“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, reminds us so clearly that the Resurrection of Jesus is the central point of our faith. We celebrate our faith in new life in this Easter Vigil as we prepare to initiate two adults into the fullness of faith in Jesus the Risen Lord through Baptism.
As we celebrate Easter, each of us must ask ourselves is the resurrection really the central focus of our own faith? What do we understand by ‘resurrection’? Resurrection is not easy to understand. You will recall the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration. Jesus for an instant appeared not in his earthly form but in a different way, surrounded by symbols of biblical history, in conversation with God the Father and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The disciples who were with him were stunned by that experience and clearly could not fully understand it.
You can imagine the urge they had to tell the other disciples something of what they had witnessed, but Jesus tells them not to speak of this event until after he had “risen from the dead”. But they were even more confused and asked what Jesus could have possibly have meant when he spoke of “rising from the dead”. Resurrection is not easy for us humans to understand.
Resurrection baffles human understanding. Jesus’s references to his resurrection were consistently misunderstood by both his disciples and his enemies. Many thought they he was speaking about a destruction of the Temple which he was claiming he would restore after three days, something which was absurd and was easily exploited by his accusers to claim that he was a blasphemer or an imposter or false prophet.
Resurrection baffles human understanding. The resurrection of Jesus is something different from other examples of people who had been called from the dead, such as Lazarus or the daughter of Jairos. They returned to life as their life had originally been and eventually died definitively.
Jesus did not rise to the same way of life. His appearances show that the life he attained after the resurrection was something different. Jesus’ resurrection was rising into a new life, no longer subject to death. The resurrection is impossible to understand in our human categories, precisely because it radically changes human categories and changes human history. Resurrection is not simply something that happened to Jesus at a single moment in history. Resurrection changes history and opens a new future for all humanity
Even those disciples who had encountered the Risen Lord needed time to come to a full understanding of this new reality. The mystery of Christ’s death which we have celebrated in these days is also one which defies our human categories. How can the Son of God die? How can the God of goodness and of love and of life be revealed through a Jesus who allows himself to be handed into hands of the powers of darkness so that he would die the death of a criminal. That fact of history changes history and the definition of what is victorious in history. The death of Jesus shows how the power of love can conquer even the deepest darkness.
The resurrection changes human history and it changes all our understating of who Jesus is. Had Jesus remained dead, we would be talking – to use the phrase of Pope Benedict – about a Jesus who was, but our faith is in a Jesus who is.
The disciples who encountered the Risen Lord were also confused and it took time for them to fully fathom what the reality they had experienced was about. Jesus had laid the foundation through his many references to the Jewish scriptures. The disciples on the road to Emmaus, after all that they had witnessed and heard, were still totally confused and downhearted. It took Jesus’ own explanation of the words of the scriptures to help them understand the significance of the resurrection and then for their hearts to burn with the newness of their understanding.
The fact that Jesus is and remains not just an interesting figure of past history changes our understanding of him. Had he simply died he would certainly still have remained an interesting figure about whom we could talk and discuss and find a range of human wisdom in his teaching which could guide our lives. But that would not be faith and it would never lead us to understand who Jesus is. Jesus is not just a master of human wisdom. He is the one who through his death and resurrection has opened up the path to sonship with him in the triune God.
Resurrection is not something that can be proven within the categories of human science, because it is something which takes us beyond those categories into a new form of existence, one to which we are invited through our faith in Jesus Christ, even today on our earthly journey. Jesus is neither a wise man from distant history nor just a restored corpse. Jesus is new humanity which opens unheard of hope for us, even now.
That is the challenge of the Christian life. As believers in a risen Christ, we are called to risen life. Our hope in resurrection must push us to be in the forefront of the transformation of human existence as we find it around us today. When we realise that human life is to be transformed, then we have to be in the forefront in rejecting anything that degrades humankind. To be indifferent to what degrades even a single one of our brothers and sisters is to deride at what resurrection is telling us. Faith in the resurrection is not an opting out of the challenges which we encounter in our world, leaving everything to eventual rewards in the next life. Resurrection means that Jesus is with us now; he not just waiting somewhere for us in some unknown future.
There are so many ways in which human life is degraded. There are so many in our world for whom going-on living seems to have become too much and they feel abandoned and despondent, or have lost that sense of the worth which is imbedded in then. There is the horror of the trafficking and exploitation of men, women and children, for economic reasons, for sexual gratification and for personal satisfaction. There is a world in which harsh poverty still exists parallel to a world of wealth and indifference. Christians are called to be men and women who treasure life in the depth of its meaning and not in the superficial satisfactions which society often offers. Christians are called to be men and women who treasure life in the depth of its meaning and thus be leaders in the fight for human dignity.
Every human life has its value. Every apparently failed human life maintains its value and the Christian must be a witness and a beam of light and hope for those who have lost that hope and no longer see light in their future or are attracted to the temptation of bright lights on the wrong roads.
The resurrection is the sign of life and hope for all, even in a world where the message of Jesus is not understood or indeed is subject to hostility. The light of Christ is a light which challenges. Sadly in our world a frightening hostility to those who espouse that light often appears. I cannot celebrate the light of Christ this night without thinking of those students in Kenya who were singled out one by one to be killed precisely because of their Christian identity. I think of the horrors being carried out against Christians by groups such as Boko Haram. I think of all Christian believers who have to celebrate this Christian festival of Easter light in the deepest of darkness.
The light of Christ has been distorted over history, of course, also by Christian believers themselves through our sinfulness, our uncaring, our intolerance or our desire to impose and to dominate. But the light is of the Christian message is constantly being rekindled in the hearts of believers by the light of the resurrection, just as this evening the light of Christ appeared in our midst as one single light shining alone in the darkness of this Cathedral. Now it has burst out into the brilliance of a celebration of new life.
The light of Christ challenges but it is always a light of love and respect and a light which leads us beyond our narrow human categories and limits to wish to conquer the power of darkness, not by violence and revenge, but through our conviction that Jesus Christ is truly risen and lives in our history and opens the path to a renewed humanity to those who turn to him in faith.
- Photographs from this evening’s Easter Vigil will be available from John Mc Elroy Photos 087 2416985