My early formation as an Episcopalian was shaped to a large extent by the first person I ever felt confident in calling “my priest.” Among his many notable features, I learned much from the way he kept Easter. He would remind us Sunday after Sunday, from our Easter Vigil onwards, that we were still in the “great fifty days” and that Easter had not ended in any sense. Our celebration was ongoing. This is an important truth to remember in a myriad of ways. I sometimes think the whole world could not contain the number of books necessary to recount how we should keep Easter and celebrate it in this season of joy. But, of course, one way that the Church has historically continued its Easter celebration is by meditating on the various resurrection stories in the Gospels, as well as those other places in Scripture which undergird our faith in the great passing-over (pascha) of our Lord from death to life.
How to interpret the profundity of the various “appearances” of Christ to his disciples has always been an important question, especially as that profundity often seems enveloped in a great simplicity of expression, as N.T. Wright has noted in various publications. The stories themselves seem remarkably underdeveloped in form and Scriptural allusion, at least in comparison to some other parts of the Gospels.
A basic rule of thumb, however, for interpreting narratives holds true with these stories as well. As St Gregory puts it, “It is pleasing to consider how the Sacred Eloquences express in their introductions the qualities of the stories (narrationum qualitates) and the meanings of the occasions (terminos causarum). For they signify, at one time by the position of a place, at another by the position of a body, at another by the quality of the weather, and at another by the quality of time, what they will posit later with regard to a coming action” (Moralia in Iob 2.2) In other words, the minute narrative details at the beginning of a particular story are important. Gregory goes on to note certain stories in which this is the case, using these examples: Israel received her law from a mountain while standing on a plain (position of place), Stephen saw Jesus standing in heaven (position of a body), Jesus was accused of blasphemy in winter (quality of weather), and Judas went out to betray Jesus at night (quality of time). Each of these details, Gregory says, gives some deeper indication of the meaning of the story in which they are embedded.
So, it is not without some underlying exegetical theory that Gregory will also draw attention to the placement of Jesus and his disciples in the resurrection appearances. He asks, for example, why, in the story recounted in John 21:1-14, “the Lord appears on the shore while his disciples are laboring in the sea, when before the resurrection he walked on the waves of the sea” (Homilies on the Gospels, 24.1). He is concerned with the “position of the body” in interpreting this particular narrative. And his answer is that Christ wished to signify that he had passed beyond the instability of this current life to an unshakeable existence. Christ’s human nature had passed from weakness to strength, from dishonor to glory, from mortality to immortality (cf. 1 Cor 15:42-58). He was no longer living in “the waves of confusion” as the disciples were.
And this point is important, not simply that we might clarify our theology of the Resurrection, but that we might see intimated in the Scriptural narrative God’s promises concerning our own future, as well as our present. We are to share in his immutable, incorruptible life. The glory of his body is one into which we ourselves shall pass and indeed are passing even now through our sharing in the sacraments of redemption. But it is also a different sort of comfort to us who are yet laboring on the tossing waves, the confused sea of this world, in which we hope still to make a miraculous catch of fish.
We must remember: Christ has passed over to life; “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). In his stability and power, he remains an anchor to us in prayer and in worship, mooring our light vessel which is so easily tossed to and fro. He is himself our peace, especially when we set our minds upon him, “on things that are above.” For we have died and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-3). His transfer, his passing-over, that is, his pascha, is something in which we will share in manifold ways in the future and which gives us hope, peace, and assurance even now, as we await the fullness of our inheritance.
So “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:57-58). This is how we may keep Easter as we continue our journey through the great fifty days and beyond. We continue our work in confidence, joy, and peace, always trusting in our risen Savior, amid the changes and chances of this life.
For while we are keeping Easter, we must remember that it is truly Easter that is keeping us.