A constantly reverberating topic on Catholica, as in wider society, is the precise meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — the event that is considered the central defining event of Christianity that sets it apart from all the other systems of religious belief. Theologian, Fr Brian Gleeson CP thought it might be useful for our reflections here on Catholica to re-publish a paper that he originally had published in the Australasian Catholic Record in 2009. It is lengthy and comprehensive analysis of some of the best contemporary analysis of the meaning of the Resurrection by today's theologians. Because of the length of his analysis we are splitting it into five parts and will publish it over the coming five Thursdays. Today Fr Brian introduces what he will be covering in the analysis.
A Contemporary View of the Resurrection...
This commentary revolves around three fundamental questions on the resurrection of Jesus:
The resurrection of Jesus Christ, more than anything else, says that God is both a God of power and a God of surprises. For it was absolutely unexpected that God would raise from the dead the one who died a criminal's death as an apparently failed and disgraced messiah, and one of the most ghastly, shocking, degrading and painful deaths at that, death by crucifixion. But, in fact, the most fundamental belief in the entire NT is that Jesus the Messiah has been raised from the dead, raised to glory with God, made the Lord of the universe, and worthy of worship. This fact of faith is so true, that in the words of Paul, 'at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …' [Phil 2:10-11]. Paul in Romans 10:9 asserts that '… if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.' Paul in 1 Cor 15:14 insists: '…if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.' It is because of the resurrection that Christianity exists. To be a Christian, one must, in fact, believe in the resurrection, both the resurrection of Jesus himself and the resurrection of his followers, the members of the Jesus movement.
By 'the Jesus movement' I mean that movement that grew up around Jesus as a result of the impact he made on his followers both before and especially after his resurrection. It has to do with the rise and spread of Christianity, the Christian faith of his followers. More specifically, early Christianity thought of itself as a kingdom-of-God movement ... its way of life and its raison-d-etre. After the resurrection, its driving force was, in fact, his resurrection from the dead. So the Jesus movement which became the Church was also a resurrection movement.
The perspective of human need...
There are several approaches to the truth of the resurrection. Thus, one can approach it from the perspective of human need. Our experience of, and anxiety about, the destructive power of all kinds of evil, suffering, and death, and our yearnings for life, love, peace and joy, make us ready to hear the good news of the risen Jesus, who offers new life in both the here and now and the hereafter.
The perspective of liturgy...
A second approach to the truth of the resurrection is the encounter with the risen Lord which we may experience in the liturgy, together with its music and visual art. From the beginning Christians have known that the liturgies of baptism plunge them into both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ [Romans 6:3-5], make them members (limbs and cells) of his risen body, and empower them to live a new life. Their celebration of the Eucharist has meant proclaiming the death of the Risen Lord until he comes again [1 Corinthians 11:6]. At the Catholic Eucharist nowadays the acclamations after the Institution Narrative express the same faith in Christ crucified and risen:
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II gives particular prominence to the presence and activity of the risen Lord in the liturgy when it says:
…Christ is always present in his church, especially in liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass both in the person of his minister … and most of all in the eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in church. Lastly, he is present when the church prays and sings, for he has promised "where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them" [Mt 18:20].
The perspective of the biblical data...
But the most fundamental approach of all to the resurrection is the biblical approach which asks: What is the message of the biblical data on the subject? It is this approach which I will principally pursue in this presentation. But it will be appropriate to begin the investigation with a little background to the New Testament idea of resurrection.
THE CONCEPT OF RESURRECTION
In the first century AD, there was a range of belief among Jews about life after death. Some believed in a shadowy existence in Sheol, where the dead are asleep. The Sadducees were well known for denying any continued existence after death at all. For those Jews who had come to believe in resurrection, it meant embodied life. But for Christians, convinced that Jesus was the risen Messiah, what did 'resurrection' mean? In answering that question, something must first be said about what it did not mean. For a start, it was not 'simply a fancy way of saying "Jesus went to heaven when he died"'. Neither did it mean the same thing as the 'exaltation' or 'enthronement' of Jesus. It was not simply a way of describing 'a new spiritual experience, a new sense of forgiveness, an exciting reordering of your private religious interiority'. Neither was it a state of nonphysical bliss in a life after death, which is to say 'that the person concerned was alive and well in a nonphysical sphere while his body was still in a tomb' In the words of Tom Wright, then,
...the word resurrection was only used to describe reimbodiment, not the state of disembodied bliss. Resurrection was not a general word for "life after death" or for "going to be with God" in some general sense. It was the word for what happened when God created newly embodied human beings after whatever intermediate state there might be.
So the first followers of Jesus, his Jewish inner circle, 'really believed Jesus had been reembodied, had been bodily raised from the dead', and that this involved the transformation of Jesus' dead body. The resurrection of Jesus, then, means a personal bodily resurrection, despite the fact that the Judaism of Jesus' day had 'no notion of the resurrection of an individual'. It makes no sense, then, to say that nothing new happened to his dead body, and that it was left to decompose and decay. Neither does it make sense to say that he was resuscitated, simply brought back to this life.
Brian Gleeson CP — This commentary was first published with the title of 'The Resurrection of Jesus and the Jesus Movement' in the Australasian Catholic Record (January 2009). Submitted to Catholica on 05 Nov 2011.
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©2009-11Dr Brian Gleeson CP