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The Relevance of the Resurrection

Christ’s glorified body tells us that the promise of eternal life which Jesus’s death and resurrection has opened up for us results not in obliteration or negation, but transformation and glorification.

Three women at Christ's empty tomb and his appearance to Mary Magdalene is depicted in a 14th-century painting from Austria. (CNS/Erich Lessing, Art Resource, New York)

Before Easter, the daily readings are mostly about the empty tomb. After Easter, nearly every day brings another of Christ’s resurrection appearances. This makes sense chronologically. But we still might be left wondering why Jesus chose to make these few extra little “pit stops” on his way to the right hand of the Father. Just to prove that He was still alive and kicking? To show up the Roman and Jewish authorities? “You thought you beat me but you didn’t.” This doesn’t make a lot of sense, since He didn’t show Himself to them. He left it to the apostles to tell a story the authorities wouldn’t have been predisposed to believe. Who would?

Biblical scholars are wont to say that the “empty tomb” narratives are not meant to “prove” the resurrection of Christ. This is no big insight, of course, since the Gospel writers themselves note that it was possible to offer alternative explanations for why the tomb was empty. “His disciples came in the night and stole the body.”

I’ve always thought that if Jesus wanted to prove He was God in the sense modern people seem to want, He should have come off the cross, shot fifty feet into the air, spun around, and shot laser beams out of His eyes. Something like this seems to be what the members of the Sanhedrin had in mind. “You who were going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” “He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

One of the strangest passages in the Gospels is in Mark 15:39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” One would have thought that, at the moment of His death, the question of His divinity would have been decisively resolved in the negative. The one thing gods don’t do is die. At the moment of His death, one would have expected the centurion to say: “Well, I guess this guy was definitely not the son of God.”

And yet the early Church saw in the centurion’s comment the paradox of their own message. They proclaimed Jesus the Son of God not in spite of His death on the cross, but precisely because of it. Thinking back on the Last Supper, they came to realize His was not merely a death, as though He had gotten caught up in political events beyond His control; it was a sacrifice, understood on the model of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb whose blood preserved the Hebrew people from death and was the first stage in their passage to freedom.

This message about God’s incarnation and sacrificial death has never been one that can be forced on people by devastating arguments or undeniable historical evidence. Like all acts of love, it must be accepted in faith. You can’t prove you love someone or that someone loves you by scientific experiments or demonstrative arguments. The attempt to force the conclusion in this way is usually taken as the opposite of love. “You love me! I can prove it.” Try that the next time your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to break up with you and see how far it gets you.

So if Jesus is not trying to prove His divinity by showing the disciples His resurrected body, what is He doing? Reassuring them, certainly, although that’s what sending the Holy Spirit is for. After He ascends to His Father, they will still likely wonder: “Did we see what we thought we saw?” We encounter the Risen Christ every time we take the Eucharist, and yet we still wonder: “Was it really Him?”

Let me suggest a slightly different approach to the question. What a good biblical scholar would tell you is that the resurrection appearances should be understood as an “eschatological event” (something that should not be mistaken for “scatological language”). Jesus’s resurrection tells us about the “final times.” Or to put this another way: it gives us the clearest revelation we have of what heaven is. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, Christ raised from the dead is the “firstfruits” of what we too will enjoy if we remain united to His Body.

What do the resurrection appearances tell us about the afterlife? Let me suggest two things in particular—insights I borrow in deep gratitude from my former professor, Fr. Roch Kereszty, and his superb book Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology. The first message is that, like Christ, we will enjoy a true union with God the Father, Son, and Spirit; and second, like Christ, in that union, we will not lose our bodily identity.

The resurrection appearances show the apostles that the Risen Christ is the same person as the man they knew as Jesus of Nazareth. He has in His risen body preserved the marks of the nails and the lance. The disciples recognize Him by means of familiar gestures: He calls Mary Magdalene by name; He breaks bread with them; He sends the disciples out for a catch of fish.

Think about how the story could have been told. An angelic figure appears to the disciples and says, “I am the Christ who existed within the man Jesus. With His death, I am set free, like a phoenix rising from his ashes. He is gone, but I now live truly as you will soon be set free from your bodies to live.” This is the way many gnostic cults tell the story.

If this was the truth about the resurrection, what would it reveal to us about our lives? Would it not tell us that our current life, our experiences and relationships, our loves and concerns for people, were something to be shed, like a useless worn out coat? Wouldn’t this suggest this life is empty and meaningless, something we should “get beyond”?

