by Br Julian McDonald cfc
In their panic and fright they (the Eleven Apostles) thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them: “Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and feet; it is really I. Touch me and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do”…They were still incredulous…so he said to them: “Have you anything here to eat?” Luke 24, 35-48
Every now and then we read newspaper reports of how someone’s personal data are mistakenly deleted from the records of the Department of Social Security, or how somebody else has had his or her identity stolen. In actual fact, the crime of identity theft is on the rise. People whose identity has been stolen are forced to go through all kinds of bureaucratic red tape in order to have things like their motor vehicle licence, their bank account and their social security data reinstated. Just a few years ago a Vietnam veteran received a letter from the Veteran Affairs Department informing him that he was dead and that his family would have to return thousands of dollars of pension payments the Department had paid in his name after he had “officially” died. When the man presented himself in person at the office of Veterans Affairs, his credibility was questioned. He was required to present all kinds of documentation to prove that his case was genuine and that he was “still alive”.
He was finally assured that he would be restored to the list of living veterans and that he would receive his service pension, but that the process would take eight months.
Today’s gospel reading describes that the risen Jesus had his own difficulties in convincing his closest friends that he was really alive and well, and that his body was substantial. They were somehow convinced that they were seeing a ghost. Every known culture has its share of ghost stories. In fact, there are many kinds of incantations and prayers in our own cultures designed to protect us from ghosts and evil spirits. An old Scottish prayer reads as follows: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us” (James Hardy ed. The Denham Tracts, Folklore Society, London, 1895). Perhaps Jesus’ disciples had started to think that rumours of his resurrection were about the ghost of Jesus. They may have been affected even by the popular Greek belief that every human being, including Jesus, has an immortal soul imprisoned in a body. There are still some Christians who hold to that belief and are convinced that the human body is little more than the shell that is left behind when a person dies and his or her soul floats off to heaven rather like a balloon filled with helium gas. For reasons at which we can only guess, today’s resurrection story from Luke details the difficulty Jesus had in convincing his disciples that he had really been resurrected. He even says to them: “Come on, touch me; I won’t bite.” It’s almost as comical as a dog owner trying to convince a terrified child that his dog won’t bite and that it even likes to be patted.
The disciples seem so unconvinced that Jesus resorts to another tactic: “Have you got anything to eat?” That’s one that always works. It’s rather like what happens when teenagers arrive home from school. Their first words are: “Mum, is there anything in the fridge to eat?”
I am struck by the fact that the risen Jesus’ first words, after extending a greeting of peace, were to ask for something to eat. There’s not a word of “I told you so” or of justifying everything that he had taught. Nor are there any profound theological utterances. He simply asks for a bit of fish to satisfy his hunger. I suspect most of us would be hungry, too, if we hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. But, what’s the point of all this? I think it’s about Jesus trying to reassure his disciples that he understood the struggle from doubt to faith.
The resurrection of Jesus challenged the first disciples. It challenges me too. In James Goldman’s play Lion in Winter, Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II says: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.” Central to the message of Easter for all of us is: Anything is possible. That’s something the first disciples struggled to grasp. It the same for me, too. If Jesus is really raised from the dead, I have to rethink everything I ever thought about what’s possible.
In the latter part of today’s gospel reading, we are shown that the disciples grasped that only when Jesus helped them to make sense of what he had taught them during the three years he had been with them. They realized that he had “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24, 45). The loose pieces had begun to fall into place for them. They came to appreciate that “the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Luke 24, 46).
All of us who claim to be witnesses to the good news Jesus proclaimed can trace in our lives our shaky journey to faith – a faith that has had its share of terror and surprise, that knows both disbelief and wonder, very much like the emerging faith of the first disciples of today’s gospel. Those disciples, “startled and terrified”, initially saw the risen Jesus as frightening, as a ghost to terrify them. Jesus, in his turn, tried to allay their panic with words of reassurance: “Peace be with you.” He reached out to shake their hands, to exchange a reassuring touch, a mutual recognition of the humanity they shared with him. He seemed desperate for them to recognise him, for them to know that he was a fellow human being, not a ghost or a threatening demon.
The message for us is that Christ’s peace comes to life in human touch – a touch through which gentleness is made flesh. In a book entitled Black Skin, White Faces, Frantz Fanon (a psychiatrist from Martinique) urged people to practice genuine engagement with one another through touch: “Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?” (Grove Press, New York, 1967). To trust in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe that all flesh can be transfigured, that we really can encounter God in our encounters with one another. We have to learn to grow to the point where the mystery of God is experienced in the clasp of the hands of our sisters and brothers. “Touch me and see”, says Jesus. “See my body, experience my life. It’s just like yours.” The reason why Jesus invites us to welcome the stranger is so that we will come to know the stranger as friend, as one who is the same as we are. Then we will come to recognise Jesus in others, to discover that the extended hand of the other is an invitation to fellowship with Christ.