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Fr McGovern


The Resurrection: Objective Fact or Pious Delusion?

                                                                             by Thomas McGovern

In much of recent writing about the Resurrection there is a tendency to attenuate the historical objectivity of this central mystery of our faith. It is suggested that the post-paschal faith of the disciples is based more on a subjective conviction of a spiritual experience rather than on a physical encounter with the Risen Christ. The root of this attitude is not difficult to find. It has its source in a philosophy of immanentist provenance, and in a theological approach epitomized by the Bultmann school of exegesis. There is also involved a rationalist attitude to the faith which cannot tolerate mystery and will not accept the obscurity of the supernatural. Implicit in many of these commentaries is the acceptance of a radical discontinuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith.

            The Resurrection cannot be seen as an isolated occurrence in the history of salvation. To try to understand something of the extraordinary ontological and salvific richness of this unique event, it is necessary to consider it in the context of the whole of the divine intervention in human history. We have also to remind ourselves when dealing with these profound mysteries of the faith that we can only speak in analogical language, that our finite minds can only grasp in a very limited way the full truth of a mystery such as the Resurrection.

            The failure to see the Resurrection in the context of divine revelation as a whole is perhaps one of the major deficiencies in much of modern commentary about it. There is certainly a sharp focussing on the immediate post-Resurrection events, but little attention is given to the Resurrection in the light of the Gospel as a whole, not to mention the Old Testament tradition relevant to this event. This is a defective methodology because it is, effectively, anti-historical. It also ignores the method used by Christ himself to explain the reality of the Resurrection, the way he unfolded the mystery to the two disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus does not get involved in details about the empty tomb or the credibility of the women as witnesses, points which the two disciples had referred to in the earlier part of their conversation with the Master. He shows them that it is only by reflecting on Sacred Scripture as a whole that they will be in a position to begin to understand what took place in Jerusalem at first light on this momentous day in human history. The reaction of the disciples speaks for itself: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Their minds were now prepared to recognize the risen Lord and they hastened back to Jerusalem to tell the good news to the apostles. Here we have confirmation of one of the basic principles of interpretation of Sacred Scripture which was articulated by Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – the Catholic exegete, if he is to be true to his ecclesial mission, must take account of the content and the unity of the whole of Sacred Scripture to arrive at an orthodox and unbiased interpretation of the biblical text.[1] This hermeneutical principle ensures that no particular event will be taken in isolation. The Bible is a divinely inspired work and consequently there is an overall integrity of content and purpose as befits its divine author. As the present Holy Father has pointed out, “the Resurrection is a truth which, in its deepest dimension, pertains to divine Revelation. It had gradually been revealed by Christ in the course of his messianic activity during the pre-paschal period. Several times Jesus had explicitly foretold that, after having suffered much and been put to death he would rise again.”[2]

Historicity of Gospels affirmed

How are we to judge exegetical methods which seem to argue for the non-historicity of the gospel narratives? To guide exegetes and, indeed, the faithful, the Church has, in its recent magisterium, given clear indications on how to read Sacred Scripture so as to arrive at a true appreciation of the content and inerrancy of the inspired text. The instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission concerning the historical truth of the Gospels, which was issued in 1964, outlines the stages which led up to the recording of the life and teachings of Christ by the inspired authors. [3] It reminds us that Christ's disciples “understood the miracles and other events of the life of Jesus correctly”; that “they faithfully explained his life and words,” and that “after Jesus rose from the dead and his divinity was clearly perceived, faith, far from destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus did and taught,” on the gesta et verba Christi. The instruction goes on to emphasize that there was no question of Christ being changed into a “mythical” person as a consequence of the worship which the disciples paid to Jesus as Son of God after the Resurrection. On the contrary, because of the fuller understanding of Christ's teaching which the apostles possessed as a result of the Resurrection, and the coming upon them of the Spirit of Truth, they were able to pass on to their hearers, in all its objective truth, the teaching and events of the life of Christ by their preaching as well as in the gospel accounts.

            The historicity of the gospel narratives was again clearly stated in the Vatican II document on divine Revelation: “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained, and continues to maintain, that the four gospels ... whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among us, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until he was taken up.” [4] The text stresses that the evangelists “always taught the honest truth about Jesus.” It is interesting to note that in the redaction of this part of the conciliar document the words “until the day he was taken up into heaven” were included in the fifth and final draft specifically to affirm the faith of the Church in the historicity of the Resurrection narratives. [5]

Papal teaching is clear

While these statements of the Magisterium confirm for us the traditional teaching of the Church on Christ's Resurrection, recent papal magisteriuni develops this central truth with even greater clarity and theological penetration. As part of a comprehensive catechesis on many aspects of Christology, the Holy Father, in the early part of 1989, devoted a number of addresses to the subject of the Resurrection. [6]

            By comparison with much of current literature on this topic, there is an exceptional clarity and freshness about the teaching of John Paul II. It is refreshing to be confronted with the clear wellsprings of two thousand years of Christian Tradition about the mystery of the Risen One, and with an exegetical style which respects, as is to be expected, not only Catholic hermeneutical principles, but also draws on the best that the human sciences have contributed to biblical exegesis as well. The Holy Father sets the intellectual tone of his enquiry at the very beginning of his first address on this topic: “We shall seek to investigate ‘with minds bowed down,’ the mystery expressed by the dogma and contained in the fact, by beginning with the biblical texts which attest it.” [7]

            He starts with an exegesis of the pauline text (1 Cor. 15:3-8), which he affirms is “the oldest written testimony to Christ's Resurrection” (about A.D. 57). [8] It is clear from the text that Paul is passing on a written tradition, citing Peter and James as the two principle witnesses to the event; he is not only describing an occurrence which is a fulfilment of the Scriptures, but is also articulating a faith which is based on the testimony of specific individuals (more than five hundred) known to the Christians, most of whom are still living. It is from this perspective that John Paul II confronts those arguments which propose to mitigate the physical reality of the Resurrection. The papal text has a compelling clarity about it and deserves to be quoted in full:

In the face of this Pauline text those hypotheses are untenable which seek in different ways to interpret Christ's resurrection by abstracting it from the physical order in such a way as not to recognize it as a historical fact. Such for example, is the hypothesis that the resurrection was merely a kind of interpretation of Christ's state after his death (a state of life, and not of death). Again, another interpretation reduces the resurrection to the influence which Christ, after his death, did not cease to exercise – and indeed resumed with new and irresistible power  – on his disciples. These hypotheses seem to imply a prejudicial opposition to the reality of the resurrection, which was considered solely as the “product” of the situation, that is to say of the Jerusalem community. Neither the prejudice nor the interpretation is supported by the facts. St. Paul, on the contrary, in the text quoted, has recourse to eye-witnesses of the “fact”. His conviction about Christ's resurrection is therefore based on a fact of experience. [9]

Apostles were eye-witnesses

After pointing out that the argument “from the facts” was used by the first Christian community in Jerusalem in the election of Matthias – that the apostles required as a primary condition for the man to succeed Judas Iscariot that he not only be someone who had accompanied Jesus during the years of his public life, but, especially, that he should be “a witness to his resurrection” – the Holy Father goes on to say, “the resurrection cannot therefore be presented as a 'product' of the first Christian community, that of Jerusalem, as is done by a certain brand of New Testament criticism which has scant respect for historical data. The truth about the resurrection is not a product of the faith of the apostles or of the other disciples before or after the Pasch.” [10]

            This hypothesis is refuted by the incredulous reaction of the apostles when told the news of the empty tomb by the holy women. Likewise when Christ appeared to them he had to calm their fears and get rid of their doubts: “touch me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that 1 have” (Luke 24:39). Thomas, likewise, has to be convinced by Christ (cf. John 20:24-29), causing the Master to give a special proof that his risen body was quite real. As John Paul II comments, “Thomas' difficulty in admitting the resurrection without having personally experienced the presence of the living Jesus, and then his yielding in the presence of the proofs offered to him by Jesus himself, confirm the evidence of the Gospels concerning the reluctance of the apostles and disciples to admit the resurrection. The hypothesis that the resurrection is a ‘produet’ of the faith (or of the credulity) of the apostles is therefore illogical. Their faith in the resurrection comes, on the contrary – under the action of divine grace – from the direct experience of the reality of the risen Christ.” [11]

            Christ is not satisfied in asking the apostles to believe in his Resurrection on the basis of what they see alone – he invites them to test the evidence before their eyes by the most physical of the senses – by touch. [12] Thomas, specifically, is given the immense privilege of placing his fingers in the wounds left by the crucifixion – in the marks of the nails in the hands and feet, in the open side where the soldier's lance had done its savage work. It is the same material body which had been taken down from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but now glorified because of being endowed with those special properties which were to become more evident to the disciples in subsequent apparitions.