And what might it suggest about the afterlife? A common image portrays our destiny as a “drop of water returning to the ocean.” It’s a lovely image, but the problem with it is, when the drop returns to the ocean, it’s “identity” is lost in the mass.

What might give Christians hope that this will not be their fate? First, the Trinity: three persons in one Being: a perfect unity which does not destroy the diversity of Persons, and a diversity of Persons which does not destroy their perfect unity. So too the promise is that we can be united to God and not lose our “personhood.” Like the Risen Christ, we will still be the person we have been, still united with those we have loved.

What many people fear about death is the loss of the intimate connection with their loved ones. They think of it as “going away,” as though going to heaven were like leaving Cleveland and moving to Miami Beach.

I once had a student say to me, “Prof. Smith, what if we are souls trapped in a prison which is our body and the whole point of human life is to find the key?” I told him that if he believed that, he should be about his business because there would be nothing more tragic than finding himself on his deathbed saying to himself: “I didn’t find the key.” But since I didn’t think of the body as a “prison,” I wasn’t looking for this kind of key. I quite like having a body, I said. I like hugs and warmth and smells and tastes and cold air in the fall—all functions of a body. I would prefer to preserve those things. The bodily resurrection suggests we will.

The problem with our earthly bodies, however, is that when we are with the people we love in New York, we can’t be with the people we love in Seattle, and vice versa. What does Christ’s glorified body tell us? It tells us that the promise of eternal life which Jesus’s death and resurrection has opened up for us results not in obliteration or negation, but transformation and glorification. All that is sinful in us and keeps us from loving God and loving others fully the way the Son loves the Father must “die.” But what is left as “wheat separated from the chaff” is the true us. We do not lose those connections with our loved ones, even with the places we love. Those connections are deepened. Like Christ, who can be with his disciples in a new and powerful way, with those He loves in New York, Paris, London, and Bombay at any time of the day or night, so too, St. Francis can be present in a special way to those in his beloved Assisi, but also to us. The Risen Christ prepares us for the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the world. But it also prepares us for the communion of the saints whereby, like Christ, we can be present with a new intimacy and transforming power in the world.

The challenge of any view of the afterlife is that, if it is so glorious, it can make this life seem meaningless. If the afterlife is so great, why not cut to the chase and just get there? The stories about Christ’s resurrection and ascension send a different message. “Men of Galilee,” the angels tell them, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” They are supposed to go out, spread the Good News, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit, make present Christ’s Risen Body in the world.

“The resurrection appearances convince the disciples not only of the reality of the resurrection,” says Fr. Roch, “but also of Christ’s new permanent presence in them and among them, especially in and through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Thus the other purpose of the appearances is to send the disciples into mission to establish the Kingdom of God—a mission begun before the foundation of the world, to be carried on now, and “into the ages of ages.”

“The deepest desires of the human person for the totality of truth, goodness, and life are not destined to ultimate frustration, but to be transformed and fulfilled in eternal life. And yet, our hope for salvation will, then, appear not as an escape from our bodily condition and from the material universe. On the contrary, our bodies will be redeemed and will find a home.”

He is risen! The Good News, as Paul tells us, is that He is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”—fruits which nourish us and the world even now.

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on April 21, 2018.)


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 36 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

15 Comments

  1. What a great column. An excellent perspective. I particularly like how it is understood as an act of love and not a human formal proof.

    Scripture is truly profound.

  2. The Roman Centurion believed because ‘of’ the way Christ died not that he died somehow revealing he was God. The eschatological interpretations are well cited and have value but don’t sufficiently explain the devastation experienced by the Apostles and Thomas’ need of tangible evidence before exclaiming belief. The wounds have a deeper meaning than simply revealing it was the same Person, because as Peter says we are healed by His wounds. It ties into the depth of divine love that the Centurion perceived in Christ who endured great torment and rejection yet responded with such gentleness and compassion. His promise of eternal life to the crucified thief who himself showed compassion for the suffering Christ. The Resurrection proved the depth of His love. That our own glorification is solely in our dying with him to the world to be raised up with Him as a new creation.

