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The Resurrection
Going Beyond Life

by John Navone, S.J.

The relationship between Jesus' death and resurrection makes it possible to have a true understanding of the Paschal mystery. We will begin to look at this relationship in the symbols in which Jesus expressed the meaning of his death at the Last Supper.

In the symbolic breaking and sharing of the bread and wine Jesus represents what he was doing in life and was about to do in death. What is it that enables Jesus to make the symbol a reality by his actual death the following day? The answer, perhaps, lies in the words that appear with minor variations in all the Synoptic accounts: "I tell you I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

For Jesus this is his last supper, his farewell supper with his friends and disciples, and yet it is somehow not the end. It is the last time that he shall drink of the fruit of the vine, but only "until" he drinks it with them in his Father's kingdom. These symbols, then, are not only symbols of the self-giving of Jesus, but also symbols of his loving faith and hope in his Father and his kingdom. It is this loving faith and hope that enable Jesus to give all in order to find all: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mk 8:35), says Jesus as he invites his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, or in John's version: "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (12:25).

Life Conquers Death

The bread and wine express Jesus' believing and hoping and loving "unto the end." Jesus dies not for the sake of death, but for the sake of life: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). The death of Jesus in loving faith and hope is an affirmation of Life Itself/God that could only be made in loving faith and hope. Jesus' loving faith and hope was grounded on his conviction that Life Itself/God was invincible and unquenchable, that it would conquer death. To believe in the God of Jesus is to believe that we can give ourselves totally to Life Itself, even unto the end, and it will not fail us.

The resurrection experience of the early disciples of Jesus, then, refers to their coming to that loving faith and hope in the Father that Jesus himself had not only preached, but also lived. Their loving faith and hope were born in their experience of the crucified and risen Jesus and the gift of his Spirit.

Seeing the crucified and risen Jesus, first of all, was not a "seeing" in the sense in which they had seen Jesus before his death and resurrection. The resurrection narratives do not portray the risen Jesus as "there" for everyone to see. He was seen only by those to whom he appeared, and in the narratives that we have, this group includes only believers. When Paul lists the appearances of Jesus to Cephas, to the Twelve, to the 500 brethren, to James, to all the apostles, he places his own experience on the road to Damascus at the end of the list (1 Cor 15:5-8). Paul's experience is described in Acts as a light from heaven that flashed around him, and as a voice speaking to him (9:3-4). The fact that Paul lists this appearance with the others and uses the same word would seem to indicate that he was speaking of the same kind of experience in all of the appearances.

It is true that in some of the narratives the appearances are described in very physical terms, as though it were a "seeing" in the usual sense of the word. But underneath the literary embellishments and the details that accrued in the telling of the story, there is very likely the kind of experience that Paul himself had. When, therefore, Jesus says to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn 20:29), we cannot take this to mean a physical seeing that precluded or excluded faith, but must take it as an experience of the risen Jesus that included faith.

How much do we know and how much can we know about the nature of the resurrection, or about what the risen Jesus who appeared to them was like? We can look to Paul's attempt to answer such questions in writing to the Corinthians: "But someone will ask: 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?' You foolish man," Paul replies (1 Cor 15:35-36), but he does not stop there. He tries to contrast the risen body with the earthly body: "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (15:42-44). Then he tells them a "mystery": "We shall all be changed...for this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this moral nature must put on immortality" (15:51-53).

Taking Paul's contrast as a norm and as a guide, we can say that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the old and the new. It was the same Jesus of Nazareth who was raised from the dead, but he has been changed and transformed. Paul says that the earthly body was physical, and the new body is not physical, but spiritual.

The same is true, of course, of the resurrection as an event. What was experienced in the resurrection was the already risen Jesus. No one in the New Testament claims to have seen or witnessed the actual resurrection, or even to know what a resurrection is. They know of the resurrection by way of an inference from their experience of the risen Jesus. This is not to question whether it actually happened; rather, it is to say only that there was no one who had a direct experience of it and could have described it literally. .

Going Beyond Life

There is a danger in speaking of the resurrection to imagine it as a process of revivification or resuscitation. Then resurrection would mean a "coming back to life," as in the story of Lazarus coming back to life in John's Gospel. This, according to Paul, is exactly what resurrection is not. Resurrection is not a "coming back" to life, but a "going beyond" to a totally new and different kind of life. Paul stresses the change and the transformation, the newness of the risen body.

We cannot speak of the resurrection as an "historical" event in the same sense in which the crucifixion was an historical event, that resurrection was a reincorporation back into the processes of history, a coming back into life and into history. Resurrection is in some sense a continuation of the life that existed in history, and this is the point of the continuity between the old and the new. But it is not an historical continuation of this life, for eternity. Risen life is a new kind of life and a new kind of existence involving a total change and transformation of the old, and this is the equally important point of discontinuity that Paul stresses.

The resurrection is an eschatological event rather than a historical event. Eschatological existence is not simply a continuation of history, it is not history extended and continued indefinitely. It is rather the culmination of history, the passage of the historical into a new and final mode of existence. The resurrection of Jesus, then, does not stand to our present as a past, historical event, nor as a future event. Eschatological existence does not stand within the "befores" and "afters" of historical and temporal existence. We cannot describe eschatological existence any more than we can describe the body of the risen Lord, and for the same reasons. In resurrection language we are dealing with the expressions/symbols of Christian faith and hope and love; we must, therefore, use the language of analogy and metaphor to express the meaning of the resurrection as a passage into a new life, a life which we can know only in loving faith and hope in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Belief in the resurrection is not the same as believing in the immortality of the soul. There was nothing automatic about the resurrection; that is, it was not the automatic survival of the spiritual part of a man or of the soul. God raised Jesus from the dead, not his soul, but the whole Jesus in his total existence. It was the whole Jesus of Nazareth who was changed and transformed into new life and existence. The whole Jesus had to die and be raised from the dead, transformed into what Paul calls "spiritual" existence.

Love Leads to Life

Christianfaith is not belief in the immortality of the soul, or a general belief in an afterlife. In seeing the death of Jesus as the giving of his life for others, Christian faith is not the belief that after death comes life, or that death leads to life. It is the belief that Love is life and leads to Life.

It was not the physical death of Jesus, but his death as the expression of his free and loving self-giving that constitutes its religious and theological significance in the New Testament. To die for others is not just to die, but is the most free and personal act of life and of the affirmation of life in loving faith and hope, and the Christian believes that this life, the life of Jesus of Nazareth, constitutes true life, a life that is stronger than death and survives death. The Christian believes that the life and death of the risen Christ reveals and communicates the invincible and eternal life and love of the Triune God.

In John's theological reflection (1 Jn 4:7-9) we are told that love leads to life because such a life is sharing in the life of God who is Love Itself, and to share his life is to have been touched by the Eternal in time. "This is eternal life," says the Gospel of John, "to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (17:3). To know (in the biblical sense) Jesus of Nazareth in the Paschal mystery, in his dying as a loving self-giving in faith and hope, is to know something of God's life, eternal life. To share in such a life is to share in a life that is eternal, an eternity known in loving faith and hope. In the farewell discourse in John, Jesus of Nazareth could say: "I am the way and the truth and the life" (14:6), that is, the life he lives and offers to others is the true way that is life and leads to life. He could also say to Martha, who knew that her brother would rise on the last day, that he was the resurrection and the life (11:25), that his life and death revealed the meaning of life and resurrection.

Death and Resurrection Are One

Our loving Christian faith and hope is not believing in the resurrection as an isolated, past event, but a believing in Jesus of Nazareth, in his whole life as the way and the truth and the life. This faith believes that the life of Jesus, including his death, is the way to true life, to eternal life, to life with God, and it is this aspect of our loving Christian faith and hope that comes to expression in the resurrection. The crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate test of the invincible love that suffering, evil and death could not overcome. The invincible love of the crucified and risen Christ both reveals and communicates the fullness of Eternal Life, assuring us that the Life who is Love cannot be extinguished, and that the power of the Love prevails over all evil.

Christian revelation was lived by Jesus of Nazareth in his concrete history. Before the ultimate mystery of good and evil and of life and death, Jesus lived with the loving trust and conviction that his gracious and merciful Father would have the last word. The Father affirms his life and mission from the start when, at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descends upon him: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17; Lk 3:21-22). That marvelous reality of the Father's love is the key to our grasping the story of our crucified and risen Lord as Good News for all humankind. Born again with and in our crucified and risen Lord, we recognize the same voice of his loving Father affirming the meaning and value of our lives as participants in the life and mission of the Beloved Son and his Spirit. The gift of the Father's love in his Son and Spirit empowers us to take up our cross and follow Jesus as participants within the Paschal mystery.

The Paschal mystery of the life and death of Jesus is the mystery of living and dying with the Son in the Spirit of the Father's love. It is, ultimately, the mystery of all human living and dying within the ultimate context of humankind: the mystery of God as Eternal Love and Eternal Life. Christian faith and hope and love express our graced and welcoming response to the Mystery that is Love and Life Itself, enabling us to believe and to hope that all things human can be redeemed, that all human flesh can be glorified, that the human is of eternal value.

John Navone, S.J., is a professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Gonzaga University in Spokane (summer courses). Author of 15 books, his most recent publications have been with The Liturgical Press: Self-Giving and Sharing: The Trinity and Human Fulfillment (1989), Seeking God in : Story (1990), Toward a Theology of Beauty (1996), Enjoying God's Beauty (1999), Lead, Radiant Spirit —Our Gospel Quest (2001). He won Italian national Capri-San Michele award in 1998 for his book The Land and the Spirit of Italy.

Next: Antioch (by Elizabeth McNamer)

 

Living With Scriptures

The Resurrection of Jesus changed everything for his disciples, filling them with so much enthusiasm that they could not contain it but went all over the world proclaiming it. For them, it eliminated death. Only in dying to ourselves can we attain resurrection. In what way will you die to yourself today so that you may love others? How about fasting from a meal, taking time from your busy schedule to visit a lonely person, denying yourself something you really want and sending the money to help resurrect others?

 

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