What does it mean to say we believe in Jesus' resurrection?
Belief in the Resurrection is at the heart and center of Christian faith. St. Paul insisted that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Every year at Easter, homilies, pastoral letters and columns like this reaffirm that historic faith -- so much so, and in such familiar terms, that they run the risk of reducing faith in the Resurrection to a kind of religious boilerplate.
What does it mean, after all, to say that Jesus, who was crucified on Good Friday, rose from his tomb three days later?
The New Testament indicates that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Easter morning. Many claimed to have seen the risen Lord, and some were dramatically transformed by the experience.
The early Christians were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, in spite of the fact that not even his closest disciples expected it to happen. That was evident from what transpired on the road to Emmaus later that day.
Two of the disciples were on their way to the Village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, conversing “about all the things that had occurred” (Luke 24:14). Jesus came alongside and began to walk with them. Luke writes that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (v. 16).
Jesus asked them what they had been discussing. They met his question with some measure of disbelief: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”
“What sort of things?” Jesus pressed them.
The two disciples, one of whom was named Cleopas, told him how the chief priests and rulers had handed over Jesus the Nazarene, “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” to be crucified (vv. 19-20).
They acknowledged, with palpable regret, their hopes that this Jesus “would be the one to redeem Israel.” At the same time, they were perplexed by reports from some of the women in their group who had gone to the tomb early that morning and found it empty.
These same women also reported seeing a “vision of angels” who announced that Jesus was actually alive. Some of the other disciples had rushed to the tomb and “found things just as the women had described” (v. 24).
At which point Jesus chastised the two disciples for their slowness to believe what the prophets had spoken. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then he proceeded to interpret for them Moses and the other prophets.
As the three approached Emmaus, the visitor gave the impression that he intended to go on farther, by himself. Since it was almost evening, the two disciples urged him to stay and to share some food with them.
Luke reports that, while he was with them at table, “he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (vv. 30-31). And then he immediately vanished from their sight.
As the two disciples reflected on that fleeting experience, they acknowledged that their “hearts (were) burning” as he opened the Scriptures to them. They returned to Jerusalem at once to tell the Apostles what had taken place on the road to Emmaus and “how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (vv. 33, 35).
While they were still recounting the events of the early evening, Jesus stood in their midst, greeting them with the salutation, “Peace be with you” (v. 36).
The Gospel describes the Apostles and the other disciples as “startled and terrified,” as if “they were seeing a ghost” (v. 37), so unprepared were they for the reality of the Resurrection.
Jesus invited them to look at his hands and feet and to touch him. And to drive home the point that he was not a ghost, he asked for something to eat. They gave him a piece of baked fish, which he ate in front of them (vv. 41-43).
After speaking some more about the meaning of the Scriptures, he led them out as far as Bethany, which was about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. There he blessed them before being “taken up to heaven” (v. 51).
This is what Scripture tells us. The more important question remains: Does the Resurrection make any difference to us today?
Apart from this question, we are left only with Easter boilerplate.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.