There is in the homilies of St. Leo the Great on the Ascension a great lesson regarding the importance of the Resurrection appearances during the period of time that goes between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Christ didn’t have to appear to the disciples after his resurrection, but he did because their faith (and ours) was at stake.
St. Leo begins the homily by reflecting on the blow the incipient faith of the disciples had suffered in spite of their having experienced the miracles and heard the teachings of Christ:
“Christ’s death had much disturbed the disciples’ hearts, and a kind of torpor of distrust had crept over their grief-laden minds at his torture on the cross, at his giving up the spirit, at his lifeless body’s burial. For, when the holy women, as the Gospel-story has revealed, brought word of the stone rolled away from the tomb, the sepulcher emptied of the body, and the angels bearing witness to the living Lord, their words seemed like ravings to the Apostles and other disciples.”
What could renew, or even more, what could strengthen the faith of the apostles called to continue Christ’s mission? The answer is the Resurrection, contact with the Risen Lord.
The Resurrection appearances have a very specific objective: to instruct the disciples and strengthen their faith. They are meant to for the instruction of all the members of the Church, so that faith in the Resurrection might be consolidated not only in the first Christians, but in the Christians of all times.
St. Leo states that the period of the Resurrection appearances “by most holy appointment were devoted to our most profitable instruction, so that, during the period that the Lord thus protracted the lingering of his bodily presence, our faith in the Resurrection might be fortified by needful proofs.” Christ appears to the disciples so that by encountering him as the Risen Lord their experience of Christ would be a guarantee to future generations.
St. Leo teaches that the slowness of the apostles to believe that Christ had risen was part of God’s plan. It was “necessary” for them to doubt so that we wouldn’t: “Which doubtfulness, the result of human weakness, the Spirit of Truth would most assuredly not have permitted to exist in his own preacher’s breasts, had no their trembling anxiety and careful hesitation laid the foundation of our faith.”
Our faith is based on the faith of the apostles. It is contradictory to doubt, since they have already doubted for us, that is, our faith in Christ is not a mere sentiment, it is based on firm realism. The apostles believed in the Risen Christ because they really encountered a real person. St. Leo the Great expresses it clearly and firmly:
“It was our perplexities and our dangers that were provided for in the Apostles: it was ourselves who in these men were taught how to meet the disapprovals of the ungodly and the arguments of earthly wisdom. We are instructed by their looking, we are taught by their hearing, we are convinced by their handlings. Let us give thanks to the Divine plan and the holy fathers’ necessary slowness of belief. They doubted, that we might not doubt.”
St. Leo stresses certain “deep truths” that were revealed thanks to the Resurrection appearances:
- Christ’s bodily presence is a proof of the immortality that we are called to enjoy in our bodies
- The apostles receive the Holy Spirit in order to continue his mission and forgive sins
- The Lord’s flock is entrusted to St. Peter
- Christ sweeps away all uncertainty by explaining the meaning of the Scriptures regarding his death and Resurrection.
St. Leo concentrates the strength of appearances in the episode in which he invites the apostle Thomas to touch his wounds:
“And in the course of these and other miracles, when the disciples were harassed by bewildering thoughts, and the Lord had appeared in their midst and said, Peace be unto you, that what was passing through their hearts might not be their fixed opinion (for they thought they saw a spirit not flesh), he refutes their thoughts so discordant with the Truth, offers to the doubter’s eyes the marks of the cross that remained in his hands and feet, and invites them to handle him with careful scrutiny, because the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith, but with most steadfast knowledge they might comprehend that the nature which had been lain in the sepulcher was to sit on God the Father’s throne.”
We might at times feel jealous about the fact that Christ allowed the Apostles to believe because they saw him, but we must remember Christ’s words: “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).
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