When she was seven, my eldest daughter showed me a picture she had drawn at school just before Easter. Jesus was on the cross, but was holding out an Easter egg. That’s a wonderful image of what we celebrate during Easter: That thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, we live in hope of everlasting life- a life symbolized by the Easter egg.
Eternal life is our hope. And we hope also that everyone will come to enjoy this hope, because there are those who don’t. I think of the final Harry Potter book in which Harry finds his parents’ graves in a church cemetery and is stunned when he reads the words on the tombstone. It read: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Harry didn’t know that those words came from the Bible, or that they referred to Jesus’ victory. In his confusion, he thought they sounded rather sinister. His friend Hermione had to set him straight: "It means…you know...living beyond death. Living after death."
On this score, Harry Potter represents many people in our society today: those who don’t really know of the Christian hope in eternal life, and those who simply dismiss it altogether. They just can’t buy into the thought that Jesus really rose from the dead and lives even now. They think that surely something else must have happened on that first Easter morning other than the resurrection of a man once dead.
And so they propose all sorts of other explanations: Maybe the disciples were hallucinating or, because of their grief, somehow convinced themselves that Jesus had returned to be with them. Or it could be that Jesus didn’t really die but only entered a coma and snapped out of it three days later. Perhaps the story of the resurrection was a lie the disciples made up because they were too ashamed to admit that the person they had followed for three years died a failure. Or possibly Jesus’ teaching had made such a powerful impact on his followers that they felt that Jesus was still with them, even when he really was dead.
Claims like these are nothing new. They began when the first reports of the resurrection circulated amongst Jesus’ followers. Even some of them feared that they were being fooled, or that maybe some of their friends had gone off their rockers. Recall Jesus’ words to his startled disciples in today’s gospel: "Why do questions arise in your hearts?" he asked. Then Jesus invited them to touch him, so they would know that they weren’t seeing things or having a dream. He made a point of saying that he had really died. And the disciples, were told, were utterly overjoyed.
"You are witnesses of these things," Jesus assured them. And that was Peter’s claim when he preached, as we heard in our first reading from Acts: "God raised him from the dead;" he insisted, "of this we are witnesses." It’s as if Peter were saying: "Jesus doesn’t simply live on in our hearts or through his teaching. We’re not making this up! Many of us have seen him, spoken with him, touched him. Why else would we be filled with such zeal? Why else would we be so overcome with joy? Why else would we put our lives and reputations on the line?"
Peter, the very first pope, was trying to convince a crowd of people that Jesus’ resurrection was real. The 246th pope, Benedict XVI, is still doing the very same thing. On Easter day, before a crowd of 200,000, the Holy Father insisted that the resurrection "is neither a myth nor a dream, it is not a vision or a utopia, it is not a fairy tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who at dusk on Friday was taken down and buried, has victoriously left the tomb."
The historical event of Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our Easter hope and joy, and we pray that more and more will come to share this with us. But do we fully understand it ourselves? Think back to today’s gospel. It was written, not just for those who doubted the resurrection, but also for those who may not appreciate its full significance. That’s why we’re specifically told that the risen Jesus ate a broiled fish in full view of everyone.
The point of this is to show that not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but that he did so in his body, and that it is our belief that the eternal life Jesus’ resurrection won for us will involve our bodies too. The same bodies we have now- only glorified and perfect. After all, God made us both body and soul, and that’s how he wants us to enjoy eternity with him.
Sometimes we dismiss this as unimportant: We say we believe in the "resurrection of the body," but don’t give it much thought. We think: As long as my soul "goes to heaven," who cares about my body? Or maybe we don’t like the idea at all. Perhaps our body has been a source of frustration and pain for us, and we don’t want to bother with it after this life.
If you feel this way, consider some of the things you may enjoy about Easter: The fresh scent of lilies; springtime warmth replacing winter chill; the song of birds, the strains of favorite hymns, or the shouts of children as they discover hidden eggs; the sight of the first rays of dawn or the glory of flowers in bloom; the taste of chocolate or jellybeans, or ham or lamb; the embrace of friends and family when we gather; how we look in that new hat or dress.
These are all good things, and we can only experience them with the bodies God has given us. They’re a big part of our Easter celebration today. And just a small hint of good things still to come.