We note important firsts, like a child’s first steps, first words, first day of kindergarten, etc.
The same is true for the spiritual life when we celebrate and record baptisms, 1st communions, etc.
The firsts of important and famous people are noted for the public and preserved for the future. Prime among firsts, lasts, and everything in between are our savior's words and deeds.
While all humans have firsts, Jesus is the only one who came back from the dead (of course others were raised from the dead, but it was Jesus who raised them). Because Jesus defied death, His first words to His apostles immediately after He rose deserve careful study. I find His post resurrection words more fascinating than His famous seven last words.
John 20 conveys His words to the Apostles upon resurrection. The firstborn from the dead walks through a door, a locked door – a rather pedestrian feat for He who is the beginning of all things. His opening words are “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)
His followers are scared, hiding in a locked room for fear of the Jews. The Lord speaks of peace, even though, or perhaps because, the apostles are frightened.
His words are accompanied by pointing out the marks of His crucifixion: “He showed them His hands and His side.” (John 20:20) Then He repeats, “Peace be with you...” (John 20:21)
The repetition of Peace reminds me of His double Amen utterances in the Gospels. What follows after His "Amen, Amen" contain some of His most important messages. I read ‘Peace Be With You, Peace Be With You’ the same way as I interpret ‘Amen, Amen.’ It’s as though He’s telling the Apostles, Look me in the eyeballs, listen up, pay attention, remember this.
He has my attention. “…As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
Despite their fear and hiding, He’s clearly giving them a job, an assignment, a mission.
For what purpose is He sending them? To act on His behalf. As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
…The saving mission entrusted by the Father to his incarnate Son was committed to the apostles and through them to their successors: they receive the Spirit of Jesus to act in his name and in his person. (CCC 1120)
If the apostles were knights, He would have tapped each one’s shoulder with a sword as in a dubbing ceremony. Instead of using a sword He uses His divine power. "…He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” (John 20:22)
The Lord's breath on the apostles harkens back to God’s creation in Genesis 2:7: “... then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.“
God breathed life into Adam -- physical life -- to create the first human. Jesus breathes life into the Apostles – spiritual life – passing on the mission that God the Father had given Him.
The Father sent Jesus; Jesus, the beginning of all things, the firstborn from the dead, sends the Apostles. Theirs is a new life, incubated with His presence and infused with the breath of the Holy Spirit.
From this point, and after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out onto the community, there is a marked change in the Apostles. They emerge from behind the locked door. They no longer fear; they no longer hide. The Apostles testify with boldness and authority as evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles. Testimony gives fruit.
What comes after He gives peace and the breath of life deserves double exclamation points. Jesus next says:
"Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:23)
The Lord confers on them a mother-load of authority and responsibility. About John 20:23, the Catechism says:
Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven.” Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name. (CCC 1441)
Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops' collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (CCC 1461)
When I think about the authority that Christ bestowed on the Apostles, I can't help but feel a sense of my own personal responsibility; as priests are collaborators with the bishops, lay persons are collaborators with priests. As written in CCC 1332:
At the conclusion of Mass, the celebrant says the final blessing. The liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (mission) of the faithful -- Go in peace to love and serve the Lord -- so that they may fulfill God’s will in their daily lives.
The Holy Spirit's breath of life transcends time and space from Christ to the Apostles to us here and now. May our fruitfulness testify to our Savior's entrustment and echo the Apostles' responses.