Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Beginning on the night of March 31 with the Great Vigil and First Eucharist of Easter, we entered the Easter season, a joyful period which includes spectacular celebrations on Easter Day, Festal Eucharists and Festal Evensongs on six additional Sundays in Eastertide, and dozens of weekday services, many of which are choral.
The last ten days of the fifty days of Eastertide are known as Ascensiontide, beginning with Ascension Day itself on Thursday, May 10. All of this leads up to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection, on May 20.
The Resurrection & the Acts
During the seven weeks of Eastertide we recount the resurrection appearances of Jesus before his ascension, as told in the Gospels. We also hear the story of the effect of Christ’s resurrection and ascension on the lives and vocations of those who were contemporaries of Jesus, as told in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the story of the beginning of Christianity in the weeks and months and years immediately following the Resurrection, and it is a story that far too many Christians overlook. Yet, it is our story; it is the story of why we are here as a Christian community in twenty-first century New York City.
The resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his death on Good Friday is an event in history, often said to be the center point of history, but it was an event that was not seen by anyone. Its evidence is seen in its effects: the empty tomb; the linens left neatly behind; the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, first to Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, and later to the others, eventually including doubting Saint Thomas, our patron, who upon seeing the wounds on the transformed body of the Risen Christ famously declared “My Lord and my God.”
No one was present at the moment Jesus rose from the dead. But whatever the disciples saw and experienced in the forty days following the resurrection, which included his ascension, changed them, and changed them forever.
The disciples did not have to do anything in particular after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They could have quietly gone back to their jobs as fishermen and tax collectors. The could have headed straight to bed and stayed there. They could have kept the inexplicable events of the previous few years to themselves and formed an esoteric inward-looking club, jealously guarding their knowledge and keeping it away from others who probably would not understand or believe them anyway.
But they didn’t do any of those things. Something happened that truly changed them. And they behaved accordingly.
Something happened that caused these men and women to go peacefully to the four corners of the world, not with a sword but with the word of God. Something happened that caused the conversion of thousands, and then millions, of people, long before the Church became established within political institutions, and long before Christians within those political institutions took up swords. That change cannot be easily explained simply by greed, envy, politics, power, or money, because the story of the early Christians, like the story of Christ himself, is a story of self-sacrificial love. Christ died and was raised from the dead, for us and for our salvation. And these first generation Christians knew it first-hand. And they were now willing to die for him, even though before his death and resurrection, they had run away scared.
And so it is that it has been a custom since the early Church to have readings from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles in the liturgy throughout the Easter season. At Saint Thomas, we follow that tradition: the first lesson on Sunday mornings during the seven Sundays of Easter is not, as it usually is, from the Old Testament, but rather from the Acts of the Apostles. This continues at weekday masses in the Chantry Chapel, where on most days through Eastertide, a lesson from the Acts is paired with a lesson from one of the gospels.
We encourage you to read the Acts of the Apostles on your own. Daily readings are listed with each service on the worship calendar, or you can simply read the book from beginning to end.
It is in Acts where you will read about the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It is in Acts where you will read Saint Peter’s sermon to the Jews who gathered for the Feast of Weeks, resulting in the conversion of thousands. It is in Acts where you will read about the church’s first martyr, Saint Stephen, who was killed at the behest of Saul, who himself was later converted on the road to Damascus and became Saint Paul. It is in Acts that Saint Peter has his vision of the sheet with unclean animals, and the subsequent spreading of the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Gentiles throughout the world, wonderfully told in the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion and of Lydia.
Even if you know many of these stories already, it is striking to hear them all within the course of just a few weeks. We encourage you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these stories, because without the story of what the first disciples were willing to do in response to what they had witnessed, the resurrection and ascension would lose their power as eyewitness testimony. They would be legends that people told, rather than personal experiences that people acted upon.
To read the Acts of the Apostles from beginning to end is to encounter a people filled with the Spirit. It is to witness the blossoming of the Church. It is to understand from where we and other Christians came—nearly all of the two billion Christians in today’s world are Gentiles, and yet all of us were baptized into the death and life of this particular first-century Jew named Jesus. We gather at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street two millennia later in no small part because of the free acts of those first apostles who through the power of the Spirit converted thousands, who converted millions, who converted billions. Eastertide is their story and through them it has become our story.