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Belief and unbelief in the Easter scriptures

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This is “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene After the Resurrection” by the Russian painter Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. Because Mary’s heart has been turned toward Christ through conversion and repentance, she becomes one of his most fervent, faithful disciples. Photo: CNS, Wikimedia Commons

Reading the scriptural accounts of the first Easter is a good lesson in what belief looks like, and what unbelief looks like.

The entire Catholic Church was held together over that horrible Friday and Saturday by just two people: Mary the mother of Jesus and St John the beloved disciple.

But John didn’t really believe that Jesus was coming back from the dead. I’m sure he didn’t say anything to Mary about it at the time, but he admits it to us in his Gospel (Jn 20:8).

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Mary absolutely believed that her son was coming back. But she had also watched him die, rather than being rescued at the last minute like Isaac.

She had to live for a full day longer with the knowledge that he was dead, clinging to the hope that something like the resurrection of Lazarus might happen.

But how would it happen? Who would raise Jesus from the dead? Who would move the stone?

I’m certain Mary asked these questions, because they’re the same type of sensible questions she asked the angel at the Annunciation.

They don’t indicate a lack of faith in God’s ability to do anything he wants. Instead, they reveal one of the most winning things about Mary, which is her practical curiosity about the mechanics of miracles.

The fact that Mary didn’t go to the tomb with the other women seems to indicate that Jesus had already appeared to her and answered all her questions. It’s not in the scriptures, but it’s reasonable.

Relief often also makes us overflow into laughter. Have you ever thought of how funny some of the stories around the resurrection are?

A group of people were dealing with the fact that their best friend had come back from the dead, apparently unaided. The whole thing is chaotic; it’s no wonder the four Gospels’ accounts seem so jumbled.

Mary of Magdala is thrilled. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet and clings to his legs, and he jokes that she doesn’t need to hold him down to Earth—he’s not ascending to his father yet (Jn 20:17).

How about the story about “his disciples stole his body when we were asleep” (Mt 28:13)? We know that it was his disciples because we saw them. That would be while we were asleep.

After Jesus rises from the dead, he appears to multiple people, and they in turn tell the eleven, who don’t believe them.

Then Jesus appears to the eleven, “and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (Mk 16:14).

It’s as if he’s saying, “What on Earth do I have to do to convince you people?”

Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus is similar: “Oh foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25).

Jesus is so patient with these frightened and humiliated men, but he also teases them gently. Look, give me a fish and I’ll eat it right here in front of you (Lk 24:42). Nothing up my sleeves, I promise.

Then there’s the hugely awkward first breakfast on the beach. They all tucked in to the grilled fish, but there was quite a lot of side-eye and sheepishness (Jn 21:12).

When you read the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, one theme comes through very strongly in all four. The eleven core members of Jesus’ future church didn’t believe that he was going to rise from the dead.

They didn’t believe on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, and indeed much of the following week.

If ever you find yourself doubting the Gospels, remember that they all agree on the eleven’s complete lack of faith in the resurrection.

Jesus almost has to offer to arm-wrestle his best friends to convince them that he’s alive again. Because of their doubts, the historical fact and reality of the physical resurrection was confirmed robustly in four living-memory written accounts.

I think at Easter it’s good to ask: Are you relieved and joyful that Jesus the living God-man came back from the dead?

Or would you prefer someone a bit wispier who you can re-make in your own image, or dismiss as the figment of a traumatised community’s imagination?

Are you embarrassed by the solidly incarnated and resurrected Jesus who makes politically incorrect claims about universal domination?

I hope not. Be relieved and joyful instead. Happy Easter!

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