A Paschal Meditation: The Nature of Our Witness of Christ's Resurrection
by Father Lawrence Russell
What does it mean when we who are not eye-witnesses of Christ's Resurrection sing the word “beheld” in the Paschal Hymn “Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ” rather than singing “Having believed in the Resurrection of Christ?” Is it a matter of poetic license? Is it really only ocular vision that constitutes seeing? Is it only those who see with their physical eyes that can be counted as “real” witnesses?
I have always been intrigued by the fact that the Apostles and disciples did not immediately recognize the resurrected Christ at their first sight of Him. And it only added to my interest when I read the Evangelist Luke’s note that the eyes of the two disciples that the Resurrected Christ joined on their journey to Emmaus (Luke, himself, and Cleopas, according to Orthodox tradition) were “held that they should not know Him”. The risen Christ’s closest disciples mistook Him for a stranger (Lu. 24:18), a gardener (Jn. 20:15), and even a ghost (Lu. 24:37) upon first seeing Him. Even more mysterious are the words written by the Apostle John about the disciples' thoughts during the post-resurrection meal of fish and bread on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias: “And none of the disciples dared ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.” (Jn. 21:12).
It is certainly true that the words “we have seen the Lord” (Jn. 20:25) are exchanged among the disciples as proof of His Resurrection. But the Gospels make a point of stressing that “seeing” is also a revelation of understanding. The disciples are taken beyond physical sight to spiritual sight (viz., insight), beyond bodily sight to the sight of the soul: “for we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). St. Luke’s masterful telling of the trip to Emmaus stresses that the Lord became “known” to his fellow travelers in the “burning of their hearts” during His explanation of the Holy Scriptures and “in the breaking of the Bread,” when they sat at table, and not at their first glance of Him. Orthodox Christians will immediately recognize the Divine Liturgy in this revelation: the Reading of the Holy Scriptures and the Breaking of Bread—by which Christ is made know to us.
In one of his many excellent homilies, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom distinguishes three types of witness. The first he calls “accidental” because it is a kind of observation wherein the person “seeing” has no stake, risks nothing, is uninvolved—like being a witness at a car accident. But is it possible to apply such an “accidental” kind of sight to the Resurrection of Christ? Is it possible to see while “seeing” nothing? Such a fearful conclusion is pointed to in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Being in torment the rich man pleads that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers of the judgment to come. Abraham answers: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." (Luke 16:29)
It may be too much to say that the primacy of the sense of sight is inverted with that of hearing in this parable. But it is not too much to say that it teaches us that insight is indispensible to deepening what we see with our eyes. “Seeing is believing”? Perhaps. But when Charles Dickens inverted this saying, he certainly stated what is set forth in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances: “believing is seeing”!