    • His promise of eternal life to the crucified thief who himself showed compassion for the suffering Christ

      Peter (Fr. Peter Morello) to my understanding after hearing these words Luke23:34 “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
      Here we see His understanding of the human heart and the compassion that he had for all of mankind. Reflected Isaiah 42:3 “He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame, but he will make sure that justice is done”
      There is no self-righteous anger, rather a call for mercy and insightfulness for all those sinners who dwell in darkness. Which was manifest in His total self-giving on the Cross, for all men.
      As with the Centurion also “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned”

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

      • Then Jesus said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She replied, No one, Lord. Then Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you. Go. From now on do not sin any more (Jn 8:10-11). Mercy forgives Justice commands repentance.

        • Thank you for your comment Peter (Fr. Peter Merollo)
          Yes of course “Justice commands repentance” as Authority demands dutiful respect but so does love in gentle dress and loyalty is its constant guest. God is patient and gentle with all of us, thank God.

          kevin your brother
          In Christ

  3. Ma, che sta’ di’??

    God’s and our Faith (Scripture,Magisterium and CCC):

    The empty tomb

    640 “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”493

    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 otherwise.494 Nonetheless the empty tomb was still an essential sign for all. Its discovery by the disciples was the first step toward recognizing the very fact of the Resurrection. This was the case, first with the holy women, and then with Peter.495 The disciple “whom Jesus loved” affirmed that when he entered the empty tomb and discovered “the linen cloths lying there”, “he saw and believed”.496 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.497

    On the Third Day He Rose from the Dead

    638 “We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this day he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.”489 The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross:

    Christ is risen from the dead!
    Dying, he conquered death;
    To the dead, he has given life.
    490
    I. THE HISTORICAL AND TRANSCENDENT EVENT

    639 The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were historically verified, as the New Testament bears witness. In about A.D. 56 St. Paul could already write to the Corinthians: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. . .”491 The Apostle speaks here of the living tradition of the Resurrection which he had learned after his conversion at the gates of Damascus.492

  4. Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”493 This is God’s Answer/Witness and Truth about the empty tomb. It is absurd, logically, to then say in the CCC or elsewhere, it could have had another explanation – one in contradiction and rebellion to God’s WORD? Not. God gave the Explanation in and through His Angel: He is Resurrected, Living, Raised from the dead; call it indirect instead of direct perhaps, but God is neither deceived nor does He deceive. Easter Divine Mercy blessings…

  5. Another explanation is not possible once the Truth/Fact is established – and God established IT: ‘He is Living so the tomb is empty’….Easter Divine Mercy blessings…Alleluia, Jesus Christ is Truly Risen, Alleluia Indeed the tomb is empty! Alleluia!

  6. The deceiver established the another explanation – the disciples took His Body – a lie or deceit, do we really want to pit the Light against the dark-one, the Truth against the deceiver, and say the deceiver has disproved God’s Witness that ‘Jesus is Risen, not dead’, because the deceiver has been prowling about with lies and deception???

  7. the Deceiver has brought that there is another explanation and proof other than God’s: ‘the tomb is empty for He is Risen, do not seek the Living in the empty tomb’?
    So the Deceivers proof/explanation, of the disciples taking His Body, nullifies the Truth’s proof/explanation?

  8. Very provocative article. Four particular responses and a related question:

    FIRST, we read: “After Easter, nearly every day brings another of Christ’s resurrection appearances. This makes sense chronologically.” On the experience of chronology by our finite selves, Julian of Norwich startles us that from the eternity of God there is only one moment—-writes one commentator:

    “For Julian […] Humanity is created for the Son of God; we share in that humanity [the Incarnation] in our own creation; and the moment of our own creation is to be understood as the moment of the Incarnation [!]—-the same moment in which humanity itself is created. All these events take place AT THE SAME TIME [!] and are, for God, a single act of divine love” (Brant Pilphery, The Theology and Mysticism of Julian of Norwich, University of Salzburg, 1982). In her final vision Julian sees the same non-sequential (!) simultaneity, exactly, with the Resurrection as totally inseparable from and contained within both the Transfiguration and the Passion, and vice versa. (To our finite minds, a bit like the Triune Oneness and the circumincession of each divine Person fully within each of the others?)

    SECOND, we read: “The Risen Christ prepares us for the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the world.” Instead of “in” the world, might it be that without the Logos there is NO “WORLD” AT ALL (a real and singular moment far above and beyond and including Stephen Hawking’s physics of singularity and claim to mathematically “know the mind of God”).

    THIRD, “You can’t prove you love someone or that someone loves you by scientific experiments or demonstrative arguments.”

