We know that Christ truly rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples in bodily form at various times during the forty days from Easter Sunday to Ascension Thursday. Christ our God was truly upon the Earth and in the world, even in his glorified flesh, for all of those days until he ascended into heaven.
The gospels speak of ten apparitions of the risen Jesus, and we gather at least two more from St. Paul. But, we wonder, where was Jesus during the rest of those forty days? Where was the Lord when he was not visibly present to his disciples?
On the day of the Resurrection
On the first Easter Sunday, our Savior appeared five times to his disciples. Msgr. Charles Pope had recently posted a nice summary of these events [here] – and, though he lists six apparitions on the first day, he admits that the sixth is probably the same as the fifth.
1) To Mary Magdalene at the sepulcher.
2) To the women as they left from the tomb.
3) To Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus.
4) To Peter, alone.
5) To the eleven Apostles, excepting Thomas.
Five other appearances in the gospels
There are, then, five more apparitions recorded in the gospels and set forward by St. Augustine (De Cons. Evang. III) and St. Thomas (ST III, q.55, a.3, ad 3).
6) A week later, to the eleven Apostles including Thomas.
7) By the sea of Tiberius (i.e. the sea of Galilee), when there was the great capture of fish.
8) On the mountain of Galilee, when Jesus said, Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. (Matthew 28:19)
9) When they were at table, according to Mark. On this occasion our Lord said, And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)
10) And, finally, Jesus appeared to them at Bethany before he ascended to heaven.
Beyond those contained in the gospels, we know that our Lord appeared also to five hundred disciples at once, and to James the Less (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:6-7) On this point, St. Augustine mentions that, “as John admits, not all things were written down. And he visited them [i.e. the Apostles] frequently before he went up to heaven.” St. Thomas adds that these frequent visits were given in order that they might be comforted and strengthened.
We might well presume that our Lord would have appeared also to the Blessed Virgin Mary at least occasionally during those forty days. Many, especially in more recent years (since the 1500s), have claimed that Jesus appeared to his Mother before all the others.
We also must add that, after his Ascension into heaven, our Savior did appear in bodily form upon the earth one last time – when he called Saul to be his apostle and gave him the new name of Paul [correction: It is not clear in Scripture as to when and why Saul took the name Paul]. This apparition is most unique, since it is the only occasion in which our Savior has or will be bodily present upon the earth (i.e. in his own proper species, and not simply in the sacramental species by which he is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist).
Where was Jesus in those days?
Still, even given that there were perhaps many more apparitions than the ten recorded in the gospels (and the other two recorded by St. Paul), we must admit that for most of those forty days Jesus was not visibly present to his disciples. If our Lord was not appearing to the disciples for large portions of those days (and especially on the days other than Sundays), where was he?
St. Thomas speaks very simply to this question: “It is quite unknown in what places he was bodily present in the meantime, since Scripture is silent, and his dominion is in every place.” (ST III, q.55, a.3, ad 2)
We know that Jesus was not continually with the disciples, because St. John makes it clear that our Lord did not dwell with them in the days between the fifth and sixth apparitions – he was not with the Apostles or with any of the disciples during those first six days after Easter, hence St. John says and after eight days indicating that none saw him in the interim. (John 20:26)
Further, we know that Jesus did not go up to heaven, but remained in the world. The Savior did not ascend until the fortieth day, but was well pleased to dwell in our world for an extended period so as to manifest his resurrection and strengthen his disciples.
It seems reasonable to conclude that most of these days were spent in quiet prayer, alone and apart.
Further, we can suspect that our Savior visited his Mother frequently – not so much to prove his resurrection (for she had perfect faith), but rather to give her great cause for joy. Indeed, as a good Son, it seems quite likely that Jesus would have spent a great deal of time with Mary before his ascension.
Why didn’t Jesus spend more time with the Apostles?
It is good for us to consider why our Savior did not live continually in the presence of his Apostles during these forty days. It may seem that he could have instructed them more profitably and also given them greater encouragement by spending more time with them, rather than only appearing to them on rare occasions.
St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose. Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before.” (ST III, q.55, a.3)
Further, it should be added that it was not so much that our Savior wanted to be in other places or had other things “to do”, as though he were too busy to spend time with the Apostles. Rather, it was for the sake of the Apostles’ instruction that he chose not to rest with them continually in bodily form throughout the whole of those forty days.