The Resurrection of Christ: Why is it the high point of the Christian Faith?
What is the importance of Christ's Resurrection?Christ's Resurrection is an extraordinary, unique, unrepeatable and singular event in human history. It forms the central event of Christianity, the very core of its preaching and its Christian witness from its beginning right up until the end of time. Easter is the principal feast and the most important of the annual celebrations. It is "the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year" (Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 106). Let us seek to illustrate synthetically the extraordinary importance of Christ's Resurrection, beginning with its historical aspects.
A) HISTORY OF THE RESURRECTION OF Christ
In what way can we say that Christ's Resurrection was a historical event?
- We cannot speak of it as an event at which a person could have participated directly, possibly even photographing it as it occurred; «O truly blessed Night, sings the «Exsultet» of the Easter Vigil, which alone deserved to know the time and the hour when Christ rose from the realm of the dead!». "But no one was an eyewitness to Christ's Resurrection and no evangelist described it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses" (CCC, 647).
- The Resurrection was an historical event in the sense that it really took place in history, and it was accompanied by signs and accounts of witnesses that can be historically attested.
- Still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith something that transcends and surpasses history. As such it requires faith, a gift of God, with which we can, together with Saint Thomas in the presence of the Risen Christ, exclaim: "My Lord and my God" (Jn 20,28).
What are the signs, the proofs that support the Resurrection of Christ?
- There are two in particular:
- The empty tomb;
- The appearances of the Risen Christ.
- On the basis of these proofs, the truth of the history of Christ's Resurrection "is amply documented even if today, as in the past, there are many who in various ways cast doubt on it or even deny it" (Benedict xvi, General Audience, Wednesday 26 March 2008).
What value can be attributed to the empty tomb? "The first element we encounter in the framework of the Easter events is the empty tomb. In itself it is not a direct proof of Resurrection; the absence of Christ's body from the tomb could be explained in other ways. Nonetheless the empty tomb was still an essential sign. Its discovery by the disciples was the first step toward recognising the very fact of the Resurrection. This was the case, first with the holy women, and then with Peter. The disciple «whom Jesus loved» affirmed that when he entered the empty tomb and discovered «the linen cloths lying there» (Jn 20,6), "he saw and believed". This suggests that he realized from the empty tomb's condition that the absence of Jesus' body could not have been of human doing and that Jesus had not simply returned to earthly life as had been the case with Lazarus" (CCC, 640).
What were the characteristics of the apparitions of the Risen Christ?
Now the fact that Jesus had shown himself first of all to the women is further proof for believing in the historical credibility of his Resurrection and in the truthfulness of what was recorded by the Evangelists. In fact if this had not really taken place why would the most important witnesses to the Resurrection have been women whose words had no juridical value?
- These apparitions:
- are documented in a rigorous way in the New Testament (Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and Letters of the Apostles, all of which are in agreement in the way they describe the occurrences);
- are numerous: to the two Marys (Mt 28, 1-8); to Mary Magdalene (Jn 20, 11-18); to the disciples in the upper room (Jn 20, 19-23); to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lc 24, 13-35; Mc 16,12-13); to Thomas (Jn 20, 24-29); to the disciples by the shore of the lake (Jn 21,1-14); to other witnesses (Jn 20,30-31); to Paul and the five hundred brothers (1 Cor 15, 3-9; 20-21);
- display a fundamental fact: the initiative was taken not by the disciples but by Christ, the one who lives. This is pointed out in the Acts of the Apostles: "he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive" (1, 3). This was not something that was undertaken by the disciples but by Christ himself;
- allows us to establish that Jesus' risen body is the same that body that was tortured and crucified since it still retains the marks signs of his passion (cfr. Jn 20,20.27);
- testifies to this new dimension of the risen Jesus, his new existence "in the Spirit", which is new and different in comparison with his previous existence, "in the flesh";
- allows the risen Jesus to entrust to the Apostles and to the disciples the mission of announcing to others the news of his Resurrection and the Gospel: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy" (Mt 28,19); "He said to them, «Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation»" (Mc 16,15).
