There’s a picture that hangs on the wall in my rectory, a gift from the staff at St. Mark parish, where I worked before I entered the seminary. It shows the faces of two men running. One is middle-aged and bearded, the other young and clean-shaven. The men are dressed in loose tunics, and they are running towards the left side of the picture, eyes wide with anticipation. Behind them, the sky and the hilly landscape are awash in the golden glow of early morning. The younger man, hands clasped together at his chest, is running just a step ahead of the middle-aged man.
Who are these men, and what does this picture mean? As with all art, the context is key. As I said, this picture hangs on the wall in library of the rectory. The rectory, of course, is on the church grounds, and it functions as both the church office and the priest’s residence. In this context, the meaning is quite clear. These men are St. Peter and St. John, the two Apostles who ran to the tomb of Jesus Christ on the morning of his Resurrection. Any Catholic, and probably any Christian, would recognize this image, even if they had never seen the picture before. That is because we have all heard this gospel passage before, and we have all seen depictions of Peter and John in Christian art throughout the centuries.
But what if this picture were not hanging in a rectory, but in a post office, a restaurant, or a barber shop? Would anyone recognize the two men? Would they realize that this is an image of Easter morning, the morning the human race was saved? A non-Christian viewing this picture would almost certainly not recognize its meaning, but even a God-fearing Christian might also pass it by. Only if the picture was labeled with a title, or with the names of the Apostles, would they understand that this is a piece of religious art. Outside of the churchy context, it’s hard to tell what this picture is about, and what its purpose is.
In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is preaching to a Roman centurion named Cornelius and some other Gentiles. These men were described as God-fearing men, and although they were pagans, they would pray to God and donate money to the Jews. They knew the Jewish religion, and they had heard of Jesus and the great signs he performed, but they didn’t understand what his death and resurrection meant. They lacked a certain interpretive key. Peter, in this reading, supplies that interpretive key by connecting the dots.
Jesus Christ is the one all the prophets and psalmists had spoken of: the Passover lamb, the suffering servant, the one with pierced hands and feet, the King born of a virgin, the Messiah. His death has purchased atonement for our sins, and now HE IS RISEN! And anyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
This message that Peter has proclaimed is called the kerygma, that is, the initial preaching of the good news. It is the core belief and interpretive key for all of Christianity. Without that interpretive key, Christianity does not make sense.
Have you ever wondered why the world misunderstands Christians, and especially Catholics? Why we have a reputation of being a bunch of tired old puritanical grumps, led by a hierarchy of even grumpier old men in some foreign land across the sea? Why we hold stubbornly to the old way of doing things, like matrimony, for example. It’s because the world does not have that interpretive key—the kerygma—the good news of Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
But we live in the information age! With the Internet, the truths of our Faith are available to anyone at any time, right at our fingertips! Ah, but the Faith is not transmitted by CAT5 cables and Wi-Fi. It is transmitted today as it always has been—by witnesses. The kerygma and the witness, the good news and the messenger, are what transmit the Faith.
Brothers and sisters, our Faith is robust. It is simple enough for a young child to grasp, and complex enough for the most lettered theologian to wrestle with. It holds together logically, yet balances logic with mystery and beauty. We have the message. What we need are messengers.
The Easter sequence we have just heard asks the question, “Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?” Mary Magdalene’s response: “The tomb of Christ, who is alive! I have seen the glory of the Resurrection! The angels have testified to it; the shroud and head cloth too. Christ, my hope, is risen! He is going before you to Galilee.”
Mary Magdalene became the first witness of the Resurrection. She testified to Peter and John, who ran to the tomb. They, in turn, would become two of the greatest evangelists the world has ever known. And it all began in that moment, that Easter morning.
We, ourselves, must become an Easter people. We must rush to the tomb this morning, eyes full of hope, hearts full of joy. We must be the interpretive key that this world needs, to unlock the meaning of life. We must go and announce the gospel of the Lord! And we will accomplish it by living each day with Easter joy in our hearts. We will be witnesses to the risen Christ when we are no longer ashamed to speak his name at school, at work, or in our own homes. We will be ambassadors for Christ when we tell others the reason for our joy—Jesus is alive, and we have seen his glory!