Christ did not rise from the dead so we could gorge ourselves on marshmallow Peeps. We knew that even before spending most of the weeks of Lent quarantined in our homes during global pandemic. After all, gorging is an act of singular enjoyment, and if we have learned anything together these past several weeks it is just how perilous actions can be when “I fill myself with what I want.” We are perhaps more prepared than ever before to accept the true measure of Easter joy, which is the degree to which the disciples of the risen Lord indulge in the good of others. The celebration of Easter is ordered to communion, so much so that Easter works centrifugally through Christ’s disciples: We move the joy outwards.
Using Pope Francis’ beloved term, Easter is the season for “missionary disciples.” The heart of the mission is Christ, the source of the mission is his Resurrection, and the power of the mission is the Holy Spirit he imparts to us. With this mission, we, his disciples, bring him to others and work to unite all in him.
How do we embrace and live out the mission of Easter? By heeding the Gospel and then exercising our own “missionary creativity” to become the disciples Christ frees us to be. Here are four ways to fulfill our Easter mission — one way from each of the four Gospels.
Proclaim and teach
From the Gospel of Matthew
Do you know what is the last thing we hear about the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew? It is pretty surprising: “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 28:16-17).
The last thing said in the Gospel about the apostles is that they doubted. To be clear, they are seeing Jesus in the light of the Resurrection — this is the Risen Christ. They worshipped and doubted. What did they doubt? The text doesn’t say, because Jesus has the last word in the Gospel of Matthew: “Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age'” (Mt 28:18-20).
There is a peculiar dissonance at the end of this Gospel. Some of the apostles are doubting, and instead of correcting or even addressing their doubt, Jesus instead impresses on them the “Great Commission.” One would think that the prerequisite for this commission would be faith without doubt. After all, these disciples are actually looking upon the Risen Christ; they are his witnesses.
If in Easter you do not feel belief and joy welling up within you, then make Easter a time of commitment — that is, make commitments like someone who does believe in full.
And yet, perhaps this isn’t so peculiar after all. In fact, what many of us feel now is original to Christianity. Some doubt even in the midst of joy — even in Easter. Some doubt, even when Christ appears to us, as in the Eucharist, or when we have been kept from receiving the Eucharist, as has been the case with the cancellation of public Masses. Some doubt, even and including some of the apostles. It is to ones such as these — doubting apostles and we ourselves — that the Lord Jesus entrusts the mission of the Church. The proclamation of the Resurrection goes through doubting believers and believing doubters: both are called to be missionary disciples.
In Christianity, believing does not always come before doing. Often, doing is part of coming to belief. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus proclaims that “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father” is his disciple (Mt 12:50). In the parallel episode in the Gospel of Luke, he says that his disciples “are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Lk 8:21). But as he had just taught his disciples in the Parable of the Sower, the only ones who truly hear his words are those who allow it to sink in and bear fruit in their lives. You know you are a disciple by the fruit; that’s the proof that you’ve truly heard the word of God. So it might be just as well to interpret Jesus as saying that his disciples “are those who hear the word of God by acting on it.”
If in Easter you do not feel belief and joy welling up within you, then make Easter a time of commitment — that is, make commitments like someone who does believe in full. And if you are filled with belief and joy in Easter, make Easter a time of commitment nonetheless, because without the action, the belief will not bear fruit. Jesus knows his disciples by their fruit.
I call Easter a time of “commitment” because many of the ways in which we “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” might naturally commence at another time. For example, to teach others in the faith through your parish, you might assist with or lead a facet of your parish’s faith formation ministry (RCIA, confirmation, marriage prep, etc.), but many such regular ministries follow an academic year calendar. So what can you do during the Easter season? You can take the step of making a firm commitment to contribute during the next academic year. Then spend the summer preparing for this ministry through your own study, prayer and practice.
That does not mean that a commitment in Easter might not be more immediate. What can you do this Easter? You could initiate a Bible study in your home (or digitally, depending on whatever our present circumstances might be), or gather friends and neighbors (parishioners or not, Catholics or not) into your home regularly for a time of prayer and conversation. Opening your home is, paradoxically, a bold way of “going out” with Easter joy. And acting with Easter joy doesn’t necessitate that we feel that joy or become flushed with belief beforehand.
Last, commit to being an Easter witness — personally. Each of those 11 disciples to whom Jesus entrusted the Great Commission went out to share how they had been changed by the Lord. That includes the ones Matthew had in mind when he wrote, “but they doubted.” Matthew himself may have been one of the doubters, and yet there, in Chapter 9 of his Gospel, Matthew writes of how Jesus called him when he was still a sinner (cf. 9:9-13). Likewise, in Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist recalls how Jesus commanded the now healed Gerasene demoniac to “Return home and recount what God has done for you,” to which Luke adds, “The man went off and proclaimed throughout the whole town what Jesus had done for him” (Lk 8:39).
