Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday of Easter – Year B – April 15, 2018
God asks us to show Him our hands
We contemplate the birds of the air and the lilies of the field but the sweet feeling we experience will soon be enveloped by sadness and reminds us of the fate that unites us to these beautiful creatures. Even man is “like a flower which blooms and withers” (Job 14:2) and his days are like grass (Ps 103:15). The grain of wheat dies to be reborn and the tree “if cut down it will sprout again, its new shoots will still appear” (Job 14:7). What will be the culmination of a dramatic duel between life and death in which the human is involved?
No doubt: the last word is up to death. In billions of years, life will be extinguished in the universe.
So, will our passage on this earth have meaning or will it be a meteor that will leave no trace? Are we to face a total mockery of all things? We feel like prisoners, chained in a world destined for death from which there is no escape.
This is the great unsolved riddle to which people have always desperately tried to give an answer.
The light of Easter dissolved forever the darkness and the shadow of death: this world is not a tomb, but the womb in which to grow and prepare for life without limits, without boundaries. Creation will result in a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pt 3:13).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“God will look at our hands and our feet to see the wounds of love.”
After having cured the cripple who asked for alms at the entrance of the temple called “Beautiful” (Acts 3:1-10), Peter gave a discourse from which today’s reading is taken.
The extraordinary prodigy aroused admiration and amazement among those who attended and they wonder about the incident: Who are the Apostles? Are they healers gifted with arcane and extraordinary powers?
Peter explains: “Fellow Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why do you stare at us as if it was by some power or holiness of our own that we made this man walk?” (v. 12). The healing must not be attributed to us but to the faith in Christ. It is a clear sign that Jesus is alive.
Our passage is inserted in this context.
In what sense does the healing of a lame show that Christ is risen? Is it perhaps because it is an extraordinary miracle that only God can do? If so, who is not able to perform miracles could not be a witness to the resurrection.
In his speeches, Peter repeats like a refrain: “We are witnesses” (v. 15). The apostles feel themselves witnesses of the resurrection because the works they do unequivocally proves that Christ is alive.
Jesus walked the roads of Palestine preaching the gospel, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, recovering the lost. If these works continue to be performed, with the same force and the same power, even if miracles do not happen, it means that Jesus is alive and continues to act in his disciples and His Spirit is present in the world.
It is in this sense that every disciple is called to be a witness of the resurrection. Whoever proclaims the message of salvation, who works to end hunger, pain, illness, who puts the lame, who cannot continue on the path of life, back on his feet, who, loved by the Spirit, does the works of Christ, is a witness that he is alive.
There is, in the speech of Peter, a second element to note: the titles attributed to Jesus, “faithful servant of God, holy, just, Master of life” (vv. 13-15). These are not honorary titles, but the synthesis of the early Christians’ faith.
The whole perspective on life changes if one really believes that these titles belong to Jesus, if one is convinced that he, the loser in the eyes of the world, is in fact the successful man according to God. He is the only holy and just one and his proposed way of the cross leads to life.
A third important aspect involves the dramatic contrasts—between life and death, between the work of people and the work of God—present in this discourse (vv. 13-15).
On the one hand the action of men who kill “the author of life” and prefer a murderer (Barabbas) is stressed, on the other hand the intervention of God, who raises and gives life, is placed.
Peter communicates a message of hope: God’s love always manages to prevail, draws good from mistakes of people. His plan cannot be annulled by ignorance or malice; even the most dramatic events, the most senseless acts (v. 17) will always be guided by him and taken into his plan of salvation.
In the last part of the passage (vv. 17-19) Peter makes the invitation to conversion. The errors, sins—which are not due to malice, but to ignorance—will never have the last word. In the end there will always be the proclamation of forgiveness and the possibility of recovery. The healing of the lame person is the sign: even the most “crippled”, most “paralyzed” will be healed by the power of the Spirit of the Risen One.
Then as now—it is the message that the author of Acts is directing to the Christians of his community—healing from sin passes through two stages: first is the awareness of the evil committed, the admission, without excuses, of having done wrong; the second is the change of life.
One of the theological errors that had spread in John’s community was an absurd optimism, senseless carelessness in the moral field. Some groups of disciples believed that the spiritual wisdom they acquired and the enlightenment they received make them immune to whatever sin.
John rejects and severely denounces their dangerous illusion: “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all wickedness. If we say that we do not sin, we make God a liar, his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8-10).