Faith: Conviction based on fact

This encounter between Thomas and the Risen Christ is one of stark realism; yet at the same time it is a moment of exquisite beauty and charm with immense theological implications. The aggressive, almost defiant, doubting of Thomas is used by Jesus to confirm not only Thomas's faith in the Resurrection, but the faith of every Christian who would read or listen to this event as recorded by St John. [13] As St. Gregory the Great points out in his commentary on this passage: “God's clemency acted in this wonderful way so that through the doubting disciple touching the wounds of his Master's body, our own wounds of incredulity might be healed ... And so the disciple, doubting and touching, was changed into a witness for the truth of the Resurrection.” [14]

            It is Christ himself who takes the initiative in going in search of the apostles to bring them to believe in his Resurrection; this is especially so in the case of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (cf. Luke 24:13-35). A narrative of exceptional literary quality and charm, it rejects all efforts to subject it to a demythologizing process by exegetes who, having lost faith in the historicity of the gospels, have wandered off on the more esoteric road of Bultmannian exegesis.

            The credal profession of faith in the Resurrection is based on the gospel texts, which in turn transmit the early preaching of the apostles. [15] John Paul II returns again to this fundamental point in the second of his addresses on this topic. “Faith in the resurrection,” he affirms, “is from the beginning a conviction based on a fact, a real event; it is not based on a myth or on a ‘conception’, an idea thought up by the Apostles or invented by the post-paschal community gathered around the Apostles at Jerusalem in order to overcome together with them the disappointment following upon Christ's death on the cross. The texts show quite the contrary, and therefore, as I said, the hypothesis put forward is also critically and historically untenable. The Apostles and the disciples did not invent the resurrection; it is easy to understand that they were quite incapable of doing so.” [16] The theory of the creative activity of the early Christian community as a source of faith in the Resurrection is also comprehensively dealt with in the papal address: “There is no trace of a creative process of the psychological, sociological or literary order, not even in the primitive community or in the authors of the early centuries. The Apostles were the first to believe, not without reluctance, that Christ had risen, simply because they had experienced the resurrection as a real event of which they were personally convinced by having, on several occasions, met Christ truly alive, during the course of forty days. Succeeding Christian generations accepted that testimony, trusting the Apostles and the other disciples as credible witnesses. The Christian faith in Christ's resurrection is, therefore, linked to a fact which has a precise historical dimension.” [17]

            The Pontifical Biblical Commission instruction on the historicity of the gospels tells us that many authors exaggerate the creative power of the primitive Christian community. [18] The Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation goes much further. There is a reference to this radical error in the fourth schema of Dei Verbum, but it is suppressed in the fifth and definitive schema; the reason given for doing so, by the Theological Commission, to the council Fathers, was that nobody any longer took this theory seriously. [19] Yet it seems extraordinary that, twenty five years on, some biblical scholars still give credence to it.

Resurrection: A historical event

There is another tendency in modern biblical commentary on the Resurrection which emphasizes the fact that there is no necessary causal connection between the discovery of the empty tomb and the affirmation of the Resurrection, because of supposed inconsistencies in the different gospel narratives. It is true that some of the details may at first sight be difficult to harmonize, yet there is obviously substantial agreement about all the essential elements. [20] While the empty tomb is not in itself direct proof of the Resurrection, nevertheless, as John Paul II points out, “for those of good will it is a first step towards recognizing the ‘fact’ of the resurrection as a truth which could not be denied.”[21] Indeed, even among the first witnesses of the empty tomb, there is a marked reluctance to jump to hard and fast conclusions. Mary Magdalene assumes that the body of Christ has been stolen (cf. John 20:13). There is a hesitancy about Peter and John going to the tomb after being informed of it by Mary because, as John reports, “they did not yet understand the scriptures, that he had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). John, however, tells us he believed after carefully surveying the disposition of the burial shroud and the napkin which covered the face of the dead Christ (cf. John 20:5-8). All the elements related to the discovery of the empty tomb had such a powerful sign value for the beloved disciple that he could no longer withhold assent. [22]

            The creeds tell us that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, [23] by his own power, [24] by a true resurrection of the flesh, [25] reuniting his soul with his body, [26] and that the fact of the Resurrection is historically provable and proven. [27]

            Although the Resurrection is a strictly supernatural mystery there are aspects of it which come within the purview of sense experience – death, burial, the empty tomb, apparitions, etc, and in this sense it is a demonstrable fact, one which has been confirmed as a historical event.

