On the day Jesus rose from the dead, we hear numerous accounts of what the disciples – the apostles especially but others, like Mary Magdalene, as well – experienced. They were confronted with the inescapable reality of Jesus, whom they had assuredly seen murdered in the most brutal fashion alive the Romans could devise. They were not given the full story. How was he alive? What did this mean? What were they supposed to do about it? What would Jesus do with them since they had abandoned him in his hour of need? They only knew one fact. Jesus was dead and now he was alive.
He was not merely “back from the dead” as Lazarus had been when Jesus raised him. He was alive in a similar but distinct manner. Mary Magdalene did not even recognize him. The disciples on the road to Emmaus walked several miles with him engrossed in conversation and did not recognize him. The apostles were locked in a room and Jesus appeared to them. This was not the appearance of a ghost but Jesus in the flesh. What did all of this mean?
The accounts of Scripture leave only one true conclusion: Jesus was alive on Easter Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus was a historical event – it happened on the third day after his death – but it transcends history. It was not a moment in history. It was the moment in human history. It was the moment when everything about humanity changed. But the disciples could not fully grasp it yet. They were simply struggling to understand what had just happened.
The Church continues to proclaim this event as a mystery. It is something we know to be true – more true than anything we can see with our eyes or touch with our hands – but yet it is something beyond our full comprehension. The resurrection of Jesus expands our capacity for understanding the depth of the promise God has made to us. It is the unshakable truth that Jesus has conquered death, once and for all. Death has lost its sting because our savior, Our Lord, our friend has gone through death and emerged, not simply unscathed, but triumphant and glorified. It is a mystery that accepts all of our questions, doubts, and apprehension but which responds with one simple word: alleluia.
This simple word we fast from all during Lent and proclaim with abundance during the Easter season encapsulates the reality of Easter. Alleluia is a cry of a people who know the depth of sin, suffering, and death. It is a cry of a people who have experienced the unflinching sadness of Good Friday; the day in the life of Jesus, to be sure, but also the Good Friday of our own lives. This is the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, and even a child. It is the suffering of a lost job, a strained relationship, or anxiety about the future of a young person. For us in the Catholic Church these past 20 years, it cannot but also mean the hurt of sexual abuse at the hands of some priests and bishops, the complicity of some in Church leadership, and the pain we each carry when the bride of Christ whom we love is mocked, ridiculed, and abandoned for the sins of her members.
But Good Friday is only one day. The resurrection of Jesus cannot be contained in one day. It has its own season that surpasses the length of Lent and the Passion because Christ has won a victory that cannot be undone. Our Easter joy cannot be overshadowed by a quarantine, a global pandemic, or even a temporary inability to gather as a community of disciples for Mass. Our Easter joy finds its way through this world’s trials and suffering like water finding its way through a forest to bring new life to everything it touches, or like light breaking through the cracks and the seams of our nihilistic culture which seeks to truncate God to one hour a week within the walls of certain buildings set apart of this “outdated practice.”
The joyful cry of Easter is this simple word “alleluia.” It does not translate into English because it is a cry of the human soul set free from the bonds of sin and death. It is the inexpressible cry of one who knows that hope is not some far-off aspiration but a confident call to the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It is the cry of a believer who knows that nothing can touch him so long as he keeps his eyes and his heart fixed on Jesus.
When we are confused by what God has allowed to happen in our world, in our city and in our Church as a result of the coronavirus, our response should still be alleluia. It is not an uncritical response of fideism that ignores all of the suffering and pain which this pandemic has caused. Alleluia is our response of hope and steel-faced confidence in the midst of the worst of what this world can throw at us. We grieve, we mourn, and we are compassionate in the face of suffering. We practice social distancing, follow the best counsel of medical experts, and work for a cure and a vaccine. But we also proclaim the unshakable truth of Christ’s ultimate victory of Easter Sunday. And we proclaim his offer for those of us to trust in him to share in this victory as well.
At the Easter Vigil during the Exsultet we proclaim “Let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” Our church buildings did not shake with the sound of the peoples this year. They are empty and silent now. But the command of Christ to go to every nation and proclaim the good news still holds true. We are encouraged, compelled, and commanded to proclaim that death did not win, does not win, that Jesus is alive and he wants to give his death-defying life to you and me and to the whole world this Easter season. In the midst of our global pandemic, we do this not with the wall-shattering noise of the crowds of our typical Easter Masses. This year, we proclaim this truth with the alleluia of quarantined disciples sharing the Gospel message in our families, in Zoom rooms, on social media, and by the witness of our lives to our neighbors. It is a quiet alleluia but no less powerful and life-changing. Christ is Risen. Alleluia.