Easter is the church’s most important liturgical feast — more important than Christmas, Pentecost, feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary or any of the other holy days of obligation.
The reason that Easter is at the center of the church’s liturgical year is that it celebrates what also is at the center of Christian faith and hope, namely, belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and in its redemptive significance. As St. Paul put it: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
The Scriptures insist that Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The promise and conviction of faith is that those who die and are buried with him will also rise with him to new life (6:3-11).
Jesus was raised from the dead “in order that we may bear fruit for God” (7:4). We have been born anew “into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
The sending of the Holy Spirit could not have occurred until Jesus had been raised and glorified (John 7:39; 16:7). The first thing that the risen Lord did when he appeared to the disciples behind locked doors was to breathe the Holy Spirit upon them (20:19-23).
Within the core of Christian faith and hope in the Resurrection is the conviction that the father who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us (2 Corinthians 4:14), and that those who believe in the risen Lord will themselves be raised on the last day (11:25-26; 6:39-44,54).
We are assured by St. Paul that just as “death came through a human being,” so the Resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
It must be acknowledged, however, that belief in the Resurrection makes exceedingly heavy demands upon one’s intelligence and common sense, even for a committed Christian. That is why all sorts of “rational” explanations have been offered, especially since the 19th century, to take some of the dogmatic sting out of the belief and to make it seem a bit more “reasonable” to sophisticated non-believers whom we count among our friends and associates.
Some have argued that the Resurrection happened to the disciples, but not to Jesus. Thus, the “miracle” of the Resurrection is the extraordinary transformation of the disciples from weak, cowardly followers of the crucified Lord into courageous proclaimers of his Gospel, even to the point of martyrdom.
Others have proposed that the Resurrection was not an event that occurred within our history, but a myth (albeit in the best sense of that word) bearing the message that Jesus’ life was not in vain, that he still lives in those who accept him as their risen Lord and who seek to abide by his teachings in their own lives.
No less problematical is the interpretation given at the opposite end of the theological spectrum, namely, that the Resurrection consisted of the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse in such a literally real fashion that it could have been photographed, if the technology had existed in those days.
If that were the case, why is it that Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him when he stood before them (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; 21:4), and why did some even doubt that it was he (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:41)?
The risen Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as coming and going in a manner unlike that of any mortal body (Luke 24:31; John 20:19,26). Mark says explicitly that he appeared “in another form” (Mark 16:12), and St. Paul insists that Jesus underwent a marvelous transformation (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The literalist, or fundamentalist, interpretation of the Resurrection ignores the metaphorical character of the biblical language about the Resurrection and the symbolic imagery used by Paul, who describes the risen Jesus in terms of “a spiritual body” and “a life-giving spirit” (15:44,45).
Somewhere in between these two approaches — the one denying, in effect, the supernatural character of the Resurrection, and the other denying its uniquely spiritual dimension — lies the church’s traditional affirmation of faith, namely, that the Resurrection is something that happened to Jesus, but beyond the normal limits of human experience, that it is at the heart of his redemptive work on our behalf, and that it is the foundation of our hope in our own bodily resurrection into eternal life.
Easter is surely the time to think more deeply about such things.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.