            From earliest times the Church has had to defend the physical realism of the Resurrection. Against Docetism, which denied the reality of Christ's humanity, the creed of St. Epiphanius (374 A.D.) affirms that the Resurrection affected the earthly body of Jesus: “he suffered in the flesh, resurrected and, with the same body, entered heaven.”[28]In the fifth century the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiquae require that those who are ordained bishops confess faith in the fact that Christ “rose with a true resurrection of his flesh and a true reanimation of his soul.” [29]Down through the centuries there was a gradual progression in the articulation of this mystery by the Magisterium until the second Council of Lyons (1274) where we find the most complete formula:

On the third day he rose from the dead with a true resurrection of the flesh, and forty days after the Resurrection he ascended into heaven with the same body and soul with which he had resurrected.[30]

In addition to affirming the true humanity of the Risen Christ, Church teaching also points to the divinity of Jesus not only as the subject of the Resurrection, but as its very author. Christ arose “propria virtute”, by his own power. [31]Paul VI, in his Creed of the People of God, reaffirms this doctrine: “He arose on the third day by his own power (propria virtute), raising us up by his Resurrection to a participation in the divine life, the life of grace.” [32]

Jesus was physically present

Christ's Resurrection meant a return of his soul to the same material body which suffered the cruel torments of the crucifixion. But it was not a return to his previous style of earthly existence; it was what the Church has always referred to as a glorious Resurrection – immortal, freed from all limitations of space and time, his body is endowed with special properties since it now shares in the glory which his soul had from the first instant of the Incarnation. One of the consequences of his new style of existence is that he could only be seen by those to whom he granted that grace, to enable them to be witnesses to his Resurrection. Because of the state of mind of the disciples after the trauma of Good Friday, and the transformed condition of the Risen Lord, “the disciples experience a certain difficulty not only in recognizing the truth of the resurrection, but also the identity of the One who stands before them: he appears as the same and yet different: a ‘transformed’ Christ”. [33] Despite the glory which now emanates from the Lord, his apparitions are characterized by a great simplicity. Whether it is to the holy women or to Thomas, to the Eleven or to the pair on the road to Emmaus, there is an exquisite refinement in the bearing and in the conversations of Jesus which educes confidence, reverence, and inexpressible joy. As Pope John Paul II emphasizes, “Jesus makes himself known in his physical identity: that face, those hands, those features which they knew so well, the side which had been pierced, the voice they had heard so often.” [34]

            The Resurrection is “a historical event” because “it took place in a precise context of time and place.” [35] It was an event which Christ had foretold. [36] The holy women had found the tomb empty and were told by the angels, “He has risen as he said” (Matt. 28:5-6). All of these different circumstances provide converging evidence and indisputable proof of the historicity of the Resurrection. But because it is above all a unique supernatural event, we are reminded by the Holy Father that at the same time “it transcends and stands above history ... No one was an eye-witness of the Resurrection. No one could say how it had happened in its physical reality. Still less could the senses perceive the most interior essence of his passage to another life. It is this trans-historical feature of the resurrection that must be especially considered if we are to understand to some extent the mystery of that historical, but also trans-historical event.” [37]

            Christ rose to a new life transcending the coordinates of time and space and therefore not subject to “the criteria of simple human empirical observation.” It is true that he invited the disciples to touch him to confirm his identity, but this human identity hides another which is pervaded by the mystery of God. By means of an analysis of several texts in the gospels, Acts, and especially in the Pauline Corpus, John Paul II elucidates what he terms “the trinitarian nature of Christ's resurrection,” leading us on to see how it is “the joint work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”[38] “St. Paul,” he continues, “insists on presenting Christ's resurrection as a manifestation of the power of God, [39] through the work of the Spirit who, in restoring Jesus to life, placed him in the glorious state of Lord (Kyrios) in which he definitively merits, even as man, that name of Son of God which belonged to him from eternity.” [40]  “Christ's resurrection,” he concludes, “is the greatest Event in the history of salvation, and indeed, we can say in the history of humanity, since it gives definitive meaning to the world.” [41]

Prophecy is fulfilled

Consequently it is unthinkable that Christ would leave the recording of the circumstances of this event for posterity to the over-active imagination of distraught disciples, or allow the reality of it to be substituted by a subjective creative activity, without requiring confirmation by objective historical data. As it happens, and viewed from the post-paschal perspective of the disciples as recorded in the gospels, we see a clear continuity and progression of divine Revelation mediated by the paschal events. We know from the Church and from the words of the evangelists themselves that God inspired these men to record for history, and for all future generations of Christians, the accurate truth concerning the Resurrection, in so far as this dogma of faith is capable of being grasped and articulated by a limited human mind, even if it is inspired from on high.

