Twelve Apparitions of Christ Between His Resurrection and Ascension

Perusing through some old files of mine I came across a list of Catholic twelves, and there are many: Twelve Apostles; twelve articles of the Apostles Creed; twelve days of Christmas; twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost; twelve tribes of Israel; twelve loaves of proposition in the temple sanctuary; twelve chiefs of Ismael; Jesus was twelve-years-old when He was first teaching in the temple; twelve baskets of fragments left over after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the Woman of the Apocalypse had a crown of twelve stars; the tree of life in the vision of the Apocalypse bore twelve fruits; and, in the natural order, we have twelve months of the year.

There was another twelve on the list that I had totally forgotten about. Our Lord appeared to His Apostles and disciples twelve times during the forty days between His resurrection and His ascension. Two of the dozen apparitions are known from tradition; the other ten are recorded in Holy Scripture.

The first apparition: Although it is not recorded in the New Testament we know from tradition (and common sense) that Jesus first appeared to His Blessed Mother alone, immediately after He rose from the dead. In fact, it was this first apparition that inspired Saint Ignatius of Loyola in writing his Spiritual Exercises. For one of his meditations in the fourth week of exercises he posits this composition of place:

“First Prelude. The first Prelude is the narrative, which is here, how, after Christ expired on the Cross, and the Body, always united with the Divinity, remained separated from the Soul, the blessed Soul, likewise united with the Divinity, went down to Hell, and taking from there the just souls, and coming to the Sepulchre, and being risen, He appeared to His Blessed Mother in Body and in Soul.

“Second Prelude. The second, a composition, seeing the place; which will be here to see the arrangement of the Holy Sepulchre and the place or house of Our Lady, looking at its parts in particular; likewise the room, the oratory, etc.” In his Spiritual Exercises Saint Ignatius also includes a list of these twelve apparitions of Christ from His resurrection to His ascension.

Regarding this, Paul Debuchy relates an interesting tradition in his article on the Spiritual Exercises for the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Another tradition concerns the part taken by the Blessed Virgin in the composing of the ‘Exercises’ at Manresa. It is not based on any written testimony of the contemporaries of St. Ignatius, though it became universal in the seventeenth century. Possibly it is founded upon earlier oral testimony, and upon a revelation made in 1600 to the Venerable Marina de Escobar and related in the ‘Life of Father Balthazar Alvarez.’ This tradition has often been symbolized by painters, who represent Ignatius writing from the Blessed Virgin’s dictation.”

That Our Lord first appeared to His mother after His resurrection is a long-established tradition and is also the subject of many great works of art. Saint Ambrose may have been the first western doctor to affirm the belief explicitly, but many others did so as well. “Mary therefore saw the Resurrection of the Lord” he writes, “She was the first who saw it and believed.”  Saint Augustine taught that the only one who held firm the Faith in the resurrection of Christ during the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday was Mary. She was the only believing member of the Church during that triduum. Other saints that explicitly taught the same were Saints Eadmer (disciple of Saint Anselm), Bernardine of Siena, Ignatius of Loyola, and Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. Actually, since no saint ever denied it (how could they?) it would be safe to say that they all took it for granted, even if they did not write about it expressly. Regarding this tradition, Saint Ignatius says: “First: He appeared to the Virgin Mary. This, although it is not said in Scripture, is included in saying that He appeared to so many others, because Scripture supposes that we have understanding, as it is written: ‘Are you also without understanding’?”

The second person to whom Our Lord appeared after His resurrection was Mary Magdalen. We have the story in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 20, vss. 11-17. “Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: “Rabboni (which is to say, Master). Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.”

Then, the third apparition was to the “other women” who came either with Mary Magdalen, or separately in another group, to the sepulchre just before or just after sunrise Easter morning. Three of these, the Gospel accounts tell us, were Mary of Cleophas, Salome, and Joanna. These scripture accounts from the Gospels of Saint Matthew, Mark, and Luke need an explanation in order to reconcile them with what we have just read in Saint John.

Without getting into a protracted comparison and reconstruction of the sequence of seemingly contradictory accounts I will follow the Catholic Encyclopedia article’s simple chronology of the Paschal apparitions. On the morning of the Resurrection Mary Magdalen, “the other Mary” and “other women” come to the tomb first, just before sunrise, while it was still dark, to anoint the Body of Christ. Seeing the stone rolled back, Mary immediately left and ran back to tell the Apostles. The other women are stupefied with fear when they see an angel whose countenance was “as lightning” and the guards struck with terror stiffened like “dead men.” The angel tells them not to fear for, Jesus, whom they seek, is not there, He has risen. “Come,” the angel says, “and see the place where the Lord was laid” (Matt. 28:1-6).

 These women, with great fear and joy, ran back to Jerusalem, intending to tell Christ’s disciples what they had seen and heard, but they were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8). Meanwhile a second group of holy women arrived at the tomb, including Joanna, who was at the Cross. They probably intended to meet Mary Magdalen and the other women there. These women looked into the empty vault and saw two angels sitting at either end of the tomb. These two angels did not shine like lightning, but looked like men in “shining apparel.” (These were the same two angels that Mary Magdalen was about to see.) The angels told them that Christ had arisen; “he is not here,” and to go quickly and tell His disciples (Luke 24:5-8). They, then, ran back to the home, where the Apostles were staying, and on their way back, Jesus appeared to them on the road (Matt. 28:8-10). Meanwhile, Mary Magdalen had returned to the tomb alone. This is when she encountered the angel and the Risen Christ whom she thought might be the gardener. After Our Lady, she was the first to whom Christ appeared after His Resurrection: “But he rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalen, out of whom he had cast seven devils” (Mark 16:9). After hearing the report of the other women, Saints Peter and John ran to the tomb and entering in found the linens folded in one place. Seeing this, John believed. Peter, however, seems to have doubted. “Then that other disciple [John] also went in, who came first to the sepulchre: and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead” (John 20:8&9). That doubt was removed when Jesus appeared privately to him in His fourth apparition (Luke 24:34).

The fifth apparition was to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus as related in detail in Luke, chapter 24. Scripture gives us the name of only one of the two, Cleophas.

The sixth apparition was to ten of the Apostles, Thomas being absent, in the Upper Room of the Cenacle (John 20:19).

The seventh was to the Apostles again, in the same place, Thomas being present this time. “Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29).

The eighth was to seven disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. The seven were: Saints Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James the Greater, John, and two others not mentioned (John 21).

The ninth was related only by Saint Paul in First Corinthians, chapter fifteen. This was to a large multitude of five hundred on a mountain in Galilee (vs. 6).

The tenth was to Saint James the Less, whom Jesus would leave to pastor the Church in Jerusalem. This apparition is also related only by Saint Paul in the same epistle and chapter as above (vs. 7).

The eleventh apparition of Our Lord is believed by tradition and is found, according to the testimony of Saint Ignatius, in the ancient Lives of the Saints. It was to Saint Joseph of Arimathea, His pallbearer and benefactor.

Lastly, the twelfth apparition was to one hundred and twenty, the infant Church, on the Mount of Olives at His Ascension. “And he led them out as far as Bethania: and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. And it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them, and was carried up to heaven” (Luke 24:50-51).

Email Brian Kelly at bdk [at] catholicism [dot] org.