How not to understand the Resurrection
On Easter Sunday morning I go to the tomb in the company of faith-filled women who have followed Jesus with the greatest devotion throughout these days of his suffering and death. I am once again privileged to celebrate the Triduum and Easter Sunday with the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of St Cecilia’s on the Isle of Wight.
With loving reverence, by devoutly proclaiming the Scriptures and celebrating Christ’s action in the liturgy, we have re-lived with powerful intensity the saving events of Christ’s Passover and our redemption and received an outpouring of grace. Now the Gospel narrates how first the women and then Peter and John come to the empty tomb on the morning of the first day.
We live in an age which, for all its hedonism – or because of all of it – is profoundly alienated from the body. Only such an alienation could sustain the notion that one’s gender is nothing to do with one’s body, but an attitude or projection of the mind.
And only in such a self-absorbed age could a theology gain ground which claims as a more sophisticated expression of faith the notion that when the Apostles proclaimed the Resurrection they were expressing the conviction that “in a very real sense” Jesus was still present in their memories – or they were expressing the belief that his message would live on in their hearts. Surely this is itself a modern attempt to live by myth, rather than a recognition of the hard logic of the Gospel which understands that such a “resurrection”, is nothing of the sort?
If what the Scriptures were intended to convey was that Jesus “in a very real sense” lived on in spirit, they would have been less adamant about proclaiming the emptiness of his tomb. It is this insistence that the body is not there, along with the initial logical conclusion on the part of Mary Magdalene that therefore someone must have taken it away, which grounds it in reality. In other words, as St John says, one fails to understand the Scripture that “He must rise from the dead” if such a claim is predicated on anything other than a bodily resurrection.
As anyone who has ever seen a dead body would realise, the claim of a “resurrection” which sought to ignore the existence of a corpse somewhere would be unreal. It could not hope to gain currency even among the most credulous in an age which had not yet learnt our own denial of death, our “death is nothing at all” mythology. The “de-mythologising” of the Resurrection is nothing of the sort; it is actually a mythologising of something far more grounded in order to more accurately reflect contemporary attitudes, especially that it is my thoughts which give life to things.
Death is, in a sense, everything, or rather it overshadows everything. It will not yield to the control which the human psyche longs to assert over all things. I cannot think beyond it. For this reason, the sensible person realises that the claim of Jesus’s bodily resurrection belongs to a science of a higher order than an empirical one. “Mirabilis facta est scientia tua,” sing the nuns for the introit, invoking the words of Psalm 139: “Too wonderful for me this knowledge, too high, beyond my reach.” One can only believe it based on faith, the supernatural gift of God which enables one to believe without doubting what God has revealed.
Do those tragic and glorious contemporary martyrs in Syria and Iraq go to their deaths with the comforting thought that “in some real sense” there is a life after death based on the memory of others or one’s ethical witness? I am sure they don’t. They are the ones living and dying in reality, and showing us how to live our faith as the thing of flesh and blood it is.
They know, as St Paul also says, that if Christ isn’t risen from the dead then our faith is in vain, and by “risen” he means that the body which died on the Cross, which lay in the tomb, lives. Jesus is more fully himself despite having undergone the apparent ending of all we think of as human life. “Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere,” sing the nuns: we know Christ is truly risen. We know because of the apostolic witness, the centuries of saints and martyrs who lived and died by this truth, and because of a conviction of the heart that is sweeter and more joyful than anything one could invent.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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