- The Risen Jesus appears first of all to some women, who were the first to meet Jesus and to make known to the Apostles that Jesus had risen:
- the unbelieving women received a rebuke from the angel on Easter morning: "Why look among the dead for the one who is alive?" (Lc 24, 5);
- at that time women were not seen as being trustworthy within Jewish culture and in this context even the word of women had no official or juridical value.
What value does the Apostles' testimony have?
- The value of the Apostles' witness derives from the characteristics of this very witness:
- The central core of the witness of the different persons, in various situations and places present a harmonious account of the Lord's apparitions. They are in agreement that the Lord is risen and has shown himself to be alive;
- It is a testimony which is very ancient. The oldest evidence of the resurrection is that which has been handed down to us by Saint Paul the Apostle: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also." (1 Cor 15, 3-8). These words were written in approximately the year 56 or 57 A.D. But Saint Paul affirms that he had received the central nucleus of this witness from others, after his conversion (cfr. Acts 9, 3-18). And for this reason it is possible that this text dates approximately to the year 35 A.D., that is to around five or six years after the death of Christ. This witness, therefore, is of enormous historical value because it is an ancient text;
- The Apostles appear as witnesses and not as people who have invented a testimony. In fact the Resurrection seemed to be an impossibility to their minds, outside the realm of the imaginable. The same Jesus had to battle to overcome their resistance and their lack of belief: «O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!&taquo; (Lc 24, 25); «Why are you so astonished? Look at my hands and my feet. It is truly me. Touch me and see for yourselves. A ghost has no flesh and bones as I do!» (Lc 24, 38).
- From their testimony it appears that Christ's Resurrection is an event that:
- causes the Apostles themselves to be overcome, even if they are its witnesses. In this regard, it is not to be forgotten that when Jesus was captured and crucified, the disciples fled and thought that this would be the end of everything to do with Jesus. They harboured no expectation that the Resurrection would take place. After Jesus' death - instead of being enthusiastic - the Apostles were dejected and without hope. This was because the Resurrection was completely above and beyond their thoughts and expectations;
- precedes and even overturns the Apostles' whole way of thinking and behaving since it would never have been possible for them to invent such an thing;
- changes their whole life around: it furnishes them with great courage even to the point of accepting martyrdom. This is another reason supporting the historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ in that no person is prepared to die for a lie.
B) THE IMPORTANCE OF Christ'S RESURRECTION
What was the importance of the Resurrection for Christ? Christ's Resurrection
- was not:
- an occurrence that impacted on Christ from a purely spiritual, mental or psychological point of view;
- a return to an earthly existence, nor a simple reanimation of a corpse, "as was the case with the raising from the dead that he had performed before Easter: Jairus' daughter, the young man of Naim and Lazarus. These actions were miraculous events, but the persons who were raised miraculously returned by Jesus' power to "ordinary" earthly life. At some particular moment they would die again. Christ's Resurrection is essentially different. In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus' Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state, so that St. Paul can say that Christ is the man of heaven" (CCC, 646);
- but it is rather:
- the culmination of his Incarnation;
- the transformation of Christ's body that is glorified and enters into an order which is radically different. His body is now totally different to what is was before. He is free from all physical laws; he is no longer conditioned or restricted by space or time. For this reason he can enter and leave a room even when the door is closed; he appears and disappears from sight when, how and whenever he wishes. "His risen body is that which was crucified and bears the marks of his passion. However it also participates in the divine life, with the characteristics of a glorified body. Because of this the risen Jesus was utterly free to appear to his disciples how and where he wished and under various aspects" (Compendium, 129);
- is the work of all the three Persons of the Trinity: "the Father manifests his power; the Son "takes up again" (John 10:17) the life which he freely offered, reuniting his soul and his body which the Spirit brings to life and glorifies" (Compendium, 130);
- God's "yes" to Jesus whom men condemned and killed: is the seal that God affixes to Jesus' words and deeds. It is the high point, the fullness, the synthesis of the whole plan that the Father had for his Son. The Acts of the Apostles attest to this when it says: "because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (17, 31);
- the definitive and decisive proof of his divinity. He had already said: «When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He» (Jn 8,28). Christ's death is the fulfilment of the victim to be consumed, the supreme witness of his love, while the Resurrection is the proof that he truly is the Son and God, and that he is truly God;
- the confirmation of all that which:
- was foretold about him in the Old Testament (cfr. Lc 24,26-27.44-48)
- Jesus himself had said, promised (cfr. Mt 28,6; Mc 16,7; Lc 24,6-7) and done;
- the victory over sin and death;
- the glorification, exaltation and ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Father. In this way "He is the Lord who now in his humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God and constantly intercedes for us before the Father. He sends us his Spirit and he gives us the hope of one day reaching the place he has prepared for us" (Compendium, 132).
What importance does Christ's resurrection have for us?
- The Resurrection of Christ does not effect merely the person and the activity of Jesus alone. It is a fact that has a universal impact that affects the history and destiny of each and every man and woman. It extends farther and is able to change our human existence in an intimate way.
- Christ's Resurrection in fact:
- is the foundation, the centre, the culmination of the Christian Faith: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain - affirms Saint Paul - your faith also is vain" (1 Cor 15,14); It is nothing new to hold the belief that Jesus died: even the pagans believe as much. What is radically new, original and gives rise to great uproar is to believe that he is Risen;
- it is the victory over sin and death because, by dying Jesus destroyed death and by rising he gave back life to men and women. "HE has delivered us from the slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy, from mourning to rejoicing, from the shadows into the light, from slavery to redemption. It is for this reason that we say in his presence: Alleluia!" (Mellitus of Sardi - 2nd century saint - Easter Homily);
- "It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ's brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: «Go and tell my brethren.» (Mt 28,10). We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection" (CCC, 654);
- the true source of loving service of the Church, which seeks to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and the weak, is that love which is revealed to us, that love which is stronger than death, more powerful than evil. "At Easter the tree of faith bursts into bloom, the baptismal font brims with life, the night is radiant with a new light, the gift of heaven descends and the sacrament bestows its heavenly abundance. At Easter the Church welcomes all men and women and creates of them one people and one family" (Ancient unknown author, from «Homily on Easter», Disc. 35, 6-9);
- took place on a sunday - "the first day of the week" (Mc 16,2) -, and this is the reason why for Christians sunday is:
- The festive day in the week (dies Domini - the day of the Lord)
- The day on which the community celebrates the Eucharist (to be celebrated as a precept). During the Mass the Memorial of the Lord's Passion is celebrated;
- ensures that Easter sunday is the most important feast in the whole year. All the other feasts have their origin and derive their significance from this feast;
- becomes our resurrection, in three ways:
- Baptismal: "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised him from the dead" (Col 2,12);
- Moral: we must die each day to sin and rise to new life: "If then you have risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col 3,1-2);
- Eschatological: "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also give life to your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rm 8,11).
What is the relationship between Christ's Resurrection and the resurrection of our bodies?
- Christ's Resurrection is the efficient cause (source) and example (model) of our justification and resurrection, the principle and source of the future resurrection of our bodies that will take place at the end of the world: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep [
] For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor 15, 20-22). However, at the end of time our bodies:
- will be raised and transformed: "How the resurrection of the body will come about exceeds the possibilities of our imagination and understanding" (Compendium, 205);
- will receive the same retribution as the soul that is judged by God following the death of the body: "Those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned"(Jn 5,29).
- The Resurrection of our bodies will be accompanied by the transformation of all creation and of the universe, which will be "freed from its bondage to decay, will share in the glory of Christ with the beginning of "the new heavens" and a "new earth" (2 Peter 3:13). Thus, the fullness of the Kingdom of God will come about, that is to say, the definitive realization of the salvific plan of God to «unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth» (Ephesians 1:10). God will then be «all in all» (1 Cor 15:28) in eternal life"(Compendium, 216).
of the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles, Rome
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli