One word that reoccurs again and again in the opening chapters of Acts – and therefore in our daily Mass readings during these first days of Easter – is the word witness. Notice how Jesus commissions his Apostles: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, emphasis added).
The Apostles understand what this means. One of the first things they do is choose a successor for Judas. There’s no question in their minds what this choice entails. Peter says, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22 emphasis added).
This is just the first chapter of Acts. When you read the early sermons of Peter, he repeatedly presents himself as a witness: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). “The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). The Sanhedrin quickly grows tired of this witness and tells Peter to be quiet. But he responds, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things, as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32).
What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to spread the Gospel? It means we are witnesses.
That witness is both word and deed. We must live differently. The Apostles saw the realness of sin and death. They saw what our sin did to Our Lord. And then, that Easter day, they saw the realness of mercy. They saw the wounds of Christ, transformed into windows of light and grace. They saw firsthand the radical nature of love. And it changed their life.
The Paschal Mystery is not one event among many in the history of the world. It is the event. It changes the world forever. And it must change us. We must live differently.
Do you believe in a God that loves you so much, he comes back from the dead? Are we willing to proclaim it? Are we willing to teach and preach what He has entrusted to us? The Resurrection must impact our lives. Love is stronger than death. We must take these salvific facts and make sure they are known by the world.
Once death is proved futile, life can never be the same.
But does anyone look at the way we live, speak, and act and know the love of the resurrected Christ? Are our behaviors, words, and choices signs to the world that we have a merciful Redeemer? Do we preach a Gospel of hope, love, mercy, and life? What are we witnessing to? Does the world look at Christians and see a people of hope and love?
Am I a witness of joy and hope? Or I am a witness of something else?
I’ve had the staggering honor to be in the empty tomb three times in my life. To kneel at the marble slab that covers where our Lord once lay, to weep and rejoice at the exact place Christ broke the shackles of sin and death, to pray Easter Mass and receive Our Lord’s resurrected body in the place of triumph. As we prepared to leave the Holy Land, our guide reminded us of the responsibility we now bore on our shoulders. Shafik commissioned us,“You saw it. You touched it. And now you go home….Never stop talking about it.”
As Christians, our lives must bear witness to the staggering truth of the Resurrection. Too often, we take the Resurrection for granted. In fact, we begin to treat it as a nice story or image rather than a radical history-altering event. Reading through Acts of the Apostles makes it clear – the disciples were changed forever after witnessing the Resurrection of Christ. Why? Because life can never be the same once death is proven futile.
George Weigel tells the story of Yelena Bonner, a human-rights activist from the Soviet Union, meeting Pope John Paul II for the first time. Even though she had never met him, even though she did not share his religious beliefs, her reaction after their brief conversation was, “He’s the most incredible man I’ve ever met. He’s all light. He is a source of light.”
Weigel poses the question: Why? What was it about John Paul II that prompted this reaction from not just Bonner but from almost anyone who met him? His conclusion:
“Pope John Paul II cannot be explained or understood unless he is taken for what he said he was: a radically converted Christian disciple. He believed that God had revealed himself in history, first to the Jewish people and ultimately in Jesus of Nazareth. He believed that the resurrection of the crucified Nazarene was the axial point of the human saga: an event in and beyond what we know as ‘history,’ which disclosed that God’s passionate love for humanity was stronger than death itself. Believing that, he lived without fear. And living without fear, he inspired fearlessness in others. He was a ‘source of light’ because he had spent his life allowing what he had experienced as divine light to shine through him.”
Can the same be said about me? If not, why not?
What kind of witness am I?
Image: “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” (detail) by Eugene Burnand