            For Christians, the truth of the Resurrection is the foundation of the whole edifice of Catholic doctrine. Cast doubt upon it, and all the rest collapses. Thus St Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching has been in vain, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). It was the central point of reference for the preaching of the apostles (cf. Acts, passim), and every subsequent generation of evangelizers. Thus, about the year 110 A.D, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who had known the apostles personally, as he journeyed to Rome to suffer martyrdom, wrote to the Christians of Smyrna: “I know and I believe that even after his Resurrection Jesus Christ had a body ... Peter and his companions touched it, and in the intimate contact of his flesh and his spirit, they believed. Thence came their contempt for death and their victory over it.” [42]

            It is the fulfilment of Christ's own prophecies and, as such, is the most sublime proof of his divinity. As John Paul II points out, "the resurrection of the Crucified proved that he was really the I AM, the Son of God.” [43] Christ has referred on a number of occasions to the glory that would be manifested in his death and Resurrection as the eternal Son of the Father, [44] a doctrine that was to be subsequently expounded by St. Paul as the high point of Revelation from many different points of view. [45] There is a supernatural vehemence in the way he wrote about it to his beloved Philippians: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord ... In order that I may gain Christ and be found in him ... so that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

Christ's glory was concealed

The Resurrection is the necessary consequence of the Incarnation. Isolated from the earlier life of Jesus, it becomes something unnatural and nothing more. However, related to the whole gospel of the gesta et verba Christi (deeds and teaching of Christ), the Resurrection is seen to be its crowning point. This aspect is developed in the papal discourses:

Christ's Resurrection is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is its fulfilment, according to God's eternal plan. Rather, it is the supreme crowning of all that Jesus had revealed and wrought throughout his whole life, from his birth to his passion and death, by his deeds, miracles, teaching, example of perfect holiness and above all by his transfiguration. He had never revealed directly the glory which he had with the Father ‘before the world was made’ (John 17:5), but he concealed this glory in his humanity until the definitive emptying of himself (cf. Phil. 2:7-8) through his death on the cross. [46]

            How did the disciples react when Jesus appeared to them? Rather than being filled with joy and enthusiasm, they were at first struck with amazement, fear and incredulity. They thought they were seeing a “phantom,” that their eyes were deceiving them. They had to touch the Master's body before they were convinced. The effect of surprise reoccurred at each new appearance. There is no instance of the disciples praying together with hopes of a vision. The Risen Lord showed himself to them unexpectedly while they were engaged in the most ordinary occupations: as they were travelling, returning from fishing or at the end of a meal. Most of the appearances had several witnesses, and all saw the same thing at the same moment.

            It is often objected as an argument against the historicity of the Resurrection that the evangelists do not contain the same unique account of the apparitions. In the same way that the inspired writers chose from the miracles, teachings and incidents related to the life of Christ before his death, in keeping with the catechetical purpose and the specific audience for which they were writing, so too their choice of appearances of the Risen Savior was determined by the same didactic purpose. There is no inherent contradiction between any of the post-paschal gospel narratives. [47]What is of particular interest in this context is that Luke, the historian, at the beginning of Acts, says that “to them (the apostles) he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (1:3). This phrase seems to imply that there were in fact more apparitions than are recorded in the gospels. In this connection Kari Adam makes a very telling point:

The fact of the Resurrection as such and not so much the facts of the different appearances of Jesus was what chiefly concerned them (the evangelists). This one fact of the Resurrection of Jesus was the new reality which occupied their present, the sublimely obvious thing on which they lived, and which, just because they did live on it, had not to be expressly proved. It is therefore perverse to apply the standards of the modern historian to the evangelists' accounts of the Resurrection. Their aims are not historical but dogmatic and missionary. As we learn from the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 2:24-32; 3:15; etc), the apostles in their preaching were concerned only to give prominence over and over again to the sublime event of the Resurrection, to the blessed fact that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead, without going into any descriptive details. [48]

Our own resurrection is pledged

Apart from being the culminating point of Revelation, the Resurrection has a number of consequences which affect us directly. In the first place the Risen Christ is the principle and source of a new life for all men, [49] since he makes available to us a sharing in the divine life of grace and in that victory over death caused by sin (cf. Eph. 2:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:3). This new life is characterized in a special way by our becoming adopted children of God (cf. Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:14) as a result of being freed from the slavery of sin. [50]The grace of adoptive sonship, or divine filiation. makes us brothers and sisters of Christ, the foundation of Christian fraternity and solidarity, the bonding principle of the Mystical Body of Christ.

