The Resurrection of Christ
The resurrection of Christ is the most fundamental belief of the Church and has been from the very beginning. St Paul’s comments on Christ’s resurrection are still valid: ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. And those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, then we of all people are most to be pitied.’
From the time of the confession of faith of Simon Peter and the disciples, the gathering of the faithful as ‘the Church’ was step by step being built up. The first disciples frequently did not understand what Jesus meant by his ‘resurrection’ and many other teachings but nevertheless clearly believed and trusted in him and his teaching. This is arguably always the situation of those who seek God.
Doubts about what Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ really means still remain in the minds and hearts of many Christians. But it is not helpful or even sensible to regard such doubts as sinful because intelligent theological reflection would not even be possible without reflection and prayer about entirely natural human doubts. Like the first disciples we have to learn first to trust in Christ and pray, and to reflect about it at some depth. The challenge to our faith is important because without some kind of recognition of the risen Christ in our lives we cannot fall on our knees and say with Thomas “My Lord and my God!” St Paul gives the earliest creed in the Church as ‘Jesus is Lord!” The present tense implies both faith in Jesus’ resurrection and, in the context of baptism, faith in his divinity.
Resurrection was a much more familiar concept in the ancient world than it is in our time. The ancient world was agricultural, and saw the natural world as possessing idyllic, godlike beauty and power, through which divine will was revealed and divine inspiration given to oracles, prophets, and holy men to provide spiritual meaning to earthly events. It was also a world in which seasonal resurrection was visible from the new life of springtime, and summer fruitfulness, to the falling leaves of autumn, and the icy chill of death in winter. Supernatural forces were presupposed as a normal part of daily life. We may remember how after the healing of a cripple, the pagans in Lycaonia tried to worship Barnabas and Paul as Zeus and Hermes. Spirits were seen to animate such transformations. In the Jewish world the Spirit of God was was expected to resurrect prophets like Elijah, to herald the coming of the Christ.
Although John the Baptist denied that he was either Christ or Elijah, he dressed like Elijah and clearly came ‘in the spirit’ of Elijah to prepare the people for the coming of the kingdom of God; and, after John’s execution, Jesus was believed by many people including king Herod Archelaus, to be John the Baptist returning from the dead. So resurrection by the Holy Spirit was not only believed to be a real possibility, but was not expected to be necessarily identifiable by physical appearance.
The question then is how we can come to recognise Christ’s resurrection at such a distance of tie and culture, and why this is of such crucial importance to our faith, not only in Christ but in the Church. In this we may be helped if we reflect first on the difficulties the Gospels tell us his disciples faced in initially recognising the risen Christ
Although the four Gospels give us accounts of the resurrection which took place in the early morning of what we now call Easter Sunday, the earliest written account of a resurrection appearance (probably very soon after the crucifixion) is the one St Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. In this appearance we are told only of a voice speaking out of a blinding light.
Interestingly, Paul in a summary of resurrection appearances in his first letter to the Church in Corinth (1Cor.15:6) refers to another appearance to ‘more than five hundred of the brethren at once, most of whom are still alive,’ to which there is very surprisingly no reference to such a remarkable event with so many living witnesses in any of the Gospels. Could this therefore refer to the same event as Luke’s account of Pentecost at the beginning of his Acts of the Apostles? Many scholars think this is probable. If so, we have to broaden our ideas of the experiences we include in the resurrection to include the blinding light of St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as well as the manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit to a large assembly of people. We do in fact celebrate Pentecost as the final feast of Easter.
The word ‘spirit’ in the ancient world was in fact the same word as ‘breath,’ and so Christ breathing on his apostles signified passing on the Risen life of Christ himself to live on in them, so that from that time onward, the gift of the Holy Spirit can be seen as the most significant part of Christ’s resurrection to live in his Church and people.
The Fourth Gospel reflects the understanding of the Apostolic Church which in the Acts of the Apostles identified the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ manifested at his baptism, passed by Christ to the Apostles and through them to the whole people of God, enabling them to become ‘members’ (or limbs) of the now risen Body of Christ. Christ rises from the dead in us through our baptism and our Holy Communion. In his description of Jesus’ death John tells us that ‘he handed over his spirit.’ In the Upper Room (the place of the Passover Supper) we are told that the Risen Christ breathed on the Apostles to give them and his people the Holy Spirit. His risen presence is therefore renewed in us in every Eucharistic Communion, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is therefore presented liturgically as the climax of the resurrection appearances.
This is of major importance to our own experience of Christ’s resurrection in ourselves. It is why Holy Communion and Confirmation were originally essential components of Baptism as the complete rite of Christian initiation, and why these have remained present in our Easter Vigil, and still are to this day present in baptisms in the Eastern Churches. Baptisms were therefore originally seen as an integral part of the manifestation of the resurrection of Christ in ourselves, the Spirit making, in the words of St Paul, ‘new Christs’ of us as members of his risen Body. Through the Spirit we receive in Baptism and the Eucharist we are ourselves embodied in the resurrection of Christ, which is why the Church can only officially pray to God ‘through, with, and in Jesus Christ the Lord.’
The resurrection of Christ can therefore to be recognised as an ever-present reality in our own. This is what we celebrate every Easter and every Sunday. This gives us a wider, deeper, and, more vitally, an ever-present meaning and level of understanding of the resurrection of Christ – including the purpose and meaning of our annual Lenten and Easter renewal. We are renewing the resurrection of Christ in ourselves.
Through the way in which the resurrection appearances took place, and especially through our own difficulties of recognition and acceptance, they simply provide the way in which we can be shown the real purpose and meaning of Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.’