“The whole point of resurrection stories – and the resurrection itself is that we don’t recognize Jesus when He comes back to us,” writes the American writer and academic Jay Parini. Several stories about the appearance of the risen Jesus converge on the single point that the risen Jesus was not immediately recognized by the disciples. Mary Magdalene did not recognize Him and she even misunderstood Him as the gardener though she loved Jesus so much (Jn. 20:15). The Emmaus disciples who had great hope in Jesus and who had been aware of the angelic message to Mary Magdalene and other women about the resurrection of Jesus, did not identify the risen Jesus though He walked and talked with them for a while (Luke 24:16). The seven disciples who went for fishing did not realize that the one who talked to them from the sea shore was Jesus (John 21:4). In the Lucan narrative, the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples exactly when they were talking about the different instances of the appearance of Jesus. Still they could not recognize the one whom they were talking about when He appeared before them (Luke 24:37-41)!
In the Gospel of John again, Jesus appeared to the ten disciples when they were in a closed room. They too were aware of the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene told them that Jesus had appeared to her. Even then, when Jesus appeared in their midst, they seemed to have not recognized Him. He had to “prove” His identity by showing His pierced hands and side (Jn. 20:20)!
Why did the closest associates of Jesus not recognize Him after His resurrection? The theological reason is that the risen Jesus had a glorified heavenly body which was not exactly like the physical earthly body of Jesus. The characteristics of the heavenly body explain the difficultly in recognizing Jesus. However, these stories also warn us that it is not easy for us to recognize the presence of Jesus even when He is with us in our room, understanding our fear and despair (Jn 20:19), with us near the grave of lost hopes and happiness (John 20:14), with us in our workplaces helping us from a distance as we are haunted by the experiences of fatigue and failure (John 21:4); with us in the close circle eating and chatting with us (Luke 24:43 ); with us on the road travelling with us as a companion giving us new insights and direction in our life (Luke 24:15), with us in the worshipping places receiving our prayer and worship (Matthew 28:17). But, just the first disciples, we too do not recognize His presence. Surprisingly, we do not recognize the real presence of Jesus even when we prostrate before Him in acts of worship (Matthew 28:17).
In all the above instances, it is Jesus Himself who helped His disciples to realize His presence. He gave them peace (Jn 20:19-21); He made them joyful (Jn 20:20); He empowered them with the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22); He made them capable of forgiving offences (Jn 20:23); He gave them remarkable fruitfulness in their work (John 21:6); He explained to them the Scriptures and convinced them about its credibility (Lk 24:27); in three instances He showed them His pierced hands and side (Lk 24:39; Jn 20:20-27). It is not the glorified side but the pierced side of Jesus that made them recognize Him!
Just as the apparition stories in the gospels narrate, Jesus still approaches us in the unexpected moments of our fear and failure, sadness and despair, hopelessness and helplessness. He never leaves us alone as orphans. We can discern His presence when we hear someone speaks to us words of comfort and imparts us peace and joy. It is the risen Jesus who acts through our friends and family when they give us new light and direction in our life. Above all we need to discern the pierced hands and sides of Jesus in all those who take care of us and suffer for our sake.
If we are blessed with the life giving presence of Jesus all around us through all those who love and care for us, it is also our Easter mission to make the risen invisible Jesus present and visible in the life of many through our life giving words, deeds and presence.