of the Martyrs of Easter. Yes, the grand solemnity was once consecrated by the blood of Saints, and the Church chronicles the event in her Martyrology. In the year 459, Easter Sunday fell upon the 5th of April. The Church in Africa was then suffering persecution from the Vandals; they were Arians, and had been brought into the country by their kings, Genserie and Hunnerio. The Catholics of the city of Regia were assembled in the church for the celebration of the Resurrection, and, in order to keep out the heretics, they had closed the doors. The Arians, marshalled by one of their priests, forced an entrance, and rushed in, brandishing their swords. At that very moment a lector was in the ambo, singing the Alleluia; an arrow, shot by one of the barbarians, pierced his throat; he fell, and finished his song in heaven. The Vandals fell upon the faithful, and the church streamed with blood. They dragged others from the holy place, and executed them by order of their king. The little children were the only ones spared. Let us unite with the Church, who honours these noble victims of Easter on the 5th of April.
-Taken from "The Liturgical Year," by Dom Gueranger.