Today is the last Sunday we hear of the appearances of Jesus. Next Sunday the focus is on the Good Shepherd: Christ present in his Church. And then the Gospels go elsewhere – another story!
In Lent we talk a lot about changing – conversion, in the biblical word. We’re reminded life is short, death is certain and after death comes judgment. Whether we really change for better during Lent is a moot point: am I less impatient, am I more generous? Well… But in the Easter stories, in Jesus’ eight or so appearances told in the Gospels, we see it happening. It’s as if the Lord decides to do what we have failed to do. The Easter Gospels are about transformation. Think of Mary Magdalen, weeping outside the tomb, turning, turning to someone she thinks is the gardener, turning again, in another sense, to recognise who he is, and then running, running to tell the others. Think of Thomas, grumpy stubborn Thomas, changing from unbelief to a blazing profession of faith: “My Lord and my God.” Think of our two men today. At the beginning they are tramping along, shoulders slumped. At the end of the story, they literally turn round. They go back to Jerusalem, running surely. They turn round physically because they have been turned from disillusionment to recognition, because their hearts have burned and their eyes have opened. (One could footnote that: their disillusionment was actually an illusion. It can sound so adult to be disillusioned; but, beware, it might be very wrong). When they find the Eleven and their companions, they meet more change: “Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Or again, think of Peter after that breakfast on the beach: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” What kind of man came out of that conversation?
“All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.” Those are well-known lines from Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916, about the Easter Rising in Dublin that year. It’s a poem that shows ordinary, everyday people being changed by the desire to rise up and fight for the freedom of their country. Yeats describes, among others, a man whom he thought a “drunken, vainglorious lout”, who “had done most bitter wrong” to a friend of Yeats in fact. But, like the others, even he, “he too”, is transfigured.
“He, too – writes Yeats – has resigned his part / In the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” So it was. Neither these folk or Ireland were ever the same again.
The Gospels recount, as it were, the first Easter Rising. One by one, two by two, then as Eleven, the disciples are changed, in their turns. They resign their part “in the casual comedy” of everyday life. For them, in any case, it had already ceased to be either comic or casual: “they had him crucified, and we had hoped…” Then “a terrible beauty” is born for them. It’s born from the womb / tomb. It’s born in them. It’s beautiful because it’s Christ; it’s terrible because it utterly transforms. “Were not our hearts burning within us, as he talked to us on the road?” Albeit in different ways, at different paces, this beauty does burn hearts and lives. There’s a terrible beauty about having a purpose in life and sharing in the mission of Christ. And this Beauty destined to kindle and transfigure the world.
What is conversion? If we’ve done our catechetics or listened to enough sermons, we’ll recall the Greek word for it: metanoia. This is what Lent so strenuously encourages. Metanoia is having second thoughts, a change of mind, thinking again, thinking twice about something, about the way we live our lives; it may be grief at something good having passed us by. Literally, metanoia is an “after-mind”. What Lent encourages, though, Easter is full of, Easter does. It has that effect. St Peter’s Pentecost sermon, of which we heard some in the 1st reading, is a call to the people of Jerusalem precisely to think again, to have an after-mind regarding what had just happened to Jesus. “You killed him”, says Peter bluntly, “but God raised him to life.” You misjudged him, but God reversed your judgment: God’s “after mind”. Taking on God’s mind is what we mean by faith. “You foolish men, so slow of heart to believe”, says Jesus to the two on the road. “Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” Wasn’t that God’s mind?
We talk often, don’t we, of “life after” this or that? Life after cancer; life after retirement; life after bereavement. We’re all thinking about life after lockdown. Christianity – faith, hope and charity – is life after the Resurrection. It’s an after-mind, an after-life. It’s what happens when the Resurrection has personal impact. “All changed, changed utterly.” If Resurrection is where it’s all heading, the whole road – life’s road – looks different. We have to resign our part in the “casual comedy”. We have to head for Jerusalem.
“After his passion”, says St Luke, Jesus “presented himself alive by many proofs, appearing to them” (Acts 1:3) “God allowed him to be seen,” says St Peter elsewhere (Acts 10:40). The initiative is God’s. Even humanly, we are changed, we become alive, thanks to other people and their presence in our lives. They inspire, they motivate. And so here. Christ, transformed by the glory of the Father in the mystery of his resurrection, transforms those he comes to. From the Easter candle, other candles catch their light. He intervenes. He appears in the garden, on the road and then in a pub (like today), by the shore after their fishing, on a hillside, in an Upper Room, at the breaking of bread. It’s good to remember, while churches are closed, the many other places he has at his disposal. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28:18). And it’s he who transforms, he who converts, he who conveys the after-mind. It’s the “Living One” who provokes us to live. He has come to us in our baptism and in our confirmation, in the sacrament of matrimony perhaps. He comes in his word. He comes in this person, that person. He comes with his Cross and Resurrection. He walks the road alongside us, even if our eyes are closed. “All changed, changed utterly.” “He too”; “me too”, to coin a phrase.
There is now a “terrible beauty” around. Let’s ask for it to show itself – “gently please!” – and do its work, and give us what it gave those two guys: burning hearts, wide eyes and flying feet.