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Jesus Christ is risen indeed

by
28 March 2013

The power of Jesus's indestructible life - his bodily resurrection - is critical for our faith, argues Robin Ward

IAIN MCKILLOP/ST JOHN’S, BURY ST EDMUNDS

Resurrection: an altarpiece by Iain McKillop, in St John's, Bury St Edmunds

Resurrection: an altarpiece by Iain McKillop, in St John's, Bury St Edmunds

The strife is o'er, the battle done;
Now is the Victor's triumph won;
O let the song of praise be sung.
Alleluia!

THE resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the fundamental proclamation of the Christian faith, beginning with the testimony of the apostles in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are witnesses," (Acts 2.32). But why is the bodily resurrection of Jesus so important; and how can something that happened 2000 years ago, however miraculous, affect us now?

The Letter to the Hebrews explains two fundamental truths about the work of Jesus Christ. First, Jesus is made like us, so that he can be a truly obedient priest who takes our sins away: "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2.17).

Second, what he earns by his obedience is not just for himself, but for all whom he redeems: "For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2.10).

The death of Jesus on the cross earns us our salvation, and it does so in four complementary ways. It is a work of merit, in which the Son of God, through obedient love, earns us the reward of everlasting life. It is a work of satisfaction, in which the price is paid for human sin.

It is a work of sacrifice, in which perfect adoration is offered to God by the only one fit to do so. It is a work of redemption, by which we are freed from enslavement to evil and the dominion of death. But the work of redemption on the cross needs to be accepted, and it needs to be applied; by raising Jesus from the dead, God does both.

Resurrection is emphatically something that happens to a body, the body of Jesus in the tomb. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker emphasises this continuity between the body that Jesus receives at the incarnation, from his mother, and the body that rises on Easter Day, and is now glorified at the right hand of the Father in heaven: "a body still it continueth, a body consubstantial with our bodies, a body of the same both nature and measure which it had on earth."

Two points are crucial here. First, by divine power, life is restored to what had been dead: as St Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God." Second, the body so raised remains definitively human - the human body of the divine Word, imbued with all the glory of heaven, but still a body like ours, from which we are able to receive the vitality of Christ's risen life.

 

DEATH is the absolute destruction of what it is to be human, because it destroys the body. There is a chilling moment in C. S. Lewis's novel Perelandra, when the diabolical Dr Weston confronts the hero, and tells how he dreamed he had just died and was laid out in the hospital.

Another, more sinister corpse appears at the bottom of the bed, full of hatred for the vestige of the human form that the recently dead man still possesses: "I began like that. We all did. Just wait and see what you come down to in the end."

St Thomas Aquinas says that "if my body is corrupted, I shall proclaim nothing to anyone; I shall be of no use whatever." The resurrection of the Son of God is therefore a resurrection of the body, a work of divine power in which the Christ who obediently glorified the Father on the cross is, in turn, glorified by him, and in the flesh. This is what Peter preaches at Pentecost: "For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let you Holy One experience corruption" (Acts 2.27).

When Aquinas thinks about the resurrection, he sees it in just this way: a truth about Jesus, and a truth about us. He calls it a demonstration of God's justice, in which the one who freely humbled himself "even to death on a cross" receives a glorious resurrection. It is a revelation of Christ's godhead, as it definitively confirms what the "deeds of power, wonders, and signs" (Acts 2.22) that accompanied his ministry taught.

It is a sign of hope for us, because the one who is our head has already obtained what we long for: the promise of resurrection. By his rising, our lives receive a new moral orientation, so that, as Paul writes to the Romans, "you also must consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6.11).

Finally, the work of our salvation is completed, in that as by enduring the suffering of the cross, Christ delivered us from evil, so in rising from the dead, he might advance us to the prospect of sharing in his glory.

 

THE glory of the risen Lord is preached repeatedly in the New Testament as characteristic of the resurrection: "Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God" (1 Peter 1.21).

But the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us that the sign of visible glory is noticeably absent from the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Why is this? Paul writes to the Corinthians that God has "shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4.6). In the Gospel narratives, the reality of the resurrection is demonstrated by clear signs of continuity between the body of the Lord before and after his resurrection. He eats and drinks, sees and hears, talks and reasons. So we learn that he is the same human person. But he also appears in a hidden form to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, only to be revealed in the breaking of bread.

We will know the risen Jesus not by seeing his glory visibly, but by the knowledge of it in our hearts, which comes from the preaching of the mystery of the cross. Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, the "face of Jesus Christ" for us will be his presence revealed in the scriptures, and given to us as our food in the eucharist.

The risen and glorified humanity of Jesus Christ is instrumental in bringing about our salvation. Hooker says: "It possesses a presence of force and efficacy throughout all generations of men . . . infinite in possibility of application." It was this teaching that so exercised the Church's greatest theologian of the person of Christ, St Cyril of Alexandria, in his controversy with Nestorius in the fifth century: "As God he is by nature Life, and because he has become one with his own flesh he rendered it vitalising."

Hooker describes our participation in the life of the risen Christ as being "partly by imputation", the merit of the cross applied to us for the remission of sins, and "partly by habitual and real infusion" - what St Paul describes when he writes to the Galatians: "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2.20).

For Cyril of Alexandria, this real infusion of the life of the living Christ finds its culmination in the eucharist. He writes to Nestorius: "When we perform in church the unbloody service, we receive not mere flesh (God forbid!) or flesh of a man hallowed by connection with the Word . . . but the personal, truly vitalising flesh of God the Word himself." In the sacraments, and in particular in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, Jesus gives us his resurrection life: "But the one who eats this bread will live for ever" (John 6.58).

 

JESUS's resurrection causes our salvation, but also shows us how we are to be saved. Christ does not rise alone: Matthew's Gospel reminds us that at the moment of his death on the cross, many saints of the old covenant are raised, and appear in Jerusalem after the resurrection (Matthew 27.52-3). When Dante describes the souls of the blessed in heaven in the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy, he has them say: "The lustre which already swathes us round Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long Day after day now moulders underground."

Immortality, survival after death, even the vision of God enjoyed by the souls of the just - these things are not in themselves the consummation of the Christian hope. The Christian hope is one of bodily resurrection, as Paul writes to the Philippians: "He will transform the body of our humiliation, so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory" (Philippians 3.21).

The monastic writer Blessed Columba Marmion compares the linen cloths left in the tomb after the resurrection to our infirmities, which they symbolise: "He comes forth from the sepulchre; his liberty is entire; he is animated with intense, perfect life with which all the fibres of his being vibrate. In him, all that is mortal is absorbed by life."

 

The spiritual body of which St Paul speaks, and for which we hope, is realised in the resurrection of Christ. The dominion of sin, death, and corruption is defeated, and he who is our head receives "the power of an indestructible life" (Hebrews 7.6).

This indestructible life is our Easter faith and hope. It is indestructible because it is the human life of the Son of God, and it is powerful because it gives to sinful human beings the fruits of the Passion: forgiveness of sins, victory over death, and the promise of eternal life.

Come, let us taste the Vine's new fruit,
For heavenly joy preparing;
Today the branches with the Root
In Resurrection sharing:
Whom as true God our hymns adore
For ever and for evermore.
St John Damascene

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