Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the liturgical season of Easter is just beginning. The 50 days of Easter, which last until Pentecost, are an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection for your faith—much the same way that the 40 days of Lent is a call to enter into the deeper meaning of Jesus’ passion and death. Here are five saints to enrich your faith journey this Easter season. All five of these saints have a direct connection with the Easter story of Christ’s resurrection. The life and words of each reflect a different facet of the truth of the resurrection.
1. St. Mary Magdalene—the First Witness. There were many initial witnesses to the resurrection—but who was the first to actually see the resurrected Christ? Answer: St. Mary Magdalene, at least according to the Gospel of John. In Chapter 20, we read that when she came across the empty tomb, St. Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter, who comes, sees the empty tomb for himself, and then takes off with the other disciples. But Mary Magdalene stays behind, weeping outside the tomb. A man later appears to her, asking why she was weeping—that man turned out to be Jesus.
What can we learn from Mary Magdalene? Here is what Pope St. Gregory the Great tells us in one of his homilies:
We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ, for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept. Burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: “Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”
Mary Magdalene’s story speaks to us today. In some sense, all Christians are standing with her outside the tomb, waiting for God, longing for Christ. All of us can relate in some way to the unease and anxiety that nagged at her soul when she was confronted with the absence of Christ. May we also share in the same earnest seeking for God. May we too persevere in faith to the end.
2. St. Peter and the Empty Tomb. After being told by Mary Magdalene and the other women that they had found Jesus’ tomb empty, Peter responded in a way that most of us probably would have: he immediately ran off to the tomb to confirm their story. Here is how his reaction is described in Luke 24:12: Peter, however, went off to the tomb, running. He bent down and looked in and saw the linen cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened.
This description of Peter as ‘amazed’ at the empty tomb recalls something Blessed Pope John Paul II send near the end of his papacy. In an encyclical, John Paul II called for a rekindling of ‘Eucharistic amazement.’ This Easter season is an opportunity for us to also rekindle our amazement at the resurrection, following the example of St. Peter.
How can we rekindle in our hearts ‘amazement’ at the resurrection?
It’s worth pointing out that amazement at the Eucharist and amazement at the resurrection are quite closely related. It goes without saying that without the resurrection we could not receive the gift of the Eucharist. Indeed, the connection is even closer: the original example of Eucharistic amazement cited by John Paul II is the breaking of the bread between Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This was one of the first appearances of Christ after his resurrection.
This offers us a specific way of thinking about the Eucharist—as a way of experiencing the Resurrected Christ.
3. St. Paul on the Road to Damascus. Unlike Peter and Mary Magdalene, St. Paul did not witness the empty tomb, which invests his encounter with the resurrected Christ with a special significance. Christ’s appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus is important because it undermines skeptic claims that the resurrection was the product of the overactive imagination of Jesus’ followers. Not only was Paul not one of the original disciples—he was their persecutor. (Credit goes to this apologist for pointing this out to me.) The Damascus story is especially noteworthy because, unlike all the other post-Resurrection appearances, it occurs after Jesus ascended. This points to the enduring reality of His presence.
St. Paul would go on to write about the centrality of the Resurrection to the Christian faith:
[I]f Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. In addition, those who have fallen asleep in Christ are utterly lost. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable. [1 Corinthians 15]
To be blunt: without the resurrection, Christianity wouldn’t exist. Jesus would have gone down in secular history as a wise teacher, a miracle worker, perhaps a would-be worldly Messiah, but it is the resurrection that stands as the foremost testament to the truth that Jesus was the Christ, God incarnate as man. May we take St. Paul’s words to heart and consider ways in which the truth of the Resurrection is and should be at the center of our faith and devotions.
4. The Replacement Apostle—St. Matthias. We know precious little of St. Matthias from the Bible, which records his name just twice. But his story illustrates the centrality the resurrection had for early Christianity, and particularly for what it meant to be a Christian apostle.
After the Ascension, the apostles had a bit of housekeeping to do, as Acts 1 reports. The issue: how to fill the spot Judas had held among the Twelve. The replacement eventually chosen was a man known to us as St. Matthias.
In announcing nominations for a new apostle, St. Peter told those assembled that he had to be someone who had followed Jesus during his whole ministry, from Baptism to Ascension. But what exactly was this new apostle called to do? To paraphrase a later Christian writer, it wasn’t to be a witness to Jesus’ ministry. Nor to His miracles. Rather, he was called to be a “witness to His resurrection,” as the Book of Acts puts it.
Nominations were taken, two names were submitted, and Matthias won on a drawing of lots. (By the way, how bad would you feel if you were the guy who lost this, the ultimate of lotteries? Worse yet, he is not granted anonymity. Scripture informs us it was Joseph “known as Barsabbas.”)
So why is St. Matthias more than just a footnote to the gospel account of the Twelve? Here’s why, according to German writer, Otto Hophan, O.F.M. in his book, The Apostles:
The Apostle Matthias represents the brightening of the darkness, the bridging of an abyss, the beginning of a new epoch. He was not one of the original Twelve. After Judas fell from the ranks of the apostles, Matthias was there to take his place. He became the first apostle chosen after the death of the crucified Christ. …
The apostle Matthias is a source of joy to Christian hearts. It would have been depressing if the noble group of the twelve apostles had ended with the criminal face of Judas. Instead, this gentle and venerable old man closed the ranks of the Twelve. Attention is instinctively turned away from the wretched Judas and directed toward this last, good apostle.
How can we, like St. Matthias, be ‘witnesses to the resurrection’?
5. Doubting Thomas. St. Thomas is officially the patron saint of architects, but he must also have a special concern for all those—I imagine many if not all of us—who at some point in our lives have had any doubts about our faith in general, or the resurrection, specifically. The account of how he reacted to news of the resurrection is one that speaks to us across the centuries. According to the Gospel of John, Thomas responded: “Unless I can see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.”
When Jesus appeared to St. Thomas and the other disciplines, eight days later, he told Thomas, “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.” What Jesus said next convicts us still today—Do not be unbelieving any more, but believe.
May we, with St. Thomas, exclaim in response: “My Lord and my God!”
Each of these five Easter saints teaches us something different about the resurrection.
St. Mary Magdalene teaches us how to live out the mystery of the resurrection in our lives—Christ is dead, Christ is risen, but Christ is not with us, in bodily form at least. Instead, he will come again at the end times. So, like Mary Magdalene, we are called to wait for the Second Coming of Christ, persevering in firm faith that our longings for God will not be disappointed.
St. Peter inspires us to rekindle our ‘amazement’ at the truth of the resurrection. St. Paul teaches us that we can encounter and experience this truth at any point in our faith journeys—even those moments in which we are striving against God. St. Matthias calls upon us to be witnesses to this truth.
It is the story of St. Thomas that may be the most haunting of all. He speaks to all the doubters among us—in other words, just about everyone who has faith. But the answer that Christ offers to St. Thomas’ doubt paradoxically appears to be one that won’t satisfy our doubts: Thomas puts his hands inside Christ wounds. This is something we cannot do. But what Thomas’ story does do is tell us that it is normal to have doubt—it’s a part of the faith journey. His example invites us to unceasingly search for the truth until we are confident we have found it—which, for Thomas, meant going as far as sticking his fingers in Christ’s wounds.