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Easter and the Joy of the Resurrection

Dr. Kenneth J. Howell March 3, 2015 No Comments

A priest friend of mine once told me that it was the Resurrection which convinced him of the truth of the Christian and Catholic Faith. He was raised in a Lutheran family and for a while attended a Baptist church in his childhood. Although he had heard the message of Christ, he abandoned his childhood faith as he grew into adulthood. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England, he encountered a group of joy-filled Catholics who seemed to take their faith as seriously as they did their academic life. Being a man of extraordinary natural gifts, he had become self-reliant but the problem with self-reliance is that the demon of pride always lurks in the shadows. The joy of these faith-filled Catholics would not let him alone. Why were they so involved in and committed to their faith? Why was Christ so real to them and not to him?

As he read through the history of social and political thought, he noticed that all the great thinkers he was reading were Catholic. Coincidence? Maybe not. Over time he realized that it was faith in Christ’s Resurrection which animated and moved these faithful Catholic scholars to live life on what seemed like a higher plane. As he puzzled over this fact, he put two and two together. If Christ really and physically rose from the dead — a humanly impossible feat — that fact changed everything. Life was no longer about self-promotion but about living for a higher cause. For him, that higher plane manifested itself in a vocation to priestly service of the people of God.

The Resurrection is supernatural. No natural law or human power can raise people from the dead. Nor did any other famous religious leader ever claim to be risen from the dead. Jesus Christ alone is the Resurrected One who is different than all other philosophers and religious teachers. This is the claim of traditional Christianity, be it Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. But is it a reality? Did Christ truly rise from the dead? One thing is certain. If Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a farce and the atheists and skeptics are right. They say that it is a fairy tale, and a destructive one at that. And they would be absolutely right if Christ’s body decayed in the grave as all others do.

The sheer incredibility of the Resurrection is perhaps what motivated each of the Evangelists to include accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. Each story ­— from Christ’s meeting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24) to His appearance in a room of locked doors and windows (Jn 20) —contains precious theological truths growing out of the Church’s faith in the Resurrection. Without the reality of Christ’s rising, however, none of that theology would make much sense. My priest friend also told me that the fervor and effectiveness of those twelve apostles, which allowed them to transform their world, suggested that their faith had an objective truth behind it. Indeed, if faith in Christ’s Resurrection were merely subjective or imagined, it would have been hard to sustain over time.

Much of modern liberal Protestantism attempted to make Christianity more palatable to modern sensibilities precisely by softening or denying the physical Resurrection. Rarely was there an out-and-out denial of its truth. Usually, the Resurrection was simply relegated to the realm of the subjective. Whether Christ really rose from the dead was not important, so it was said. What was important is that we Christians believed in the idea of new life and new power. This radical reinterpretation left much of mainstream Protestantism anemic and susceptible to a whole host of other heterodox tendencies. One of the most prominent of these attempts that included both denial and reinterpretation was due to the famous German Lutheran New Testament scholar of the mid-twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann acknowledged openly that the world of the New Testament was permeated with mythology, including the mythology of the Resurrection. The only way to salvage the message of Christianity, the Gospel if you will, was to reinterpret it according to the Existentialist philosophy of someone like Martin Heidegger. Bultmann truly believed that he was doing a great service to Christianity. He was flat wrong, as one of his prize students, Eta Linnemann, came to see. I remember her lecturing here in the United States in the 1990s in which she publicly repudiated Bultmann’s program.

St. Paul seemed to be well aware of all this. In 1 Corinthians 15, he affirms without one moment’s hesitation that Christ has really risen from the dead. He even anticipated modern attempts to soften or deny the physical Resurrection when he said, “Now Christ is indeed raised from the dead, the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20). And he considers the counterfactual possibility, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching is futile and your faith in vain” (15:14). Paul’s words indicate that some in Corinth had either denied the Resurrection altogether or had claimed that the Resurrection was of a spiritual nature and was already past. The latter view seems eerily close to some Christian churches in modern times. One thing is certain from 1 Corinthians 15. A Christianity without the Resurrection is no Christianity at all. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not a pious belief or wishful thinking. It is historical fact that Christians must hold on to (Jude 3). Christian faith is supernatural.

The Resurrection in Our Time

The fact of the Resurrection is only the beginning of its significance. Its deeper, metaphysical meaning is what is celebrated on Easter Sunday. Easter is the highest holy day of the Church year for a good reason. The Risen Lord Jesus still lives to bless His Church as He did that day on the Mount of Olives before He was taken up into heaven (Lk 24:50). All the liturgies of Easter, both east and west, celebrate “the Light that shines in the darkness.” The Easter vigil candle is a concrete expression of Christ as the Light of the world. St. Paul again seems to glow in the light of Easter when he speaks of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” It is this same gospel that today, as in Paul’s time, “shines in our hearts to bring the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

Easter and the Risen Lord are a reminder and assurance that God never, never abandons us. In a world ravaged by the effects of sin, it can seem that we Christians and the Church are sometime losing the battle. But the Resurrection calls us back to the fact that Christ is victorious over sin, the devil, and death. The end is not in doubt. The victory has been won. But we do know that we have not always experienced that victory. How can we do so? By knowing first, as St. John says, that the victory is also within us because we have received the gift of faith (cf. 1 John 5:4). Then, the more we grow in love, the greater our victory will be. St. Augustine understood this well:

Why did he come in the flesh? Because he had to show us the power of the resurrection. He was God and he came in the flesh. God cannot die; flesh can die. So, he came in the flesh to die for us. But in what manner did he die for us? “Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends.” So, it was love that led him to the flesh. So, anyone who does not have charity denies that Christ came in the flesh.

Christ came in the flesh to die and to rise again that we may grow in love and show the same charity that he showed on earth. The Resurrection is the surety of His love continuing. And the Eucharist is the surety for us today. When we fail to perceive his presence in our daily lives, we can always remember that it is the Risen Christ who is given us in the Eucharist – that’s objective. There is no need to despair. Christ is risen!

Many great spiritual guides throughout history have said that discouragement is one of the biggest obstacles to sainthood. So important was this that St. Ignatius of Loyola said emphatically that discouragement was never from God. The Resurrection is the true and constant reminder that discouragement in the spiritual life is groundless. If Christ is truly raised from the dead, there is no power in heaven or hell that can take the love of Christ away from us. Perhaps the Resurrection is the reason that my priest friend’s preaching always seems to have an underlying joy and confidence about it. Everything hangs on the Resurrection.