Easter is the season of joy when the Church celebrates Christ’s resurrection, His victory over sin and death. His triumph over the grave is a comforting reality always, but even more so in these days of worldwide plague, with so many sick and dying. When considering the resurrection, the defining event in Christianity, we can contemplate on several things: Christ’s divinity, Christian joy, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. Over the years St. John Henry Newman preached a number of sermons on these and other aspects of Easter. In one of these sermons, “Witnesses of the Resurrection,” he leads us to consider why the Risen Christ appeared to a relatively small number of persons after His resurrection. Newman answers thus: “Because this was the most effectual means of propagating His religion through the world.”
“Following His resurrection, He said to His disciples, “Go, convert all nations:” [Matt. xxviii. 19.] This was His especial charge. If, then, there are grounds for thinking that, by showing Himself to a few rather than to many, He was more surely advancing this great objective: the propagation of the Gospel, this is a sufficient reason for our Lord’s having so ordained; and let us thankfully receive His dispensation, as He has given it.”
First, Newman explains that without faith miracles only move people for a time, as when Jesus restored a man who was paralyzed:
“In truth, this is the way of the mass of mankind in all ages, to be influenced by sudden fears, sudden contrition, sudden earnestness, sudden resolves, which disappear as suddenly. Nothing is done effectually through untrained human nature; and such is ever the condition of the multitude. Unstable as water, it cannot excel. One day it cried Hosanna; the next, Crucify Him.”
And so it would be, Newman argues, that because of this “unstable” human nature, some would claim that they could not certify that the risen man was Christ, or think that Christ had been taken down alive from the cross.
“This is the point to be kept in view: and consider that the very reason why Christ showed Himself at all was in order to raise up witnesses to His resurrection, ministers of His word, founders of His Church; and how in the nature of things could a populace ever become such?”
Newman explains that “It is, indeed, a general characteristic of the course of His providence to make the few the channels of His blessings to the many; but in the instance we are contemplating, a few were selected, because only a few could (humanly speaking) be made instruments. As I have already said, to be witnesses of His resurrection it was requisite to have known our Lord intimately before His death. This was the case with the Apostles; but this was not enough. It was necessary they should be certain it was He Himself, the very same whom they before knew. You recollect how He urged them to handle Him, and be sure that they could testify to His rising again.”
As St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles: “Him God raised up the third day, and showed Him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead.” Acts x. 40, 41.
“It would seem, then, that our Lord gave His attention to a few, because, if the few be gained, the many will follow. To these few He showed Himself again and again. These He restored, comforted, warned, inspired. He formed them unto Himself, that they might show forth His praise. This His gracious procedure is opened to us in the first words of the Book of the Acts.”
Jesus chose to instruct His disciples for 40 days; this would have been difficult if He were among a busy crowd. This is God’s ordinary Providence, Newman opines: “It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few.”
In addition to these reasons, there is yet another Newman gives as to why the witnesses to the Resurrection were few in number: because they were on the side of Truth, and there were few faithful Israelites to be found. We are ever warned by Christ to watch.
Newman exhorts us: “All who obey the Truth are on the side of the Truth, and the Truth will prevail. Few in number but strong in the Spirit, despised by the world, yet making way while they suffered, the twelve Apostles overturned the power of darkness, and established the Christian Church.”
He invites us to live as witnesses to the Resurrection, spiritual witnesses. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself. Truth bears witness by itself to its Divine Author. He who obeys God conscientiously, and lives holily, forces all about him to believe and tremble before the unseen power of Christ.”
“To the world at large he witnesses not; for few can see him near enough to be moved by his manner of living. But to his neighbours he manifests the Truth in proportion to their knowledge of him; and some of them, through God’s blessing, catch the holy flame, cherish it, and in their turn transmit it.”
Newman concludes his sermon setting forth the example of St. Ignatius of Antioch who, like St. Peter before him, gave witness in Rome to the power of Truth, to Christ Crucified and Risen. We Christians today are the living witnesses to His resurrection. Our faith in the Risen Lord is a light to the world, with so many living in the darkness of uncertainty, of the fear of death. Are you allowing the current pandemic to steal your joy or do you remember to have faith in the Risen Lord? Ask yourself, “And am I living as a witness of His Resurrection?”