The Last Supper of Our Lord with His apostles the night before He died was an event of the greatest joy mingled with deepest sorrow. On that night He proclaimed to the world His New Testament of love, and washed the feet of His apostles to show that perfect love serves men humbly. At the meal He gave the greatest gift of love, the gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist.
But the great happiness of the apostles was mixed with a feeling of oppressive sadness, a sense of impending doom. For Jesus had to break the mood of joy with these words: I tell you most solemnly, one of you will betray Me. Once again they recalled the prediction He had made so often before, that it was fitting for the Christ to suffer and die before entering into His glory. Peter and the rest didnt want to hear that; they wanted the glory, but not the prelude of suffering and sorrow. Gods ways just didnt fit in with their ways.
It was in that Last Supper discourse that Jesus showed the relationship between sorrow and joy, between suffering and victory. They are words that we should ponder well, for they give great meaning and purpose to the suffering we find in this world. This is what He said to them:
I tell you most solemnly, that you shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman about to give birth has sorrow, because her hour has come. But when she has brought forth the child, she no longer remembers the anguish for her joy that a man is born into the world. And you therefore have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
There it is: His guarantee, set in the powerful imagery of a woman in childbirth, that He would turn sorrow into lasting victory and joy. As birth is achieved only with pain, so Christ would suffer that we might be reborn. From His pierced side would flow the waters that gave life to His Church. The grain of wheat had to die first in order to produce a harvest.
That was His promise, but it was lost for His followers in the sad, hopeless gloom of Good Friday. So when Easter Sunday came with its promised joy and victory, they were too incredulous, too heavy with sorrow to comprehend the good news right away. Our Lord had to spend the first day of His Paschal Victory literally turning their sorrow into joy.
We catch wonderful glimpses of the first Easter in the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Lukes Gospel. It is a picture of Christ the Consoler, lifting up the spirits of His sad, bewildered friends. First we see the holy women standing before the empty tomb, trying to puzzle it all out, while the angels reassure them: Why are you seeking one who is alive here among the dead? He is not here, He is risen.
The scene shifts and we find two disciples trudging their sad-faced way to Emmaus. The risen Jesus joined them, but they did not recognize Him. When He asked them why they were so sad, one of them retorted, What, are you the only pilgrim in Jerusalem who has not heard what has happened there in the past few days? Then they both poured forth the story of Jesus of Nazareth and all the good He had done, ending with this sad little conclusion: We had hoped that it was He who was to deliver Israel. In other words, it was a beautiful dream, but it had died forever in the darkness over Calvary at the ninth hour.
Patiently, one final time, Jesus repeated the teachings of Moses and all the prophets: that the Christ had first to undergo these sufferings to enter into glory. Joy was to be born of sorrow. The disciples listened eagerly, and even persuaded their companion to stay with them for the evening meal. Not until He took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them did they realize who He was. The Easter joy took possession of them and they ran all the way back to Jerusalem!
As the two were breathlessly telling their story to the disciples, Our Lord appeared again. What was the effect? Joy? Delirious happiness? No, the disciples cowered in terror, thinking they were seeing an apparition, as Our Lord tried to reassure them: Peace be upon you; it is I, do not be afraid. When He showed them the marks in His hands and feet, joy began to flood their souls, but it still seemed too good to be true. So Jesus convinced them with the simplest of arguments. Have you anything here to eat? He asked. Only when they watched Him eat roast fish and honey comb as no ghost could do! did their sorrow disappear. Yes, He had risen as He truly said!
All of us need that joy of the Risen Christ in our lives. We are so like the first followers of Jesus: the news of His Resurrection and victory seems too good to believe. We are discouraged by the sorrows, the sacrifices, the pains of this life. We lose sight of the vision and forget we are followers of a triumphant Lord. He has risen, and we live in the glorious light of His victory over sin, death and suffering. Paul constantly drives this theme home to the early Christians:
If Christ has not risen then vain is your faith, for you are still in your sins But as it is, Christ has risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For us as for Christ, suffering must come before glory. But He has risen and that makes all the difference in the world to us.
But what of those who suffer, grieve and lose heart? It is up to us to do what Jesus did: to lift up the sorrowful to the joy of His victory. On that first Easter, Christ turned sorrow into joy, brought hope to the despairing, gave victory to the defeated. What a privilege it is when, in His name, we can alleviate suffering and bring the message of hope to those who have yet to hear it.
The triumph of Jesus did not end on Easter: that was only its beginning. The work goes on through all human history until the joy and hope of Christ is brought into every human heart and mind. Through our prayers, our example and our generous assistance we can bring the joyful news of the Risen Lord to a world that hungers for Him.
Rev. James F. Dolan, S.J., a former Army chaplain, presently conducts retreats at Loyola House of Retreats in Morristown, New Jersey.