This is the Christian season of Easter, which lasts forty days from Easter Sunday (Easter Day) until Ascension Day. During this period we recall the various physical appearances of Jesus to His disciples following His resurrection on the first Easter Day.
On that first Easter Sunday he appeared first to Mary Magdalene early in the morning as she was searching for His body, having found the tomb open and empty. Later that day Jesus drew alongside Cleopas and another Disciple as they were walking the six and half miles from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus. In some way Jesus’ resurrected form was different, and neither Mary nor these two Disciples immediately recognised Him, until he gave them a particular sign – speaking Mary’s name in a familiar way; blessing and breaking bread with the ‘Emmaus two’; but when they did in each case they were prompted to rush back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and recount their sightings to the other Disciples.
Shortly after the two had returned from Emmaus, late in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appeared in the Upper Room to greet all of those assembled there and to confirm His resurrection to them. He asked for food and drink proving that He was flesh and blood.
Thomas, also known as Didymus; one of the original twelve Apostles, was not present on that occasion. In His grief he was sceptical of the other Disciples’ accounts of Jesus’ appearances. Thomas needed to reach out and touch Jesus to be convinced they hadn’t just imagined it all in their grief. A week later however, Jesus appears among them all again. Once again in His new resurrected form, he is able to be with them even though the doors of the Upper Room are locked; the Disciples are still anxious about trouble from the Jewish authorities. Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch His nail-pierced hands, and the wound in His side made by the spear. Thomas does so and all doubts about Jesus’ divinity as the Christ, the Son of God, are dispelled.
Thomas reflects the experiences of many of us. We feel we need proof, hard evidence, before we can be convinced of a situation. As Jesus explains to Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen and touched me. How much more blessed are those who believe through faith – without the proof.”
In the days that follow, and lacking the direction which Ministry with Jesus had provided, the Disciples gradually disperse to ponder on the events of the previous weeks, and to try to think about what might happen next. Jesus has promised that “A Helper” – the Holy Spirit, will be sent by God, to give them strength and guidance for their future ministry, but nothing has happened, and so they begin to return to their homes and previous lives. Several of the fishermen among them return to the familiar Sea of Galilee and return to fishing to support themselves. However, fishing is an uncertain business. One night Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanial from Cana in Galilee, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were out in the boat. They fished all night and made no catch. A stranger is spotted on the shore, a little way off. He enquires how they are doing, and when they tell him they have caught nothing, he tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. John recognises the stranger as Jesus, and they do as He says. Within a few minutes are hauling aboard a huge catch – 153 fish according to John’s Gospel. On hearing John say that the stranger is Jesus, Simon Peter immediately jumps out of the boat into the shallows and wades to the shore to greet Jesus. As the disciples come ashore hauling the bulging net behind the boat, they see that Jesus has already made a fire and is cooking fish. He shares bread and cooked fish with them, and they enjoy breakfast together.
After the meal there is a exchange between Jesus and Peter. Knowing that Peter has betrayed Him three times in the courtyard of the Chief Priest’s Palace, following Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him – “Peter, do you Love me?” Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I love you”. Peter is downcast, and well aware of his shortcomings – his brashness – “I will never leave you”; “I will die with you” came to nought in just a few seconds… “I do not know the man!” he said when challenged that fateful night.
Modern Bible translations do not due full justice to the subtleties of this exchange. In Greek – the original language of the Gospels, there are four words for love:
Agape / Agapas – unconditional love – as it were ‘to the death’ as many parents have for their children, or as God has for us;
Eros – passionate sexual love;
Philios – brotherly love;
and Storge – affection, empathy and warmth.
In the wording of the ancient Greek manuscripts Jesus is asking “Peter, do you love me unconditionally?”, to which Peter knows in his heart and replies – “Lord I love you as a brother”. Jesus repeats the question with the same answer. A third time Jesus asks, but this time affirming Peter ‘where he is, shortcomings, warts and all …’ – “Peter do you love me as a brother?” Peter knowing that Jesus can see into his soul, and that He has defined Peter’s capacity and limitations as a human being, responds with words which confirm “Lord you know everything – you know that I am only capable of loving you as a brother”. After each response, Jesus affirms Peter with an encouragement to continue to be a disciple and to teach and nurture the new and growing fellowship who will come to “The Way” – the early name for the new ‘Christian’ church which will grow in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Finally Peter has admitted to his Lord his own shortcomings, and Jesus is able to work in and through him. Jesus comments on the future and that in due time Peter himself will indeed be captured and taken away in chains to follow Jesus “to the death”. By then Peter will have grown in the Holy Spirit and in his ability to show Jesus true ‘agape’.
The Season of Easter has seven Sundays (including the Sunday after Ascension Day – the seventh Sunday of Easter).
Traditionally the Second Sunday of the “octave” – eight day celebration following the “high” of the Resurrection on Easter Day is known as “Low Sunday”.
The sixth Sunday of Easter, the Sunday next before Ascension Day, is traditionally Rogation Sunday, marking the beginning of a period of three Rogation Days – the Monday to Wednesday before Ascension Day, which, in historical times (and particularly when there was a much greater emphasis in many communities on the agricultural ‘fruits of the land’), was a time when the Church congregation and priests moved about rural communities, giving thanks for the evident recreation of the spring season, and asking God’s blessing on the growing crops, and the new generations of farm animals evident in the landscape. Rogation Days were also the time when the traditional “beating of the bounds” enabled the community, led by the Minister, Churchwardens and Choir, to walk the boundaries of the manor or parish, reminding themselves of the extent of their parochial land. The procession re-established the Boundaries and Boundary marks of the Parish, from one generation to another, in the days before detailed maps recorded these alignments, while the congregation asked God’s blessing and protection on their community and its produce for the coming year. Rogation comes from the Latin ‘rogare‘ – to ask.
On the Thursday after Rogation Sunday, the Church marks the ascension of Jesus into Heaven, on Ascension Day. As Jesus blessed the eleven Apostles, promising them that he would send them the strength of a “helper” – the Holy Spirit, Acts of the Apostles records that he was taken up into Heaven, with Angels encouraging the Apostles to return to the Upper Room in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Holy Spirit.