            Another effect of Christ's Resurrection is its causal relationship with our own resurrection. “When he foretold the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus referred to himself as the sacrament of eternal life and of the future resurrection: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and 1 will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:54).” [51] We derive our title and hope for bodily immortality from our supernatural union with him by faith in his divinity and by partaking of his life-giving flesh. [52]

            For St. Paul, too, the strongest argument for our resurrection is that Christ, the God-man, our head, has risen from the dead by the power of his divinity (cf. Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:12). According to the Apostle, we shall share in Christ's Resurrection principally for the reason that the divine, life-giving Spirit of Christ and his Eternal Father abides in us, the living members of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:11). [53] Since the best way of bringing about this union is to partake of the life-giving flesh of Christ, the Fathers point to the Eucharist as the primary source and chief title of our immortality and the resurrection of the body. [54]

            The Holy Father reminds us that the definitive victory over death, already won by Christ, is shared by him with humanity in the measure in which we receive the fruits of redemption, bringing with it admission to the “new life.” As a consequence of this engrafting into the life of Church, which is life in the Holy Spirit, generations of redeemed humanity are formed in the Church down through the centuries, bringing about the true community of the Resurrection. [55] That Christ is risen from the dead, and that through communion with him in the Eucharist we already participate in this new life of Christ in a very real way, is the key to our hope for eternal life and the glorious resurrection of our own bodies on the last day.

            Engrafting of the Christian into the new life that comes to us as a consequence of the Resurrection must, if it is to be authentic, be reflected in an external apostolic dynamic, as it was in the lives of the disciples in the post-paschal period. From being cowardly, indecisive men, selfishly concerned about their own status (cf. Luke 22:24-27), they were transformed into fearless preachers of the gospel, ready to face opposition and ridicule, and to run the gauntlet of persecution and death rather than be unfaithful to their Risen Lord. St. Luke reminds us (Acts 1:3) that Christ, after his Resurrection, engaged in many conversations with his disciples about the kingdom of God, over a period of forty days; he entrusted them with the task of being his witnesses to the ends of the earth after they had received the special enlightenment and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The three years of friendship and formation which Jesus had invested in his disciples now bore fruit in deeds of absolute loyalty to the Master as they transmitted to a reluctant and often hostile world the good news of salvation. The Christian apostle of every generation has the responsibility to continue this task. As John Paul II points out, “Every Christian in every age and place is a witness to the risen Christ. He sees with the eyes of Peter and the apostles; he is convinced of the glorious Resurrection of Christ crucified and therefore believes completely in him who is the Way, the Truth, the Life and the Light of the world, and proclaims him with a serene courage. The ‘Paschal Witness’ is thus the specific characteristic of the Christian.” [56]

            This “paschal witness” is in fact the Christian response to that call to holiness which was articulated so eloquently by Vatican II. [57] Pope John Paul II reminds us that to be credible witnesses of the Resurrection our lives must be characterized by three elements: (a) clarity of doctrine; (b) ascetic struggle and consistency of behavior; and (c) apostolic commitment. [58] This is a life-long program and one which has been explicitated in practical detail in the Holy Father's recent document on the vocation and mission of the laity. [59]

Paschal witness is imperative

Responsibility for this “paschal witness” cannot be submerged in the anonymity of the group; it has to be, essentially and primarily, a personal commitment following the example of the first generation of apostles, and the mind of Vatican II as articulated clearly in the document on the apostolate of the laity. [60] The call to give witness to the paschal events is not an invitation to an optional commitment; the words of the Risen Christ, “Go therefore into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation” (Mark 16:15) have an imperative ring about them. We could hardly do better than start by making our own the words of the Holy Father: “I invite you all to bring to your families, your work, your daily concerns, the school, your profession, your free time, and also your suffering, the serenity and peace, the joy and trust that come from the certainty of Christ's Resurrection.” [61]  


[1] Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum, Vatican Council II Documents, Ed. Flannery, Dublin 1980, p. 758: "But since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and the unity of the whole of Scripture . . ." (para. 12).

[2] Cf. Address, 1 Feb 1989, in l’Osservatore Romano, 6 Feb 1989, no. 2; italics in the original. In subsequent quotations from papal addresses, all italics are in originals.

[3] Instruction, Sancta Mater Ecclesia, AAS 56 (1964) 712-718. The English version used in this article is to be found in the Appendix to The Study of the Synoptic Gospels by Augustine Cardinal Bea, London (1965), pp. 79-89. For a very useful treatment of the veracity and the historicity of the gospel narratives, cf. James O'Connor, The Father's Son, Boston (1984), pp. 26-38. In relation to the Resurrection accounts he makes the very fundamental and important distinction that literary priority does not necessarily indicate historical priority. Cf. ibid., pp. 230-236; cf. also pp. 20-21.

[4] Cf. Dei Verbum, no. 19, Flannery, p. 761.

[5] Cf. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, (Rome, 1978), Vol IV, Pars IV, p. 723. Subsequent quotations from this source, the official record of Vatican II, will be abbreviated after the style of Acta Synodalia, IV-IV, etc.

