Students of the New Testament know that I Corinthians 15 contains fundamental Christian doctrine of decisive importance.
The apostle of Christ bears witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He died on the cross, and He rose on the third day. People saw Him after He rose. Quite a few people, whose testimony establishes this particular fact of history.
The more-elderly among us know that the twentieth century (and the two centuries before it) saw some strange games played with this doctrine. But we have gotten past that now, thank God. We know that there is nothing “purely spiritual,” or “theoretical,” or “purely mysterious,” about the fundamental message of the Church of Christ. The son of Mary, the carpenter, the rabbi—He rose from the dead.
Bearing witness to that fact is the beginning of Christianity. “Christianity” as a term means nothing at all without our testimony to that simple, wonderful fact. He died; He rose.
What St. Paul blithely goes on to assert in I Corinthians 15 is this: The original fact—Jesus’ resurrection—establishes another equally certain fact: We, too, will rise. Our life is not a mere seventy or eighty years, or whatever it may be. No. We will rise from our graves on the last day, unto an eternal bodily life.
We may rise to glory. We may rise to condemnation. Which of those two fates awaits each of us individually? That remains to be seen. But the fact that we will all rise in the body—that fact, St. Paul insists, is as indubitable as the fact of Christ’s resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection is a fact. The Incarnation is what makes it a mystery of faith. The mystery of the Incarnation opens before our minds like an inexhaustible light.
But in I Corinthians 15, St. Paul explains clearly: one certain aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation is this: Death came upon the human race not because God willed us to live only for a few decades. No, He made us to live with Him forever.
God becoming man means: The curse of death which began after the Fall of Man has ended. Not just for the one man, Jesus. But for the whole human race.
We Christians can, and we do, dare to propose to the whole world: This, friends, is what makes life make sense. There is no other way to make sense out of life. This is it. We will rise in the body like our Lord Jesus Christ. Unto an eternal life. An eternal life of either pure sorrow or pure joy.
Jesus suffered and died. They laid Him in the tomb. A night and a day passed, then the sun set again. At some time during that subsequent night, before full dawn, He rose from the dead.
Many human eyes saw the Lord in the flesh after He rose. He appeared to many witnesses, as we have seen in our readings these past three Sundays. The testimony of these witnesses can leave us in no doubt about the simple fact: the resurrection of Christ did occur. They could not have sat and ate with Him, if he had not risen in the flesh.
But the testimonies all refer to events after the fact. No one actually saw Him rise—that is, no mortal human being saw it. No human being was in the tomb with Him as He rose. Christ’s act of rising from the dead lies shrouded in the mystery of that holiest of nights.
As a man, Jesus passed over from human life as we know it, burdened by a fundamental separation from God, to human life as God intended it, perfectly united with Himself. The true Passover: Christ passing over from a mortal life in the body to an immortal life in the body.
The disciples who saw Christ after the resurrection saw the evidence that the Passover had occurred in His flesh. But they did not see the Passover itself. It is not something that mortal eyes can see. It is a mystery of faith.
In the same way, our own eventual bodily resurrection from the dead lies shrouded in the deepest clouds of divine mystery. Yes, on the one hand, it is a fact. We can’t really doubt that Christ rose in the body. So we can’t doubt that we, too, will rise. Christ rose from the dead, in the body: fact. All the dead will rise, in the body: fact.
But what our life will be like then: Mystery. We don’t know. It belongs to “the age to come.” Jesus, the Head of the mystical Body, Who passed over to immortal life 1,985 years ago—He will return to the earth with His divinity not hidden, but fully manifest. The Age to come.
The cynical world will say to us Christians: How can you possibly believe in such ethereal mysteries? Do you not know that the body is a chemical machine? It decays after death, unto dust.
To which we reply: It is precisely with reference to the facts of death and dusty graves that we speak. Would you cynics have us believe that the life of man as we know it—which, yes, does involve chemicals and the weight of mortality, but which also involves love and beauty and the longing for heaven—do you expect us to dismiss all the spiritual nobility in human life as some kind of chemical fluke?
After all, what real alternative do we have to faith in Christ’s bodily resurrection, and our own? Should we hope for real happiness from something else? Like facebook surfing, or good wine, or getting a lapel pin after 25 years of service on the job? Or can we hope for some purely spiritual eternity, with no body? What kind of heaven would that be for us, anyway?