The Christian is conscious of his own fragility and acknowledges that, even after being pardoned, he remains weak and continues to sin. However, there is good news for him: even if he sins, he, before the Father, has an advocate, the just Jesus Christ (v. 1). He should not have any fear, sure that salvation is not reserved for the small group of believers, but will reach all people (v. 2).
The second part of the reading (vv. 3-5) is aimed at those who claim to have known God, but do not practice his commands. Faith—says John—cannot be separated from life; only “if he keeps his word, God’s love is made complete in him” (v. 4). Who does not go beyond words to profess their adherence to Christ, but does not lead a life according to the gospel, is a liar and falls out of the plan of salvation (v. 4). This does not mean he will face eternal perdition. Such an interpretation would contradict what has just been said. It is quite a pressing invitation to take note that those who are away from the Lord and His ways are detached from the source of love, joy and life.
The experience of the Risen One told in this gospel passage took place in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. The day began with the journey of the women to the tomb and with the announcement of the resurrection transmitted to them by “two men in dazzling garments appeared” (Lk 24:1-8).
At night, the eleven and a group of other disciples who were with them were talking of the manifestation of the Risen One that Simon and a few others had. Then the two disciples of Emmaus, almost out of breath, came and reported what had happened to them along the way and how they had recognized the Lord in the breaking of bread.
In this context, we can imagine the irrepressible joy when Jesus himself appeared among them (vv. 35-36).
We would expect the reaction John referred to us: “The disciples kept looking at the Lord and were full of joy” (Jn 20:20). Luke says instead that they were “amazed, frightened and upset,” believing of “seeing a ghost” and “doubts in their hearts” rose (vv. 36-38). Their reaction was inexplicable.
It is difficult then to understand the reason for their difficulty in believing: “In their joy they didn’t dare believe” (v. 41). How to reconcile joy with doubts? The fact that Jesus eat fish before disciples is also surprising (vv. 39-43). Paul ensures that the bodies of the resurrected is not material as what we have in this world (1 Cor 15:35-44); it is a “spiritual” body, passing through locked doors (Jn 20:26), therefore, cannot eat.
Some people think something similar happened as to what is told in the Book of Tobit, where it is said that the Archangel Raphael, the moment he makes himself known, said: “All the time that I was visible to you, I neither ate nor drank anything. I only appeared to do so” (Tob 12:19). But this explanation is not convincing, because, in this case, the “evidence” of corporeality given by Jesus would be based on an illusion, on a hallucination.
Jerusalem is sufficiently far away from the sea and it is very unlikely that the disciples could immediately pull out roasted fish. The fact would be more similar to Capernaum.
These difficulties, rightly highlighted by rationalists, are valuable. They lead us to go beyond the immediate meaning of the story in order to grasp the deeper meaning. Luke has resorted to a concrete language and material images to convey ineffable truths. What do the wonder, fear, doubt, the fact of eating in front of the disciples mean and then… the strange recognition through the observation of the hands and feet? People recognize each other by face, not by the hands and feet.
Every experience of God told in the Bible is always accompanied by a reaction of fear on the part of man. We remember the exclamation of Isaiah at the time of his calling: “Poor me! I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips and yet I have seen the King, Yahweh Sabaoth” (Is 6:5). We think of Zechariah and Mary who were upset at the announcement of the birth of a child (Lk 1:12.29), or to the apostles who were filled with fear during the transfiguration (Mk 9:6).
This is not the terror that one experiences in the face of danger, but the amazement of those who receive a revelation from God.
In our passage too, the wonder and fear are biblical images. The evangelist uses it to describe a supernatural, ineffable experience of the disciples who were flooded by a light that is not of this world, but from God. They met the Risen One.
Wonder and fear always accompany even today, the manifestations of the Lord “in the middle” to his communities. Wonder and fear are the images of the radical changes that the apparition of the Risen Christ brings to human life. With its radiance, the light of Easter reveals the pettiness of each withdrawal to the current world and opens the minds and hearts on absolutely new reality to the world of the resurrected, world that fascinates and inspires wonder and fear, for it is God’s world.
To get involved in this new dimension is neither simple nor immediate. It includes hesitation and perplexity. There are doubts, as stressed, not only by today’s gospel (v. 38), but each story of the experience of the Risen Christ.
