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The Resurrection is the crowning event in the historical life of Jesus. Learn what happened during the Resurrection and how the Resurrection launched the Christian faith and shaped our belief in Jesus’ identity.

Catholic Update

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We Believe in the Resurrection

One of the most moving and powerful poems written by William B. Yeats was his "Easter 1916." Skeptical at first, Yeats had reluctantly come to recognize the transforming effect on Ireland of its "Easter Rebellion." Launched on Easter Monday, 1916—the timing no coincidence—by a "motley" crew of unlikely leaders, Yeats had come to appreciate "the Rising" as the rebirth of the Irish nation. His refrain throughout the poem is "All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born." I propose that Christians can say as much at every Easter time if we really believe as the Orthodox say each Easter, "Christ is risen; He is risen indeed."

Ah, but do we really believe it—this crowning event in the historical life of Jesus and God's ultimate seal upon him as the Christ of our faith? For Easter is a lot to believe. That Jesus lived, died and then was raised up by God on our behalf (Rom 4:25); that bonded with Christ by Baptism, we, too, are raised up and can "live in newness of life" (Rom 6:4). It's a lot to believe that "the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also" (2 Cor 4:14), that his resurrection has given us "the victory" over sin, that evil cannot finally triumph—why, even death has "lost its sting" (1 Cor 15:55-57). We know for sure that we will all die, but can we also trust that "in Christ, shall all be brought to life" again? (See 1 Cor 15:22.)


There, surely, is the greatest stretch for our faith: that death—our ultimate concern—is not really for real, that it is no more than a "change of life" (Preface, Mass of Resurrection). Has the rising of Jesus Christ really made death to go backwards for us all—into new life? It was this amazing conviction that launched the Christian faith. If Jesus had simply lived and died, he might be remembered as another great Israelite prophet. But his disciples became fully convinced that God had raised him from the dead, and so embarked on their own distinctive path that we know as Christianity.

Paul recognized the stakes very well: "If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15:14). But can we be so convinced of this Easter gamble? Can we thank God with rock-solid faith for giving us "a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pt 1:3)?

If ours is an Easter faith, then surely, all is "changed, changed utterly." Now no oppression can hold us bound, no evil can finally triumph, no cross is too heavy to carry, no trouble can rob us of hope, no sin can enslave us, no dependency is beyond recovery, no hurt is beyond healing. If we truly believe that "Christ is risen, risen indeed," then, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39).

What happened?

Such Easter faith is a gift from God; we should pray for the grace but cannot reason or talk ourselves into it. We can, however, try to understand it and to deepen our recognition of what it means for our daily lives. And with so much riding on Jesus' resurrection, it's only reasonable to ask, "What happened?"

We can imagine two extreme responses to this question. On the one hand, that Jesus' rising was a bodily resuscitation—as if he woke up and had to go to the bathroom—and on the other, that his rising was only in the hearts and hopes of disappointed disciples. Each one is false—to the New Testament witness—but they help us to locate what did happen in between them.

So, the Resurrection was not the kind of resuscitation that the disciples had experienced when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-44), or the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43) or the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17). These three would live a while and then have to die again. Rather, the body-person of the risen Christ was transformed. Unlike a mortal body, he could pass through walls (Jn 20:19); he could walk along with and then "vanish" from two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:31). By all accounts, "he appeared in another form" (Mk 16:12). A whole throng of disciples, having seen him bodily "alive," then witnessed him ascending from their midst "into heaven" (see Acts 1:6-12 and Lk 24:50-53).

On the other hand, Jesus' resurrection was not just wishful thinking on the part of disciples. To begin with, they clearly were not expecting it; those two disciples on the Emmaus road spent a whole day with him before recognizing who he was. Others upon his appearance were "startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost" (Lk 24:37). If this were a made-up story, they surely would have represented themselves better.

Then the disciples were transformed by their conviction that God had raised him up, many giving their lives in witness to this truth; such commitment is impossible from a conspiracy of fond hopes. The disciples knew that his resurrection was "real" because Jesus had shown them the wounds in his body—even inviting Thomas to touch them (Jn 20:24-29). He had asked them for food and eaten it (Lk 24:36-43); why, he'd even invited them to breakfast (Jn 21:12).

So, what did happen, between these two wrong responses? We cannot fully describe it; the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, belongs within the supernatural world, within God's eternal realm. Paul portrays the risen Christ as "a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44) and we may not improve upon that—on this side of eternity.

Those first disciples recognized Christ's resurrection as very real, though they could not fully name his new mode of spiritual embodiment; it was a new phenomenon to their experience—of "another world," as it were, within the life and power of God. Nor can we describe it, never having known as much in our experience. Yet we are invited to join in the rock-solid conviction of those first witnesses that Jesus "was raised on the third day" (1 Cor 15:4).

If we can, by God's grace, then all should be changed, changed utterly. Why, we even confess in the Apostles Creed that we fully expect "the resurrection of the body" for ourselves at the end of time. And it only seems reasonable to wonder which body will rise; I certainly want my 21-year-old one—with all my hair and vital functions—not what I have now. This one would not be a terrible beauty!

When Yeats refers to a "terrible" beauty being born, he means it in the Celtic sense of awe-inspiring. In more contemporary parlance, we might say, "Easter is awesome." But what else can be said about the change that it wrought in human history?

How to describe the change?

That Jesus had risen was the bedrock on which the disciples launched Christian faith and founded the Church. Of course, we must add to their experience of Christ's resurrection the phenomenal event of Pentecost (Acts 2). Pentecost rounded out their Easter experience, as it still rounds out the Easter season for us today.

At that first Pentecost, the Christian community—with about 120 of them gathered (Acts 1:15)—experienced an outpouring of God's own Spirit "on each one of them" (Acts 2:3); note well, not just on the apostles. This transformed them from a bunch of scaredy-cats, afraid to show their faces, into fearless witnesses ready to bring Jesus' mission to the ends of the earth. Fully convinced of his resurrection and empowered by the Holy Spirit, those first disciples began to proclaim their Jesus as "Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36), as the Anointed One of God—the Christ.

Now it began to dawn on disciples that Jesus' life, death and resurrection—what we call the paschal event—was a decisive catalyst in God's "work of salvation." They began to realize that Jesus Christ had forged a new covenant between God and humankind, that this was the turning point in human history. But how were they to describe the change that God had effected in Jesus?

Well, they began to do what we must still do today—to search for metaphors and language, adequate to their time and place, to describe the difference that Jesus Christ makes for all creation. The challenge then and now is to express in meaningful, engaging and life-giving ways what God has done in Jesus and continues forever by the Holy Spirit.

Paul got us started, offering a whole collage of images for the "changed utterly" that God had brought about in the dying and rising of Jesus. He wrote of it as salvation (Rom 1:16), liberation (Gal 5:1), justification (Gal 2:16-21), reconciliation (2 Cor 3:16-18), sanctification (1 Cor 1:30), forgiveness (Rom 3:25), expiation (Rom 3:25), ransom (Gal 4:5), new creation (Gal 6:15), new life (1 Cor 15:45), divine adoption (Gal 4:4-6)—and the list could go on. Why so many metaphors? Paul was trying to express for the first Christian communities what is inexhaustible and cannot be fully described—the utter change that is ensured by Easter.

Easter talk

The quest has continued since Paul as the Church found itself having to name the assurance of Easter in different times and places. Three classic ways of talking about the change effected by the historical Jesus and Christ of faith are as Savior, Redeemer and Divinizer.

So, in Christian faith, Christ saves us from all the powers of evil that threaten to destroy, and redeems us by paying the price to release us from the bondage of sin, canceling our debt and righting the scales of justice. A favorite metaphor of Eastern Catholicism is that Jesus Christ restores in us the divine image that was tarnished by Original Sin, enabling people to live into their divine potential. In the pithy summary of the great Father of the Church, St. Athanasius, writing in or near 360 A.D., "God became human so that humans could become more like God."

As with human language about divine mysteries, these metaphors say something profoundly true; yet neither one nor all together say everything that could be said. Like all metaphors, as well, if taken too literally they begin to say what is not true. For example, to push the metaphor of Jesus as Redeemer too far is to make God sound like a vindictive parent who demanded and was pleased by the terrible suffering of God's own Son—what a horrible image of God! It's helpful to remember that it was not God who caused this horrible death of Jesus, but human beings acting in direct opposition to God's law.

A contemporary metaphor gaining ground to capture how he "changed utterly" our human estate is Jesus as Liberator. It reflects that Jesus' life, death and resurrection amount to the catalyst that frees people from all that enslaves, personal and social, and frees them for realizing God's will of fullness of life for all—the peace and justice of God's reign. Or might we think of Jesus as the great humanizer, the one who enables us to become the best people we can be.

Perhaps the title Son of Man, used repeatedly of Jesus throughout the Gospels, which can be translated as "the human one," hints at Jesus as the empowerment for all humanity to live more humanly. And we can be sure that new metaphors will emerge out of different cultures and as history unfolds.

Jesus Christ was human

To fully appreciate the significance of Jesus' dying and rising for us, we need to remember that God was among us as one of ourselves in this carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus Christ was the great catalyst of liberating salvation because he was fully one with us in humanity and "one in being" with God as well. As a human being he showed us how to live into our fullest potential—the changes we ever need to make; as the Son of God and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, he raised up our whole human estate, empowering us to "follow the way" that he modeled. In other words, the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same person. To grasp the change that he asks and empowers requires us to acknowledge this unity.

The christological doctrine of "two natures in one person" was hammered out over the first four centuries, accompanied by lots of controversies and accusations of heresy. The arguments seesawed back and forth between two emphases. On the one hand, some insisted rightly that Jesus had to be fully human in order to be in total solidarity with us, and for us to be "raised up" with him. On the other, many emphasized his divinity because we needed someone fully divine to be ultimately effective on our behalf. Meanwhile, the Church searched for a middle ground of both/and instead of either/or. Finally it reached its classic expression at the great Council of Chalcedon (in the year 451).

Thereafter, however, orthodox Christian faith would affirm that "Our Lord Jesus Christ," to quote Chalcedon, "is complete in his deity and complete in his humanity, truly God and truly a human being...coessential (homoousios) with the Father as to his deity and coessential with us as to his humanity, a being like us in every respect apart from sin...."

Does this mean that we understand the mystery of Jesus Christ's identity? No, not in a rational way. Through the eyes of faith, though, we can say yes and be enlivened by this mystery of our faith.

Such faith means that the whole human family has been "raised up" effectively and definitively through its solidarity with Jesus Christ. As the divine and human are at one in him, so, too, we can live in at-onement with God, and God's grace overflows through Christ to empower us to live as God's people after "the way" of Jesus. Indeed, Yeats said it well not only for Easter of 1916, but really for every Easter: "All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born."

Thomas H. Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and director of BC's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. For further reading see his What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life (Harper, 2002).

NEXT: Islam: What Catholics Should Know (by Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B.)


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