No: We flesh-and-bone mortals have one solid hope, the hope that Christ has given us. The bonds of love we form by His grace during this pilgrim life will in fact last forever in His divine kingdom, when all the dead rise.
We Christians who believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection and hope for our own, even though we can hardly understand it—we are no credulous fops living in a myth. To the contrary: We confront the reality of our inevitable death as it is, and we deal with it in the most reasonable way possible. By humbly trusting that the Word spoken by Almighty God is true.
We Christians never said that Christ’s bodily resurrection is something that we mortals can altogether understand. But nonetheless it is an intimate reality, which we touch by faith whenever we come to the holy altar of Christ’s Body and Blood. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
The ‘how’ of our bodily resurrection exceeds our imagination and understanding…Yet our participation in the Eucharist gives us a foretaste.
The mystery of immortal bodily life is close, familiar–a friend. Christ, already having passed over to immortal life in the body, does not dwell on some unreachable alien planet. He lives with us right here. He is always with us. He unites us with Himself when we receive Holy Communion.
We know that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, because it is a verifiable fact of human history.
Let’s look at it this way. When we read the Scriptures during Holy Week, we encounter a number of unfamiliar names. Malchus, the Temple guard who lost an ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon the Cyrenian, who helped Jesus on the way to Golgatha. Clopas, the husband of one of the women at the foot of the cross. Salome, who came to the tomb.
We might wonder why these names appear in the gospels. They appear without explanation. We hardly know anything at all about these individuals; to us they are “just names.” Why did the gospel writers throw those names in?
Simple explanation. Because the gospel writers knew them. St. Mark knew Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome. St. John knew Malchus. The gospel writers knew them personally. And the people for whom the gospel writers took the trouble to write their books—they knew Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome, too.
So St. Mark and St. John didn’t explain who Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome were for the same reason that I wouldn’t need to explain to you [the English-speaking people of St. Joseph’s parish, Martinsville, Virginia] who Bob Humkey, or John and Joseph Nguyen, are. You already know who they are. See what I mean?
The Holy Gospels put us right in the middle of the original Church–the living, breathing social network of the first Christians. The number of people who saw Jesus after He rose from the dead—not small. Five hundred plus. The number of ancient documents bearing witness to the widespread accounts of His appearances—not a small number of documents. The twenty-seven most reliable ones make up a familiar volume, namely…the New Testament. And there are many other documents attesting to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
Ancient history is not a science in which anything can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But an honest historian of the ancient world would readily acknowledge: The evidence for the fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead vastly outweighs any evidence to the contrary. To make the case that He did rise, you can refer to these many documents. To make the case that He didn’t, you need a vivid imagination for conspiracy theories in order to explain away these documents.
So the man rose from the dead. Fact.
What we believe—what we hold by the divine gift of faith—is this: Jesus’ rising from the dead has something to do with us. What makes us Christians is: believing that the mystery of why we exist gets resolved by the fact that this man rose from the dead.
We believe that the mysterious power Who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, and brought us forth into the light of day, and fills our lungs with air, and spreads the stars in the sky for us at night—God. We believe that He has revealed His plan. Namely, that Jesus’ eternal life would be our eternal life. That is our faith.
The New Testament, therefore, offers us two things at the same time. 1) An impressive collection of historical records from the ancient world. 2) The account of how our family began.
A reasonable person can’t doubt that it happened. What we believe, by the grace of God, is that when it happened, it happened to us.
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “The proof of the resurrection we learn not so much from the words as from the works of our Savior.”
The Lord Jesus did, of course, speak about the resurrection of the body. “I am the resurrection and the life.” “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” “It is my Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up.”
But it wasn’t all talk. As St. Gregory put it, Jesus’ works prove the resurrection. He raised the dead. Like the man we read about at Sunday Mass, in the town called Nain. And the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official. And also, in John 11, Christ raised… His friend… Kinda rhymes with Nazareth…
Now, why? Why did Jesus raise the dead during His public ministry?
Because He loves the human race. Because He hates death. Because He came to nullify the annihilation of death. He came to turn death into the door to everlasting life.
Christ raised certain individuals from the dead during His pilgrim life, as we read in the gospels. Then, as we also read, when Jesus died, the netherworld shook, and a number of dead people rose in Jerusalem. Then, Christ Himself rose from the dead, never to die again.
All of this indicates the ultimate destiny of every human individual. We will all rise on the last day. The blessed will enjoy everlasting happiness; the wicked will suffer permanent condemnation.
We Catholics do various things to signify, or celebrate, or call to mind, or exercise our faith in the resurrection. Like, at the Easter Vigil, we light the Paschal Candle. And we say we believe in the resurrection whenever we recite the Creed. And we celebrate Mass.
The Mass inherently involves faith in the resurrection. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, the Mass would hardly make sense. But, since He did indeed rise, Christ revives our faith in the resurrection by the very act of feeding us with His resurrected Body and Blood.
A week and a half ago, a certain famous person gave a speech in Vietnam. Part of the speech touched on “universal human rights.” He did not mention the right to life of the innocent and defenseless unborn. But he did extoll the importance of religious freedom. In his speech, President Obama said to the Vietnamese government and people, “freedom of religion allows people to fully express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions.”
Now, even speaking about “all great religions” certainly exceeds my pay-grade. I hardly consider myself qualified to speak about one great religion.
But I can say this without any hesitation whatsoever: If Christianity involves love and compassion—which, of course, it does—if our religion moves us to love others and act with compassion, there is an underlying reason for this. A crucial underlying fact.
After all, love and compassion don’t exactly grow on trees, so to speak. What does seem to grow on trees? Greed, vanity, shallowness, and the tendency to flimflam and b.s. one’s way through life. Sin, in other words, grows on trees.
So: If we have any love and compassion, there’s a reason. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
None of the Apostles became Christians—nor the early martyrs, nor the heroic Vietnamese, for that matter, who have suffered in order to bear witness to Christ—none of these people thought to themselves: “Let me become a Christian, let me become a Catholic, because that way I will be able to express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions!”
No. The martyrs and heroes have stared death squarely in the face, with the sacred name of Jesus on their lips, because: He rose from the dead.
The resurrection means that a loving and compassionate divine Heart beats in heaven. The same Heart that loved the widow of Nain and raised her son from the dead, out of compassion for her. Jesus’ resurrection means that loving and compassionating win out, over hating and crushing, in the end.
One of the great half-truths of modern life is: Religion involves ideals. Fundamentally, religion has to do with ideals for us to strive for. Therefore, the ceremonies and specifics don’t matter that much.
Now, of course we need our ideals to strive for. But let me just speak as what I am—a Catholic priest: our religion fundamentally has to do with facts. Not ideals. God became a man and conquered Satan. He died at the hands of us sinners. Then He rose again.
High ideals are great. But any ideal that doesn’t fundamentally have to do with Jesus Christ—what good is it? You can have it; I’m not interested.
The triune God Almighty rules over life and death; over heaven and hell; over past, present, and future. Jesus has revealed that God Himself loves, with compassion. He loves us, has compassion on us, in our sin-soaked mortal misery.
Two quick points about Jesus rising from the dead.
1. People who love Jesus want Him to have risen from the dead. Everything He said and did fascinates us and captivates us so much, we can’t believe it all ended on the cross.
But we cannot allow ourselves to believe in any beautiful legends, just because we want them to be true.
So we have to ask: Is it true?
If one of the students of Roanoke Catholic School said to me, “Father, yesterday afternoon I walked downtown for a haircut, and I saw Michael Jackson,” I would not hesitate. I would reply, “No, you didn’t.”
Or if one told me, “Father, Father, my Boy Scout troop was hiking the Appalachian Trail up McAfee’s Knob, and we came to one of those camp shelters, and there was a man in there playing the harmonica, and it was Abraham Lincoln,” I would say, “No, it was not.”
People do not generally rise from the dead. When you dead, you dead.
Is it true, nevertheless, that Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead?
The reasonable answer is: Yes. The New Testament contains thoroughly convincing evidence. Eye-witness accounts that sound like believable eye-witness accounts almost always sound–that is, scattered, deriving from multiple points-of-view, but in agreement regarding the central issue. Also, no one ever found the body. Plenty of people certainly tried. The chances of it having been stolen away and hidden are practically zero, since the tomb was guarded during the only interval of time when it could have been stolen. Also, there’s the fact that the Apostles, over the course of a couple decades, gladly went to their deaths because they were sure that Jesus had risen from the dead.
No–of all the facts of history, including the fact that people do not generally rise from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus is one of the more well-established ones. Doubting it is much less reasonable than believing it.
Point #2: Even though it is a fact, however, we would be fools if we claimed to understand it.
Yes, Jesus rose, and saw His friends, and talked with them, and ate food. After forty days, He ascended in the flesh into heaven.
But: Do we know what it is like to be a man who has risen from the dead? We most assuredly do not. We persevere in hope that we will find out, when everything is said and done. But in the meantime, our belief that this particular man’s resurrection offers us the hope that makes our lives worth living: that is more than history can prove.
So the Resurrection is no beautiful legend. But it is a mystery of faith. Everything about it that makes it important for us lies way beyond our ability to comprehend.
Which great Old-Testament image shows us what Easter means for us, for the Christians of the world? This event happened originally, many centuries before Christ, in order to show us what Christ’s Passover has accomplished for us…
Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.
You don’t have to watch Charleton Heston’s “Ten Commandments” to perceive the intense drama of the moment. Wind blowing. Hapless Israelites lined up, a cavalcade of refugees, with Moses leading the column, staff in hand. As every second passes, the angry Egyptian charioteers gain ground.
And the Israelites do not have geography on their side. Trying to get to the Promised Land? Good luck! Ain’t no bridge over this here sea! We can imagine that desperate prayers and lamentations burbled anxiously on the lips of Moses and his followers at this moment.
But the Lord impatiently said to His prophet Moses, “Come on, man! Why are you crying out to me? Tell them to stride forward. Lift up your staff. I got you!”
Moses, to his credit, did not panic at this. He did not say, “You mean, we should march into the middle of all that water?”
If it were you or me, we might have said, “Look, Lord, I know You made the heavens and the earth, and blew the spirit of life into all the vigorous creatures of the cosmos. But that’s an awful lot of water out there, and I don’t know how to swim.”
Moses, however, said no such thing. He did not panic. “Adelante!” he said. “Vamonos! We are stepping into that ocean, people, for the glory of God Almighty!”
I said that all this happened in order to teach us what Easter means for us. What does that wide sea represent? The windswept water?
I think we can say that the Red Sea represents a uniquely opaque reality. An impenetrably dark reality. A reality of incomprehensible mystery, when it comes to what our churning little minds can grasp.
The sea represents: All that is yet to come. Every moment, subsequent to now. The future.
This could be our last Easter like this. An asteroid could land right here. Or: Our constitutional system of government could unravel completely. Or, on the other hand: Tomorrow, you or I could meet someone with something beautiful to say, that we have never heard before, and our lives could completely change. This spring could turn lovelier than any spring we’ve ever lived through, and the world could start to look different.
Who knows what’s coming down the pike? All we know about it is that we don’t know. The future is the wine-dark sea.
And what about the voice of the Lord, speaking to Moses? God Almighty saying, “Stop whining and stride forward! I will be glorified by getting you Israelites to the other side.”
He is saying to us: “Vayanse! Don’t tell me you can’t swim. Don’t tell me you’d rather have the leeks and melons and cucumbers you had when you served Satan as slaves. Don’t tell me that you’re not sure you can handle walking through a tunnel of water, miraculously suspended to the right and to the left, and teeming with whales and fish. Don’t talk, just walk. Don’t whine, just step forward in line. I got this. I am God, and I am telling you that I got this thing, the future. I got it. Don’t you worry about it.”
Now, the Egyptians never made it through the sea. What undid them? What does the Scripture say? The Egyptians ________ed, and their chariot wheels got mired in the mud. The Egyptians ________ed, and they sounded the retreat. And, next thing they knew, the dark sea washed over them and drowned them instantly. (panicked)
The Easter candle means this: Be not afraid. The only enemy that we really need to fear, Christ has conquered. Christ has conquered our only real foe.
Adelante, entonces! Forward. The future–unknown as it is, nebulous as it is, as choppy as a stormy sea as it may be: the light of Christ’s Passover candle will shine in it.
In our first reading at Sunday Mass, we hear Moses prophesy the coming of another leader who would shepherd the people like Moses himself had shepherded them, leading them to the Promised Land. In the gospel reading we hear how even an unclean spirit could declare the fulfillment of this prophecy and recognize the truth about Jesus, the Holy One of God.
If you happened to find yourself reading here a week ago, hopefully you remember how we started talking about the kingdom of the Holy One of God.
As Pope Paul VI put it, Jesus came first of all to proclaim a kingdom. His kingdom is the true Promised Land. The phrase “Kingdom of God” refers to the one absolute reality of life. Everything else is relative.
To quote St. Ignatius Loyola: “Health or sickness, wealth or poverty, honor or dishonor, a long life or a short one”– all are matters of indifference, compared to the Kingdom of God.
If you were reading last week, you may recall that we considered two possible interpretations of the phrase “Kingdom of God:” the vague, shallow interpretation vs. the more concrete and precise interpretation, based on the Holy Scriptures.
We were just getting ready to tackle two particularly vague things about the vague, shallow interpretation, when we ran out of time a week ago. The vague, shallow interpretation insists on being especially vague and shallow when it comes to two things.
Christ exercised His power to cure diseases and handicaps. While He walked the earth, He showed the depths of the divine love by healing and helping people.
At the end of His pilgrimage, He conquered death. He died and rose again. By doing this, He showed His even-greater power of healing our mortality altogether. God took our mortal flesh to Himself in order to transform it into something other than a lump of clay that sooner or later runs out of steam. Christ has the infinite divine life to give. A day will come when all the dead will rise.
The miracles the Lord worked while He was on earth beckon us to have faith in His promises of heaven. And He Himself did everything necessary so that we could have the help we need to believe. In order for us to believe in heaven, we need grace from heaven. Jesus won that grace of faith for us by suffering and dying for us on the cross.
Now, all of these sublime realities confront us when we say goodbye to a beloved friend who has died. Recently, in Rocky Mount, Va., we lost a parishioner with an unforgettable smile. We cannot think that the Lord adorned the earth with that smile, only to remove it forever by death. No.
In Christ, the Almighty has smiled on us. We can, therefore, stand firm in the truth that we will see our loved ones who have died again. We say goodbye. But the goodbye is just for now, not forever. The Day of the Lord will come, and death will be no more.
One of the world’s great myths holds that our souls travel through many lifetimes in different bodies. People call this idea…Reincarnation.
To give the benefit of the doubt to all the people who have believed in this, and the millions who still do: I, for one, can see why the myth might arise. In fact, I can see two solid reasons why people might come to believe in reincarnation.
1. We human beings have a natural tendency to revere the perfect justice of Almighty God. But we live in a world which we clearly see is not perfectly just. Therefore, God must have a means by which He restores justice in the end. If I do not know about the sacrifice of Christ, which has reconciled the human race to God in one perfectly just act—if I don’t know about this, then I will inevitably try to imagine other ways in which justice might be restored. I will imagine some other means by which a human being might reach purity, uprightness, godliness. I see that this does not generally happen in the course of one given human lifetime. But I might imagine that over an enormous array of well-lived lifetimes, a soul might actually reach union with God.
But: Reincarnation is impossible, as many skilled philosophers have shown. St. Thomas Aquinas argues the point with characteristic clarity and simplicity.
I think we can say that two wonders of the Bible actually go together.
Wonder #1: The Lord Jesus certainly lived a human life, with a human body like ours–and a human soul like ours. But we cannot successfully psychologize Him. Because His human soul enjoyed an interior communion with Almighty God that we cannot fathom.
He behaved like an admirable man in just about every respect. But: If He did not, in fact, know things about God’s plan that only His mind knew, then we would have to dismiss Him as a lunatic. The speech we hear at Holy Mass today: either the words of the uniquely knowledgeable prophet or the ravings of a madman.
So, to put Biblical Wonder #1 in a nutshell: Jesus of Nazareth possessed, during His pilgrim human life, divine knowledge.
Wonder #2. From the depths of this ineffable divine knowledge that Jesus possessed, He expressed this particular mystery, namely: All the dead bodies that fill the tombs, and cemeteries, and columbaria of the earth–all of them will rise.
Now, our own humble human knowledge allows us to detect the existence of God–the immeasurable power which has brought all things into being. But we see only a march of time that appears to end with death. Jesus, however, tells us what we don’t know and can’t see now: God wills not death and an end, but life and a glorious eternity.
The prophet Ezekiel foresaw it: Piles of bones, looking at first like so much wasted calcium strewn on the ground, suddenly rattling and chirping and forming again into the noble human body. The Lord Jesus confirms this with his divine knowledge: This rattling, and chirping, and re-forming will happen, not just in one boneyard, but in them all.
The two wonders go together. 1) Jesus’ oracular knowledge and 2) the mystery of life’s ultimate triumph over death. No co-incidence there. The Lord Jesus knows only what He Himself will bring about.