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The Easter Sunday Mass is not itself the paschal liturgy. That took place at the culmination of the Easter Vigil. Rather, this is the first of a series of Masses that belong to the great fifty days. In them we reflect upon the post-Easter revelations of the risen Christ and the fruits of our redemption in him. The readings are the same every year.

Reading I: Acts 10:34a, 37-43

New Testament scholars regard the “kerygmatic” speeches of the Acts of the Apostles, not as records of what was actually said by Peter or others on a particular occasion, but as samples of the “kerygma,” or basic message of the earliest Jerusalem church.

While Luke undoubtedly had a hand in giving them their present shape, they enshrine very early christological patterns. This sermon, for example, contains the following points:

(1) The earthly ministry of Jesus, culminating in his death, met with Israel’s rejection of the proffered salvation. The word “tree” calls attention to the scandalous nature of Christ’s death: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Dt 21:23; see Gal 3:13).

(2) Christ’s resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus and all that he had stood for, in face of his contemporaries’ rejection of it. This “no-yes” interpretation of Golgotha and Easter is characteristic of the earliest period.

(3) The apostles witness the events from the beginning of the earthly ministry through the post-resurrection appearances.

Note, too, the suggestion, present elsewhere, that the context of the resurrection appearances was, at least sometimes, a meal. The roots of the Christian Eucharist lie not only in the Last Supper but in the meals that the risen Lord celebrated with his disciples after his resurrection.

Responsorial Psalm: 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23

Psalm 118, with its reference to the stone rejected and made the headstone of the corner, was perhaps the earliest psalm that the primitive community applied to the death and resurrection of Christ. It was the basic Old Testament text for the “no-yes” interpretation of the earliest kerygma.

Reading II: Colossians 3:1-4

  “If you have been raised with Christ” is a common turn of phrase. It means “If (and of course you are).” Colossians is more positive than Rom 6 (see the Easter Vigil service) that baptism includes both the dying and the rising with Christ. But it still maintains two reservations: the resurrection with Christ has to be implemented by constant moral effort; it is a hidden reality that is not finally revealed until Christ’s Second Coming.

Reading II: 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8

s the Jewish housewife spring-cleaned before Passover to make sure that there was not a crumb of leavened bread left in the house, so Paul, in figurative language, urges the Christians of Corinth to purge the leaven of malice and evil so that they may celebrate the festival of Christ’s sacrifice as the true Paschal Lamb with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. This is the earliest reference we have to the Christian reinterpretation of the Passover. It may even indicate that 1 Corinthians was written with the feast in view.

Gospel: John 20:1-9 (Sunday)

This text is a combination of two different traditions.

The one is the well-attested and reliable tradition that Mary Magdalene (other names are added in various forms of the tradition, but there is no consistency here) visited the grave of Jesus on Easter morning, found it empty, and reported the fact to the disciples.

The other, less attested tradition is of Peter’s visit to the grave (see Lk 24:12). (In the earliest and strongly attested tradition, Peter was the recipient of the first appearance located in Galilee.)

To the less attested tradition John has added the race between Peter and the “other disciple,” probably with a symbolic significance. The “other disciple” comes to faith in the resurrection through the mere sight of the empty tomb.

In the earlier tradition, however, the disciples come to faith in the resurrection through seeing the risen Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10 (Vigil)

The story of the empty tomb in Matthew’s Gospel is best explained as an editing of the more primitive Marcan account by the addition of other oral traditions.

The first addition features the earthquake and an elaborate description of the angel (Mark had simply “young man”), the rolling away of the stone, and the angel sitting upon it.

This is the nearest thing we have to an actual description of the Resurrection in the New Testament. In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, the angel actually rolls away the stone to let the risen One come out of the tomb.

These additions comport awkwardly with the visit of the women, for we are not told whether the women actually saw this happen or whether they arrived after it had happened.

If, as we suppose, Matthew has selected features from a popular legend (evidenced more fully in the Gospel of Peter) and combined them with his Marcan material, the effect in his version is that the angel has become no longer the agent of the miracle of the rolling away of the stone but, as in Mark, simply an interpreting angel (angelus interprens) for the benefit of the women.

In the episode of the women at the tomb, the following differences from Mark’s account are noted:

(1) only two women appear: Salome is omitted, apparently to remove the discrepancy between the two Marcan lists of the names of the women—that at the burial and that at the visit to the tomb;

(2) the motive of the women’s visit to the tomb: in Mark it was to see to the burial rites left unfinished on the eve of the sabbath, while in Matthew it is merely to see the sepulcher;

(3) in the angel’s [Mark: young man’] instruction to the women, telling them to report to the disciples, the name of Peter is dropped, presumably because Matthew goes on to narrate a single appearance to all the disciples, without a special one to Peter; (Mt 28:16-20)

(4) Mark’s concluding statement about the subsequent silence of the women is omitted as ill comporting with their subsequent conduct.

The third episode in the pericope is the appearance of the risen One to the women. We have no certain clue as to whether this is an earlier tradition or a redactional composition of Matthew.

Traditional piety and contemporary Christian feminists agree in wanting it to be genuinely historical, while critics object that its absence from the most primitive lists of appearances in 1 Cor 15:3-8 tells decisively against its primitive character. These critics conclude that it is a product of the tendency to coalesce the originally distinct traditions of the empty tomb and the appearances.

For such critics this would be the earliest example of the trend, manifest later in Luke and in John 20, to relocate the appearances in Jerusalem instead of Galilee. It is also an example of the tendency to materialize the appearances.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35 (Afternoon or Evening)

This is the most beautiful of all the appearance stories, and it seems almost blasphemy for the critical scholar to lay hands upon it. Nevertheless, modern New Testament study shows that this story grew up through the years from an original nucleus and became the repository for theological ideas at various stages of development. Finally, Luke, with consummate literary skill, made it into a vivid narrative.

In its present form, the story reflects the pattern of early Christian worship. The self-manifestation of the risen One takes place through the two events of the exposition of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. These two events take place in every liturgy; word and sacrament are integral parts of a single coming of Christ to his own.

Over sixty years ago now, Karl Barth wrote in his Gifford Lectures the following words:

  “What we know today as the church service in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism is a torso. The Roman Catholic Church has a sacramental service without preaching. But I wish to speak at the moment not for or against her, but about our own Protestant Church. We have a service with a sermon but without sacraments. Both types of service are impossible.”

Barth would have to revise his words about Roman Catholicism today, but I wonder parenthetically whether many Protestants have paid sufficient heed to his words!

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 53-55.

Preaching the Lectionary

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