Skepticism, disbelief, uncertainty about the identity of the man who appeared have characterized the slow and arduous journey that led the apostles to the faith. To them, as to us, the reality of the resurrection has appeared, at times, too good to be true. In some circumstances, they had the feeling of having to deal with ghosts; other times, as happened on the Sea of Galilee, they have not recognized in the Risen One the Master whom they had followed along the roads of Palestine. Even after the last event on a mountain in Galilee—Matthew the Evangelist notes—“although some doubted” (Mt 28:17).
Their persisting doubts, even after so many signs offered by the Lord, prove that the apostles were not gullible; then they show that faith is not a surrender to the evidence, but it is the free response to a call. There are always good reasons to reject it, and the fact that there are non-believers proves that God acts in a very discreet way. He does not impose himself, does no violence to the freedom of the person.
Luke’s emphasis on the corporeality of the Risen One comes from a pastoral concern: the Christians he addressed to were imbued with the Greek philosophical ideas. They did not deny that, after death, he went into a new form of life, but this was reduced to survival of the spiritual component of man. The material body was considered to be a prison for the soul who sought to break away from the earth and to rise towards the sky. The bodily resurrection was inconceivable and, when apparitions of the dead were reported, they always imagined shadows, spirits, ghosts.
To let the newness of the Christian concept of the resurrection be understood by those who were linked to this culture, Luke—the only one among the evangelists—was forced to resort to a very “corporeal” language. The disciples—he assures—have touched the Risen One; they have eaten with him; they were invited to look at his flesh and his bones.
They are affirmations of a staggering realism. If one does not keep in mind who the recipients are and what is the objective which has led Luke to express himself in this way, one runs the risk of equating the resurrection of Jesus to the resuscitation of his cadaver, on his return to the way of life that he had before.
The resurrected ones do not take the material body, made up of atoms and molecules, which they had in this world. It would not make sense to be stripped at the time of death, of this body, and then get it back on the day of resurrection of the dead. God could not have decreed the death of a person in order to give him back the same form of life. If he destined the person to die it is to introduce him to a new way of life completely different from the present one, so different that it cannot be neither imagined nor verified. Our senses are not able to capture it; it can be grasped only through signs and be accepted in faith.
At this point we try to reformulate the passage’s theological message using a language more understandable to our culture.
The Risen One—ensures Luke—was not a ghost, but the same Jesus that the disciples had touched with their hands and with whom they had eaten. He had changed his appearance; a sublime metamorphosis that made him unrecognizable had taken place in him. He was transfigured, but it was not another person. He kept his body, his ability to manifest himself outwardly, to relate, to communicate his love, but his was a body different from ours, it was—as taught by Paul—a “spiritual” body (1 Cor 15:44).
He has a body that allows him to continue to eat and drink with us, that is, to share our hopes and delusions, our joys and sorrows. He is not out of reach, not a spirit irremediably distant and detached from our reality. Even after his return to the Father, he remains fully human, one of us.
He is not the only risen one; he is the first raised from the dead (Col 1:18). What happened to him is repeated in every disciple. At the time of death, there won’t be a split of the soul from the body (this is Greek philosophy, not a biblical concept), but the human, as a whole, will be transfigured in God’s world.
Now the invitation of the Risen Lord to look at his hands and his feet is better understood (v. 39). While people are identified by the face, Jesus wants to be recognized by the hands and feet. The reference is to the wounds impressed by the nails and to the cross, culmination of a life spent for love.
The body of Jesus conserves the signs of his total self-giving even as the Resurrected One.
God has no other hands but those of Christ, nailed for love. It would be blasphemous to imagine that they could do harm to the human. He has no other feet but that of Christ, nailed, and he showed them to tell us that he won’t be far away from us.
It is contemplating these hands and these feet that man discovers the true and only God.
The Christian will also be recognized by the hands and feet. Blessed are those who can show God their hands and their feet marked by acts of love. With Paul they can boast: “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17).
In the last part of the passage (vv. 44-48) the way to make today the experience of the Risen Lord is shown: it is a must to open the hearts to the understanding of the scriptures. It is through the Scriptures that Christ continues to show to his disciples, “his hands and his feet,” that is, his gestures of love.
Then the big announcement also present in the other two readings is introduced: In the name of Christ conversion and the forgiveness of sins will be preached to all the nations.
To believe in the resurrection of the Lord involves a radical change of thinking and living. The night of the Passover marked, for the first Christians, the passage from death to life, through the sacrament of baptism (1 Jn 3:14).
The announcement of the resurrection of Christ is effective and credible only if the disciples can, like the Master, show people their hands and their feet marked by works of love.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: