The Joy of Encounter

We have now arrived at the moment when the drama of Jesus’ earthly life brings us face-to-face with the mysterious event of his Resurrection from the dead. At this point we would naturally expect Matthew’s text to dazzle us with the greatest of all theophanies. As a relief from the unremitting distress of the Passion we would gladly now welcome some splendid show of divine fireworks that would outdo all other visible and audible manifestations of God’s glory. We think of the great Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. We remember as well, from among many wondrous happenings, the thunder and lightning on Sinai at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert, the fire and brimstone raining on the Cities in the Plain, the falling of the walls of Jericho, and Elijah’s rapture to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Perhaps above all in the case of Jesus’ Resurrection, we naturally expect an extraordinary representation by the evangelist of such an unheard-of event. Our imagination and curiosity yearn for some overwhelmingly moving depiction of the metamorphosis of his holy flesh as he shook death from himself and leapt up mightily into plenitude of heavenly life.

What we get instead is something very different and, at least initially, something that disappoints by its ordinariness. Matthew gives us a rather sober and very straightforward account of what happened. The narrative surrounds the actual event and moment of the Resurrection with total silence, a kind of visual blackout. Neither eye nor ear is privy to the mysterious happening; our imagination is given no image to cling to, and our reason receives no explanation. We experience only the aftermath, the results of the Resurrection. By means of his narrative details the evangelist is inviting us to share the patient gazing and loving waiting of the holy women as they sit in rock-like silence and immobility before their Lord’s tomb, the only obvious point of orientation given them. As the story unfolds, Jesus suddenly stands before them coming from an entirely different direction. God is always present and active in wholly hidden ways within the background and underground of our visible lives. The first condition for the reception of grace is silence in the soul, humility of mind at the service of a burning heart that rejoices at embracing the Beloved in the darkness of faith.

When the women encounter the risen Jesus, we cannot even speak of an “apparition” in the supernatural sense of John’s Gospel because this moment of sudden encounter between Jesus and the holy women in Matthew is beyond all manner of “special effects”. What takes place instead is something quite simple: namely, a wholly unexpected meeting between old friends that affects the heart above else and not the senses. The force of Matthew’s text comes rather from the manner of Jesus’ presence: though risen from the dead, the person whom the holy women encounter is still very much the Jesus they know and love from their previous personal experience.  He seeks them out familiarly as he has always done, and encounters them on their way to the disciples.

The true marvel comes not from sudden bursts of light from above, or the glowing of resurrected flesh, or the heavenly harmonies of cosmic choirs, but precisely from the experienced reality that this man, Jesus, whom we have known and loved, but who then was killed and buried, is now inexplicably yet factually standing here before us alive and well, still seeking us out and addressing us familiarly as his own beloved friends. When Jesus reassures the women with the fond greeting “Rejoice!” they instantly recognize him as their beloved Lord, so much so that they cannot refrain from falling down before him with excited gratitude, grasping his feet in passionate adoration.

Meditation by Father Simeon.

Christ in Emmaus, Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg), c. 1510, woodcut, 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 in. the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Used with permission.