The response to Christ’s mercy is proclaiming gratitude in the stories we tell others. And it just so happens that, sometimes, the movement from doubt to joy in yourself goes through sharing good news with others.
Give them something
From the Gospel of Mark
The multiplication of the loaves and fish appears in each Gospel, with two separate narratives in each of Mark and Matthew. The focus ultimately falls upon Jesus’ action, where he takes little and provides for many, whether 5,000 or 4,000 men, not counting women and children. Even more, when “all ate and were satisfied” (Mk 6:42), there are baskets full of leftovers. When the Lord feeds, he feeds in abundance.
In our haste to marvel at Jesus’ miraculous deed, we might miss the unheeded commandment he first issued to his disciples. Noticing the late hour and how the “lonely place” where they are provides no sustenance, the disciples ask Jesus to send the people away so they could find something to eat. Jesus responds with his characteristic directness: “Give them some food yourselves” (Mk 6:37).
The disciples are dumbfounded; they don’t even know where to begin. This event occurs during Jesus’ earthly ministry, of course. It is not a Resurrection appearance narrative, nor an account from the early Church as we might find in Acts or the epistles. But the command of Jesus for the disciples themselves to “give them some food” is, no less, an Easter mission. Jesus does for that crowd of 5,000 what his disciples will not or perhaps cannot do then, and yet when he is risen from the dead and sends them forth as his “missionary disciples,” they must do what they did not do in that “lonely place.”
That is the mission of Easter for us today: to feed and minister to others. Who does Jesus mean by “them”? Whoever is hungry, especially the ones who are in a “lonely place.”
Consider the last line of the Gospel of Mark: “But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (16:20). The ones who go forth are the same disciples who were with Jesus in the “lonely place,” and now they go everywhere to preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection. The confirmation of their message is the deeds they perform. Jesus now works in them and with them to do for others what he once did in their midst. That means that these missionary disciples now fulfill the command he gave them earlier: “Give them some food yourselves.”
That is the mission of Easter for us today: to feed and minister to others. Who does Jesus mean by “them”? Whoever is hungry, especially the ones who are in a “lonely place.” Those lonely places are just as likely the kitchens of overworked and underpaid single parents as they are downtown street corners and tent encampments.
Easter may very well be the “acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2) to volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter or soup kitchen, but I think there is more to this missionary command than what is entailed in the worthy participation in some other organization. Perhaps this command is even more direct than that, as though Jesus is telling us to go directly to those who hunger. What does that look like? To give an image, here’s an example from my own life.
Driving through the downtown of my home city, one passes a regular community of persons experiencing homelessness, many of whom beg for money on street corners. Our family has given money to people begging and, at times, volunteered at the soup kitchens in the downtown area. But there remained a persistent nudge within me to do something more directly. Finally, one Sunday, I decided to grill some meats, prepare them in buns, and go to these streets with some of my children to give the hungry something to eat, directly. Nearly three years later, this has become a regular Sunday activity, so much so that people now wait for us to arrive.
The recipe here is rather simple: see hunger, prepare food, go feed. It takes a bit of time, a bit of money and a bit of effort, and the eventual “danger” is that it will become a regular commitment, but in my life this is the closest I have come to responding to the direct command Jesus gave to his disciples. After spending considerable amounts of time intentionally avoiding each other during a global pandemic, when we can go toward each other once again we ought to go toward those who are hungry to give them something to eat.
This same mission applies to all the works of mercy. Visit the sick, whether in hospitals or in homes, directly. Visit the imprisoned, whether in person or through letters, directly. Clothe the naked, directly; for it is one thing to give old clothes to Goodwill (and a good thing at that!) but quite another to befriend a person whose needs are not being met, learn about what he or she needs, and then provide for those needs to the best of your ability, even to the point of sacrificing your own comfort. Then do that monthly.
For our parishes, this might look like small groups of parishioners banding together to engage in works of mercy together. The first thought will likely be to find some other organization through which to volunteer, but what if our parishes became hubs of missionary activity that did not require yet another step before engaging with the needs of the needy? Through individual disciples, families of disciples and missionary parishes, the joy of Easter may be confirmed in the signs of charity Jesus commands and empowers us to perform, directly.
Build cathedrals in time
From the Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke concludes like this: “They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Lk 24:52-53). Having spent 40 days in the presence of the risen Lord, the disciples’ response to his ascension is to turn their joy into worship and enter repeatedly into the temple to bless God. As we know, of course, their mission is not to remain in the Temple but rather to go out from the Temple to proclaim and heal. In Luke’s Gospel, this commissioning occurs with Pentecost some days later.