[6] Cf. Addresses at General Audiences of 25 Jan 1989, 1 Feb 1989, 22 Feb 1989, 1 Mar 1989, 15 Mar 1989 published respectively in the English language editions of l'Osservatore Romano of 30 Jan 1989, 6 Feb 1989, 27 Feb 1989, 6 Mar 1989, 13 Mar 1989, 20 Mar 1989.

[7] Address, 25 Jan 1989, no. 1.

[8] “For 1 delivered to you as of first importance what 1 also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures ... and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

[9] Address, 25 Jan 1989, no. 4.

[10] Ibid., no. 5.

[11] Ibid., no. 7.

[12] “See my hands and my feet; that it is 1 myself; handle me and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that 1 have. And when he had said this he showed them his hands and feet” (Luke 24:39-40). Karl Adam makes a very incisive point in this connection: “The disciples do not hand down their testimony of the Transfigured One from hearsay, or from some occult proceedings; they have themselves consciously seen him, heard him and touched him. They have learned of his resurrection by way of sober sense perception, which is the only guarantee of genuine objective empirical knowledge" K. Adam, The Christ of Faith, London (1956), p. 350.

[13] “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

[14] In Evangelium homiliae 26, 7.

[15] Cf. Denz.Sch. 10-30.

[16] Address, 1 Feb 1989, no. 1.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Finally, others make light of the authority of the apostles as witnesses to Christ ... extolling rather the creative power of that community. All such views are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of scientific basis and alien to the correct principles of historical method.” Cf. Bea, ibid., p. 82; AAS 56 (1964) 713-714.

[19] Cf. Acta Synodalia, IV-1, p. 367. The reason given for the omission of this phrase is the following. “Phrasis ut non ficta, ex creatrici potentia primaevae communitatis promantia, visa est non retinenda, quia verba hace nimium honorem tribuunt opinioni alicui in decursu obsoletac”; cf. Acta Synodalia, IV- 1, p. 369-370.

[20] A careful exegesis of the different accounts of the finding of the empty tomb can satisfy even the most demanding critic; cf. for example, G. Chevrot, On the Third Day, Dublin (1959), pp. 23-52.

[21] Address, 1 Feb 1989, no. 5.

[22] The principal elements related to the discovery of the empty tomb were the following: (a) the large stone rolled away from the door of the tomb; cf. Mt 28:2; Mk 16:4; Lk 24:2; Jn 20:1; (b) the shining appearance of the angel; cf. Mt 28:3; Mk 16:5; Lk 24.4; Jn 20:12; (c) the extraordinary news of the angel for the holy women that Jesus had risen; cf. Mt 28:5-6; Mk 16:6; Lk 24:5-7; (d) the message of the angel for the disciples; Mt 2:7; Mk 16:7; cf Lk 24:6-9; cf. Jn 20:2; (e) Peter and John at the tomb; Jn 20:3-10; cf. Lk 24:10.

[23] Nicene Creed, DS. 125.

[24] Eleventh Council of Toledo; De Redemptione Creed, DS. 539.

[25] Creed of Leo IX, DS. 344.

[26] Innocent III, letter Eius exemplo, DS. 791.

[27] Lamentabili, no. 36, DS. 3436. Cf. St. Matthew, Navarre Bible edition, (Dublin 1988), pp. 229-230.

[28] DS. 44.

[29] DS. 325.

[30] DS. 852.

[31] DS. 358.

[32] AAS 60 (1968) 438, no. 12. The Lord himself had expressly declared: "I lay down my life that I may take it up again ... I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again" (John 10:17-18). This power by which he rose again from the dead is the power of his divine person to whom both his body and his soul remained united even while they were separated from each other in death (cf . St. Thomas Aquinas, S.Th. III, q.53, a.5).

[33] Address, 22 Feb 1989, no. 6. The soul of Christ always had a glorious existence (cf. STh. III, q.54, a.2), but by divine disposition this was not reflected in Christ's body until after he had completed the work of our redemption. In this new state his body is completely subject to his soul; Christ by his resurrection has a spiritualized body which is transformed and filled with the Holy Spirit as implied by St. Paul in 2 Cor. 4:17. One of the characteristics of Christ's glorified body is that he can allow himself to be seen by others at will (cf. S.Th. III, q.54, a.1, ad 2; q.55, a.6).

[34] Address 22 Feb 1989, no. 3.

[35] Address, 1 Mar 1989, no. 1.

