For most of the year, the scripture readings at Catholic masses follow a familiar pattern: the first reading is taken from the Old Testament, followed by a psalm, followed by a reading from a New Testament Epistle, and finally a reading from one of the four Gospels. But during the Easter season, the pattern changes. Instead of an Old Testament reading, we begin with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Acts is a unique book in the New Testament. The Gospels tell the stories of the life and ministry of Jesus, and the epistles are letters circulated among the first communities of believers. But the Acts of the Apostles recounts the stories of the spread of the Christian faith from Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, to most of the ancient world.
Not precisely history in the modern sense of the word, Acts was written by the evangelist Luke. Ideally, it should be read as the second half of the story told in Luke’s Gospel. It shows the remarkable transformation that happens to Jesus’ followers as they come to terms with the reality of his resurrection. When they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they gain the courage, strength, and wisdom to carry their new faith beyond the communities of their own people. This was a significant change in an ancient mind-set: this new faith was not for a specific people, but was to be shared with all the world.
The Acts of the Apostles recounts the heroism and struggles of those first disciples and first martyrs. In chapter two there is an idealized description of the first believers’ life together, where everything is shared, and everyone prays together in perfect accord. Soon enough there are disputes, controversies, persecutions, and divisions. But through it all, God’s Spirit guides the nascent Church to carry on Christ’s mission in the world.
If you have an hour or two this Easter season, I recommend reading the Acts of the Apostles in one sitting. It’s the best way to get a sense of the entire story. In many ways, it’s still our story, as we work to carry out the same mission given to those first believers. During the fifty days of this Easter season, the Acts of the Apostles should give us hope that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the followers of the risen Lord.