NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 10: 34a, 37-43
EASTER SUNDAY [B]
USCCB link to all Easter morning readings here.
Peter proceeded to speak and said:
"You know what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.
We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the 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 testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name."
The assignment of readings for the Easter Vigil and particularly Easter Sunday morning is quite diverse, like Christmas in that respect. Given that fact, if you are attending the Easter Vigil late Saturday—a rite with nine Scripture proclamations, you are probably best off to read or at least survey the texts by reviewing the Easter Vigil USCCB site linked here. Parishes usually take the option of reducing the full slate of vigil readings to about five or six.
Easter Sunday morning also offers choices for the proclamations, except in the case of our first reading above, which is used every Easter Sunday in all three cycles. The Easter Season is unique in that the first readings every Sunday are drawn from the New Testament, specifically the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the development of the Christian faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Acts was written as the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, which places its composition in the decade of the 80’s A.D. However, there is strong opinion that the sermons of Peter, such as the one here, is a good historical remembrance of the actual earliest apostolic preaching.
Sunday’s text from Acts 10 is Peter’s sermon addressed to Gentiles, as the Jews are spoken of in the third person. This is a softer text than Peter’s address in Acts 2, which comes immediately after the Lukan Pentecost event, and which is directed to the Jewish throngs who had called for Jesus’ crucifixion. In that sermon, the Jews respond with fear and demand the saving waters of baptism, in numbers approaching 3000 according to Luke. The one question we might ask here is why the imposition of a post-Pentecostal recollection on the Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection.
One explanation is the intimate connection of the Holy Spirit with the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday itself, particularly in the Gospel of John. In John’s crucifixion narrative, Jesus gathers his new kingdom at the foot of the cross—notably his mother and the “disciple whom he loved”—and in John’s description of the moment of his death, Jesus “handed over the spirit.” The evangelist John portrays the first Pentecostal event (there will be others) at the moment of Jesus’ death. This explains an unusual act by a Roman soldier who, seeing that Jesus was already dead, lanced his side. What came forth was a cascade of blood and water, which splashed upon his new kingdom, those standing below. Later Christians would have recognized blood and water as symbols of the two earliest sacraments, baptism and eucharist. [Listen to the Good Friday Passion closely later this week.]
John’s Gospel narrative continues into Easter Sunday, when Jesus appears that evening of the first day of the week to the apostles in the locked room. We can assume that the Ascension or ultimate Glorification of Jesus took place on Easter a little earlier. When Mary Magdalene tried to embrace Jesus near the tomb that morning, Jesus says “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” But in the evening Jesus shows the apostles his wounds and does not prohibit them from approaching him. Within a week, he will invite doubting Thomas to put his fingers in his nail holes. Having approached the apostles on Easter Sunday night in his eternal glory, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” This marks the second “Pentecostal event” in John’s triduum of days.
In the reform of the Sacred Liturgy of the Easter Season, beginning with Pius XII in 1955, the fathers of the Church wished to reestablish the full unity of Christ’s redemptive work: to leave a memorial meal where he would be present, to offer himself as the once for all redemptive sacrificial lamb [the timing of the soldier’s lance coincides with the butchering of Passover lambs in the Temple], to rise from the dead and enjoy the glorious eternal blessedness of his Father, to pour out the Holy Spirit upon his new kingdom, and to make possible the forgiveness of sins until his coming in glory. Easter cannot be celebrated as an empty tomb, but as the pivotal event for which Christ has come into the world and makes possible unity of glorious life beyond the grace. Thus, the Easter liturgy attempts to embody every aspect of Jesus’ redemption.
[If you attend the three nights of the Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil, you will notice that the Holy Thursday and Good Friday rites do not end with a formal dismissal, because the next day picks up where the previous rite leaves off, a rubric sign of continuity of the mysteries being reenacted.]
This is the reason the Church draws from St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles for its first reading every year on Easter Sunday morning. Peter has checked nearly all the boxes about Jesus, citing his baptism and anointing by the Spirit, his good works, his crucifixion at the hands of those who rejected him, his resurrection on the third day, the eating and drinking of a memorial banquet, his glorious judgeship [Ascension], his call to a mission to the world, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. In this concise sermon, Peter has collected all the mysteries of Jesus into one address. Easter is a day to celebrate Christ in his fullness. At the Sunday Masses the congregation is invited to renewal of baptismal promises in a formula very much like Peter’s—a catalogue of every reason to rejoice on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.