What Easter means Print
Word on Fire
Tuesday, Apr. 29, 2014 -- 1:21 PM

In first century Judaism, there were many views concerning what happened to people after they died.

Following a very venerable tradition, some said that death was the end, that the dead simply returned to the dust of the earth from which they came.

Others maintained that the righteous dead would rise at the close of the age. Still others thought that the souls of the just went to live with God after the demise of their bodies. There were even some who believed in a kind of reincarnation.

Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection

What is particularly fascinating about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is that none of these familiar frameworks of understanding is invoked.

The first witnesses maintain that the same Jesus, who had been brutally and unmistakably put to death and buried was, through the power of God, alive again. He was not vaguely “with God,” nor had his soul escaped from his body; nor had he risen in a purely symbolic or metaphorical sense.

He, Jeshoua from Nazareth, the friend whom they knew, was alive again. What was expected for all the righteous dead at the end of time had happened, in time, to this one particular man, to this Jesus.

On practically every page of the New Testament, we find a grab-you-by-the-lapels quality. They were trying to tell the whole world that something so new and astounding had happened that nothing would again be the same.

Reducing message to myth, symbol

Many thinkers -- both inside and outside the Christian Churches -- endeavored to reduce the resurrection message to myth or symbol. Easter, they argued, was one more iteration of the “springtime saga” that can be found in most cultures, namely, that life triumphs over death in the “resurrection” of nature after the bleak months of winter. Or it was a symbolic way of saying that the cause of Jesus lives on in his followers.

But as C.S. Lewis keenly observed, those who think the resurrection story is a myth haven’t read many myths. Mythic literature deals in ahistorical archetypes, and thus it tends to speak of things that happened “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away.”

But the Gospels don’t use that sort of language. In describing the resurrection, they mention particular places like Judea and Jerusalem, they specify that the event took place when Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of the region, and they name distinct individuals -- Peter, John, Thomas --who encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead.

Moreover, no one dies defending mythic claims. There are no martyrs to Zeus or Dionysus or Osiris. But practically all of the first heralds of the resurrection went to their deaths defending the truth of their message.

Rethinking order and violence

Yet assuming the resurrection is true, what does it mean? It means, first, that the customary manner in which we understand the relationship between order and violence has to be rethought. On the standard Realpolitik reading of things, order comes about through the violent imposition of strength. And if that order is lost or compromised, it must be restored through answering violence.

In Jesus’ time, the great principle of order was the Empire of Rome, which maintained its hold through the exertions of its massive army and the imposition of harsh punishment on those who opposed its purposes. The most terrible and fearsome of these punishments was the cross, a brutal mode of torture purposely carried out in public to have greatest deterrent effect. It was on one of these crosses that Jesus was put to death.

When the risen Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples, they were afraid. Their fear might not have been a function of their seeing something uncanny; it might have been grounded in the assumption that he was back for vengeance.

However, after showing his wounds, the risen Jesus said to his friends, “Shalom” (Peace). The teacher who had urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to meet violence with forgiveness exemplified his own teaching in the most vivid way possible.

What he showed was that the divine manner of establishing order has nothing to do with violence, retribution, or eye-for-an-eye retaliation. Instead, it has to do with a love which swallows up hate, with a forgiveness which triumphs over aggression.

God didn’t give up on his creation

Secondly, the resurrection means that God has not given up on his creation. According to the account in Genesis, God made the whole array of things -- sun, moon, planets, stars, animals, plants -- and found it all very good. There is not a hint of dualism or Manichaeism in the Biblical vision, no setting of the spiritual over and against the material.

Human sin made a wreck of God’s creation, turning the garden into a desert. But the faithful God kept sending rescue operation after rescue operation: Noah’s Ark, the prophets, the Law and the Temple, the people Israel itself.

Finally, he sent his only Son, the perfect icon or incarnation of his love. In raising that Son from the dead, God definitively saved and ratified his creation, very much including the material dimension of it (which is why it matters that Jesus was raised bodily from death).

Over and again, we have said no to what God has made, but God stubbornly says yes. Inspired by this divine yes, we always have a reason to hope.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org