    But, in his brilliant Good Friday homily this year, Fr. Canatalamessa offered this: “…the Son of God took it upon himself. What is the surest PROOF that the drink someone offers you [the cup of pain] is not poisoned? It is that that person drinks from the same cup before you do.”

    FOURTH, “I once had a student say to me, ‘Prof. Smith, what if we are souls trapped in a prison which is our body and the whole point of human life is to find the key?’”

    For the next-generation illiterati, this novelty is actually warmed-over MANICHAEISM from the long-ago days of St. Augustine, and now especially manifested in transgenderism. Nothing new under the sun.

    And then this QUESTION: Thomas was also known as “the twin.” But twin to whom?

    Was he a lookalike to Christ himself, such that his (Thomas’) later appearance in the upper room—-now at the same time and place as Christ—-is a “proof” later to us and our wondering age that Thomas was NOT a stand-in double—-easily mistaken by enthusiastic followers to be Christ, at His other appearances after the resurrection? Are there any biblical scholars who comment on this angle? Just wondering…

  9. This is an amazing article. It reminds me of truths that have stuck to me through many, many years, and that helped extract me from the Land of Darkness that I was in and that is so popular today. At one religious retreat I heard only the first line of the first speaker: “We are daily de-converting, we must re-convert daily”. The organizers approached me right after that was said to help organize a living Via Crucis that was to be the end of the one-day retreat. Why call me then then and not before the retreat, I’ll never know. I just loved PHYSICAL expressions of Faith and jumped right in.

    But that first line, I never ever forgot. Another life-saturated line in another retreat, with the Redemptorists Fathers this time, was: “God loves your poverty”. This time I did attend the full retreat which was quite eventful. This article here reminds me of that line and expands greatly on it. Being old and having many “battle wounds”, my physical, financial, etc. poverty is crushingly devastating some days more than others.

    This article reminds me that “God loves my poverty” and it’s not ripping me out of it to a hyper-mystical, ultra-high “Gnostic” exalted state, but taking all my poverty and filling it with Himself to transform it, flipping every frustration, deep pain of all kinds, suffered grave injustices, failures, etc. into Amazing Glory. Every heart- wrenching moment of existential misery and every sweet joy has eternal significance and will not be lost but redeemed. So with my poor little self. I will be myself in Him, body, mind, heart, soul and spirit; infinitely more than ever and forever. This article makes me fall in solid love with God again. Glory be to His Name!! What an Amazing God we have!!!

  10. I’m not a formal scholar but contemplate alot and I always thought that the centurian is the first recorded conversion after Jesus died on the cross. He was still alive for the good thief account. I don’t think it was so much about evidence or how he died, after all the centurian still thrust his sword after that, I think it was GRACE coming into the world with power. Invisible GOD’s gift of GRACE and POWER returning to earth, flowing out with blood and water. We are saved by the blood of the cross.

  11. I view Acts, the end of Luke, and John from a mystical point of view. The post-Resurrection period was one of withdrawing sensible consolation. At the empty tomb Mary Magdalene only recognized Christ when He spoke her name. To me the reason why Christ told her not to touch Him was to prepare her for His Ascension, to prevent her from developing an attachment to His physical presence. The encounter at Emmaus and the Ascension both involved the withdrawal of sensible consolation, as does the Eucharist. At Emmaus it was only when the disciples recognized Christ that the sensible consolation of His presence was withdrawn. In the contemplative way the withdrawal of sensible consolation by God is done to stimulate a deeper spirituality in the contemplative. In the book of Acts we see the development of an interior spiritual life in the early Church. Pentecost marked the beginning of this interior spiritual life. The life of mystical contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit, as was Pentecost. At Pentecost the Church needed to develop an interior spiritual life, so as to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter came to his understanding of the Church’s mission to the Gentiles via a trance with the sheet coming down with the unclean animals on it. The Seven Deacons were chosen so that the Apostles could devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. When the Apostles announced their decision at the Council of Jerusalem, the Council’s Letter said “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:” The sensible consolation of Christ’s presence had to be withdrawn by the Ascension so that the Apostles could give the Holy Spirit their undivided attention. The Holy Spirit is all over Acts. IIRC, Acts can be called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.
    *
    One of the primary characteristics of the Eucharist is that the Real Presence is not sense perceptible. In the Eucharist we have the hidden Christ, the wholly interior Christ Who can only be seen with eyes of faith, fostering the development of an interior spiritual life. The lack of sensible consolation in the Eucharist makes it completely compatible with every stage of Contemplative Prayer.

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