When the disciples receive their mission, this habit of prayer and worship is not nullified. What remains constant is the discipline of prayer, while what changes is the manner of their prayer. As they live “the Way” of Jesus, they take the temple discipline with them wherever they go, marking each day by periods of prayer. These Christians built their first cathedrals not out of bricks but out of time.
The four pillars of the earliest Christian community are enumerated immediately after the Pentecost episode in the Acts of the Apostles. As St. Luke writes, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). As we read on in Acts of the Apostles, we see again and again how the fourth pillar of the community — the devotion to the prayers — is associated with specific times of day.
- “Peter went up to the roof terrace to pray at about noontime” (10:9)
- “Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer” (3:1)
- “About midnight … Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (16:25)
Even Peter’s Pentecost sermon is marked by the time of day: “it is only nine o’clock in the morning” (2:15).
Dedication to the Liturgy of the Hours is therefore an Easter action, one that emerges from the joy of Christ’s Resurrection
Following the pattern of the apostles and earliest Christians, the Church developed the Liturgy of the Hours to arrange the time of each day according to periods of prayer. That initial Easter response to offer worship and gather in the temple to bless God became, in the practice of the Church, the regular rhythm of prayer that offers time itself in a liturgy.
Dedication to the Liturgy of the Hours is therefore an Easter action, one that emerges from the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. The easiest way to begin cultivating the habit of praying the hours is with the use of the “Shorter Christian Prayer” book, which provides morning and evening prayer for the four week cycle of hours. One step up from that is “Christian Prayer” which includes additional prayers appropriate to specific liturgical seasons. And then the full complement of prayers is available in a four-book set. It is also available online and through apps, such as iBreviary.
Many people already pray the Liturgy of the Hours, so for them the response to Easter might mean inviting others into this prayer and teaching others how to pray. At the university where I work, a group of undergraduate students gathered every morning at 8:30 a.m. in one of our campus chapels to pray morning prayer from Liturgy of the Hours together. Perhaps they gathered in the evenings, too. Small communities of regular prayer such as these are cenacles of communion in the midst of an otherwise hectic world of disordered time. They are observing the discipline of prayer together, building cathedrals in time.
Become an instrument of peace
From the Gospel of John
The way the world gives peace is either through conquering or, at best, compromise. The way the Lord gives peace is through his own sacrifice. That is the gift Jesus gives to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27).
Christ’s peace is not mere words or wispy sentiment. He suffers for this peace. He gives everything to create this peace. And when he appears to his fearful disciples huddled in the upper room on the third day, the first thing he says to them is “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). He shows them his wounds, which others have inflicted upon him and for which these disciples bear some responsibility themselves, but he does not accuse them from these wounds. Nor does he call a truce. Instead, from these wounds, he creates peace: He gives them new life. Again he says, “Peace be with you,” and then, to complete this gift of peace, he gives his disciples what his Father gave him: a mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). He breathes on them the Holy Spirit and sends them out to forgive the sins of others.
This is the Easter gift and the Easter mission all in one. The gift is to receive Christ’s peace and the mission is to share in Christ’s own mission. His mission requires sacrifice, because he creates peace at his own expense: with his body and his blood. For those of us called to share in his mission — that is, for every Christian — the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is done through us. Christians suffer in Christ to give the gift of peace. It is his gift, given through us.
This is the Easter gift and the Easter mission all in one. The gift is to receive Christ’s peace, and the mission is to share in Christ’s own mission.
Where does this sacrifice take place? Sometimes it happens very close to home. To suffer to give peace might very well mean taking the first step in apologizing to a family member or initiating a conciliatory conversation between two estranged family members. Actions like that are always hard and always awkward — they all come at the expense of the one who makes the first move. But that’s what we Christians are called to be: people who make the first move to offer Christ’s peace.
Communities and workplaces and schools are often pulled apart by rival factions. Many of those rivalries simmer just beneath the surface, where envy and suspicion lurk. In situations such as these, the hard and risky thing is to do something that serves your rival’s interests, rather than your own. This may very well end up coming at your expense as your rival takes advantage of your good will or, instead, does not even acknowledge your act. Christians sacrifice such loss.
Especially this year with the heated presidential election season upon us and the world ravaged by a viral pandemic, the practice of reconciliation serves the mission of Christ to foster the common good. What would it mean to refrain from demonizing those who oppose your views? What would it mean to create a different way of speaking in an environment where soundbites and social media posts are often laced with negativity? What would it mean to become an instrument of peace in a time such as this? These are the kinds of questions that require missionary creativity from each one of us, the sort of creativity that Pope Francis calls for and St. Francis of Assisi exercised. This is the creativity of Christians, who are empowered by and committed to the good news of Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and is now risen.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is A God Who Questions (OSV 2019).
|Call to missionary discipleship|
— Evangelii Gaudium, No. 120
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
— Acts 2:42-47