There is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this when he says to Cornelius,
God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:41 to 42).
Note that Jesus did not appear openly to all but rather only to some. Why is this? It is so different from what most of us would do.
If I were God (and it is very good for you that I am not), I would rise from the dead very dramatically. Perhaps I would summon people to my tomb with trumpet blasts and then emerge amid great fanfare (including a multitude of angels), inspiring awe and striking fear in the hearts of the enemies who had killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and then go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely to accomplish such a feat would be an event that would never be forgotten! It would draw many to faith, would it not?
And yet the Lord does none of this! Not only did He appear only to some after His resurrection, but the actual dramatic moment of the resurrection itself seems to have been witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to the sound of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of nothing but crickets chirping. Although St. Matthew mentions a great earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone and the guards stunned into unconsciousness, it seems that Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back.
Such a hidden event! It was the greatest event the world has ever known, and yet it was hidden from human eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille would not be pleased.
And then when the Lord does appear, it is only to some. Two of the appearances have often intrigued me because the details are so sparse; they are really mentioned only in passing:
One is the appearance to Peter. It would seem that the Lord appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles on that first resurrection evening. For when the two disciples return from Emmaus they are greeted with the acclamation, The Lord has truly been raised, he has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34). Shortly thereafter, the Lord appears to ten of the apostles, along with some of the disciples.
Why is there so little information about this appearance to Simon Peter? We are told in great detail about a conversation between Jesus and Peter two weeks later in Galilee (John 21), but of this first appearance in Jerusalem we get only this passing reference.
In a certain sense it is a very significant appearance because it elevates the resurrection from just “some news” that the women were sharing, to the apostolic proclamation, the Lord has truly been raised. What moves it from rumor to fact? The difference is that he has appeared to Simon. Here is a kind of early and seminal act of the Petrine office and the Magisterium! But of this crucial apparition, no details are supplied.
The other appearance cloaked in obscurity is His appearance to the five hundred, which Paul relates here:
He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:5-6).
This is an amazing appearance; it’s not to two or three, or even to a dozen, but to five hundred at once. And yet no details are supplied. Where did it happen? When? For how long? What did the Lord say? What did He do? Silence.
And then there are the resurrection appearances that never happened (but to worldly minds should have): Jesus’ appearance to His accusers and persecutors, to Caiaphas, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, and to all who jeered at Him as He hung on the cross. Surely they deserved a good dressing down—and they probably could’ve used it. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.
Such are my thoughts on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why so hidden, why so selective an audience? Ultimately, I cannot say why; I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch, if you will.
My speculation is rooted in the identity of God: God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Love is not merely something God does, nor is it just one of His many attributes. Scripture says that God is love. And it is the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) to woo the beloved, to invite rather than overwhelm, importune, force, or coerce. The lover wants to be loved, but to force the beloved to love or to overwhelm the cherished into a fearful love would mean not receiving true love in return.
It is in the nature of Satan to pressure, tempt, and overwhelm, in order to coerce us into sin. Satan is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.
By contrast, God whispers. He calls us and gently draws us in. He supplies grace and evidence but does not overwhelm us with fearsome or noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He is the One who has written His name in our hearts and whispers there quietly: Seek always the face of the Lord (1 Chron 16:11). At times He does allow our life to be shaken a bit, but even then it is more often something that He allows rather than directly causes.
God is not interested in loud, flashy entrances or in humiliating His opponents. He does not have a big ego. Even if He chose to compel the Temple leadership to worship Him by using shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response would be genuine. Faith that needs to see isn’t really faith; one doesn’t need faith to believe what he can plainly see with his own eyes.
Thus the Lord does rise from the dead and He does supply evidence to witnesses who had faith—at least enough faith to be rewarded. He then sends these eyewitnesses, supplies His graces, and gives us other evidence so that we can believe and love. But none of this is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.
God is love, and love seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection is an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So the Lord rises quietly and appears (but only briefly) to some and then seems to withdraw—almost as if respectfully giving them time to process what they have experienced. He gives them time to deepen their faith and to come to terms with what was, for them, a completely new reality, one that would change their lives forever.
How different this is from the way we operate! So many of us think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, conquest, and so forth. How different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, and whispering. He doesn’t need to get “credit” for everything He does. He doesn’t need to crush His enemies. Rather, ruing the day on which their “no” might become a forever “no,” He works to win their love, always hoping for their conversion. Until then, He is always calling, willing, and giving grace. His mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.
Why was the resurrection so hidden? God is love. And love woos, it does not wound. It invites, it does not incite. It calls, it does not crush. It respects, it does not rule or seek revenge. Yes, God is love.
Of her glorious Groom, the Church and Bride says,
Listen! My beloved! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice … [He speaks to her and says], “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (Song 2:9-10).
Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille would do the Easter fire: