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Easter Day

28 March 2018

Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy

The Three Marys at the Sepulchre, c.1440 by Hubert van Eyck (c.1370-1426)

The Three Marys at the Sepulchre, c.1440 by Hubert van Eyck (c.1370-1426)

Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; John 20.1-18

“IN THE event of the resurrection all previous schemata come to their fulfilment and suffer their breakdown at one and the same time” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The mystery of Easter). This glorious reality is communicated most clearly in the liturgy of the Easter vigil. The resurrection fulfils the promises recounted in its Old Testament readings, and yet it also exceeds all that had been imagined or desired by God’s people.

The risen Lord is both physically continuous with the Crucified One — the tomb is empty — and yet he shines with the glory of the new creation. In the words of our Easter collect, he has “overcome the old order of sin and death to make all things new in him”. He is the first-fruits of the world to come.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we are given theological accounts of the first creation. God both calls the universe into being and crowns his creation by creating human beings: creatures capable of consciousness, agency, and love. Neither of these acts of creation is fully captured and explained in the concepts of natural science. For the writers of the New Testament and of the Early Church, the resurrection is an event of an equally cosmic significance.

These writers are clear that it is Jesus’s physical body that has been raised and transformed. The New Testament’s witness emphatically rejects the notion that the disciples have simply had a vision. Jesus is not alive just “in their hearts” or even “in the heavens”. In our reading from Acts, Peter is clear that those “chosen by God as witnesses” ate and drank with Jesus “after he rose from the dead”. As St Severus of Antioch notes, the risen Christ had no need to eat and drink, but did so to “totally drive away the idea” that his resurrection body was an “apparition” or “phantasm”.

Early Christian writers make much of the fact that the resurrection occurred on the day after the sabbath. St Justin Martyr wrote that “the first day after the sabbath, remaining the first of all the days, is called, however, the eighth.” The description of Easter as the “eighth day” expresses the fact that, in the resurrection, time intersects with eternity in an unprecedented manner. Easter completes God’s work of creation in a way that both fulfils and exceeds the hopes and longings of his people.

The Church’s sacramental life enables the Christian to enter into the “eighth day” of God’s new creation. This is reflected in the symbolism of baptism: it is the reason that, from early times, fonts have traditionally been octagonal.

In the light of Easter, the Early Church transferred its principal day of worship from the sabbath to this first and “eighth” day of the week. Sunday by Sunday, in our celebration of the eucharist, time intersects with eternity as the Church is drawn into the “never-ceasing Sabbath of the Lord” (Common Worship eucharistic preface for Sundays after Trinity). What we now see in part will be made complete in the life of the world to come.

The resurrection narratives hold together this message of cosmic renewal with a striking personal intimacy. In von Balthasar’s words, when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, it is a word that “reaches to the heart”. The risen Christ is resplendent in glory, and yet he remains intimate in his dealings with each of his children.

Here, as in all the resurrection stories, the moment of encounter with the risen Christ leads on to an act of sending out. Mary Magdalene is told not to cling on to the body of her resurrected Lord, but is sent to proclaim the good news to the other disciples. Through this encounter, she becomes the apostle to the apostles.

The resurrection also begins to form the body of the Church. Through the witness of Mary Magdalene, who had stayed faithful at the cross, the risen Christ gathers the disciples who had scattered after his arrest. Our epistle describes this process of gathering and sending out, including Christ’s appearance to Paul “as to someone untimely born”.

As von Balthasar observes, the risen Lord gathers and sends out the members of his Church in each new generation: “We travel our way of the Cross only in his power, and his hope who, as the Risen One, has already won the victory.”

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