[36] After Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus spoke about how he would be put to death “and after three days rise again.” As if to underline the reality of this prophecy, St. Mark adds the significant phrase, “And he said this plainly” (cf. Mk 8:31-32). Mark also recalls for us that, after the transfiguration, Christ charged the three apostles – Peter, James and John – not to tell anyone what they had seen on the mountain “until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead” (cf. Mk 9:9). While they kept the matter to themselves, Mark comments that, being unable to understand Christ's words, they started to discuss among themselves “what the rising from the dead meant” (Mk 9:10). It was already revealed in the Old Testament that the dead would rise again (cf. Dan 12:2-3; Mac 7:9; 12:43) and this doctrine was believed by pious Jews (cf. Jn 11:23-25), but what Christ said about his death and Resurrection was beyond the apostles’ capacity to grasp as yet. Mark refers to two other occasions when Christ makes a prophecy about his death and resurrection where the phrase “after three days he will rise” is repeated in both (cf. Mk 9:31-32; 10:33-34). Also, in reply to a request for a sign, Jesus announces the mystery of his death and resurrection using the parallel of the prophet Jonah (cf. Mt 12:40). In other words, his glorious Resurrection is the “sign” par excellence, the decisive proof of his divinity. Christ refers again to this “sign of Jonah” in Mt 16:4 as the only sign which will be given to “an evil and adulterous generation.” On another occasion when Christ authoritatively expels the money changers and the traders from the temple precincts, and he is asked to justify his action by the indignant Jews, Our Lord throws down the challenge, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2.19). Neither the Jews nor his disciples understood at the time what he was talking about, but John never forgot this dramatic event and tells us, when he came to write his gospel more than fifty years later, “when therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22).

[37] Address, 1 Mar 1989, no. 3.

[38] Ibid., no. 6.

[39] Cf. Rom 6:4; 2 Cor 13:4; Phil 3.10; Col 2:12; Eph 1:19f, Heb 7:16.

[40] Address, 1 Mar 1989, no. 5. Cf. Rom 8:11; 9:5; 14:9; Phil 2:9-11; cf. also Heb 1:1-5; 5:5; etc.

[41] Ibid., no. 8.

[42] Ad Smyrn. III, 1.

[43] Address, 8 Mar 1989, no. 3.

[44] Cf. Jn 2:19-22; 11:4; 12:32; Rom 1:1-4; 8:11; Phil 2:9-11.

[45] Cf. Address, 8 Mar 1989, no. 6.

[46] Address, 8 Mar 1989, no. 9. Scheeben develops this point with particular insight: “Through the Incarnation man's entire being was taken up into the person of the Logos, and is elevated, supported, permeated and sanctified by His divine power. In the absolutely eternal person of the Son of God the body he assumed necessarily receives a call and a claim to everlasting existence. The same call and claim are received by the bodies of all the living members that have been mediately incorporated in the God-man's own body. The fact that the eternal God has entered into perishable flesh and has taken that flesh up with him to the bosom of the eternal God, is the final supreme reason for its everlasting duration and its triumphant victory over death. It is this fact which imprints the stamp of eternity on the flesh.” M.J. Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity, St. Louis (1961), pp. 668-669.

[47] Cf. Chevrot, ibid., pp. 52-103.

[48] Kari Adam, The Son of God, London (1935), pp. 229-230.

[49] Cf. Address, 15 Mar 1989, no. 2.

[50] “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir” (Gal 4:6-7).

[51] Address, 15 Mar 1989, no. 4.

[52] Scheeben makes a penetrating comment on this point: “‘The flesh of the Lord is life-giving Spirit’, says St. Athanasius, ‘because it was conceived by the life-giving Spirit.’ Thus the Spirit of God abides in it and the Son of God, from whom the Spirit proceeds, has taken it to himself as a fire takes iron. This indwelling Spirit did not, it is true, actually preserve it from death, but guarded it from dissolution and decay; and once death had embraced it, the Spirit called it back, in a way that was all the more miraculous, to a new, immortal life. This same spirit brings the flesh of Christ, as the organ of his spiritual might, upon the altar, there to unite it to the flesh of the faithful.” Scheeben, ibid., p. 518. 

[53] Cf. Scheeben, ibid., pp. 668-669.

[54] For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Not otherwise can that which is corruptible by its very nature be made alive, than by being joined to the body of Him who by his nature is life itself, that is, to the body of the Only-Begotten.” Comm. in loan, lib. X, c.2; PG 74, 341.

[55] Cf. Address, 15 Mar 1989, nos. 4,5.

[56] Address, 29 Mar 1989, no. 2.

[57] Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, no. 42, in Flannery, p. 400-402.

[58] Cf. Address, 29 Mar 1989, no. 3. 

[59] Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Christiftdeles laici, of His Holiness John Paul II on “The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” 30 December 1988. 

[60] Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, Apostolicam Actuositatem, in Flannery pp. 766-798.

[61] Address, 29 Mar 1989, no. 4.

First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, June 1990, pp 14-26.

Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1990, 2003.

This version: 17th January 2003

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