Easter Sunday’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a reminder of the power of bearing witness.
Peter, speaking of Christ’s life on earth, says, “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” He goes on to describe how the disciples saw the crucifixion with their own eyes. He challenges those listening to understand the weight of their responsibility to act on what they had seen.
We are an experiential people, created to smell and touch, to taste, to hear, to see. Our capacity to witness is a precious gift. We can experience beauty, pleasure and love through our senses. We wade into great mysteries that can only be known through direct experience. I think of the first time I stood in front of Niagara Falls. No description of the mighty tumult of water could have prepared me for the booming sound or the stinging spray.
We encounter others though our senses. Walking in Philadelphia’s central business district in February, a group of high school youth from an affluent suburban parish saw a man curled up over a subway grate, steam rising around his sleeping form. Questions were asked about homelessness. A few weeks later, I accompanied a different group to a church-sponsored meal program that reaches hundreds of homeless men and women each week. The scent of unwashed bodies, comingled with burned coffee and bleach, soon gave way to sounds of laughter as guests sang along to the lively tunes playing over the sound system. Where dignity was diminished on the street, it was paramount in the dining room.
But it is not enough to bear witness. We must also respond, knowing full well there could be risks. We risk being drawn deeper into the conflict or even being misunderstood. To offer the homeless man food is to engage with his pain and to acknowledge that something is not right with the world, that there something you cannot fix with a meal. To refuse to dismiss the loud, taunting remarks of a young teen lashing out when you think a deeper wound is causing her outburst is to be drawn into a dark story of neglect. It puts you face to face with anger and defensiveness.
Easter’s Gospel reading gives courage to those who, like Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, travel through darkness to understand and to know. Where is the body? Why is the tomb empty? This mystery, this miracle, is rooted in brokenness and uncertainty. It brings us directly into relationship with those on the margins.
When dawn breaks on Easter morning, our desire for wholeness and restoration is united with all those who need grace, compassion and love. This longing is fulfilled in the resurrected body of Christ. May we bear witness to the Psalmist’s words, that the Lord is good and his mercy endures forever. May we go forth with resolve to show mercy through action.
Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founding director of Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award Winner.