Our Christian Faith is anchored in the experience we commemorate and celebrate each Easter.
The apostle Paul summarized that experience in his letter to the people in Corinth: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day.” (I Corinthians 15)
In my first three Lenten biblical reflections, I stressed (1) that our Christian Scriptures announce genuine and authentic Christian belief; but that (2) more often than people realize, they are not detailed historical accounts. The biblical authors used a variety of imaginative images designed to convey the meaning and impact of the Jesus event. This week, I stress that same understanding, as we read and reflect about Jesus’ resurrection.
What exactly was the experience that became the first Easter experience?
Reading the Christian Scriptures in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship — and reflecting as well on my own personal faith experiences — it is clear to me that those early Christians’ Easter experience was not in first instance a physical historically verifiable experience. It was however a true and genuine faith experience: an experience in another dimension of our human reality.
Paul, writing between the years 50 CE and 64 CE never described the resurrection of Jesus as a resuscitation of his physical body, after death on the cross. In the Pauline writings, we never see a Jesus who walks out of his grave. Resurrection is not resuscitation.
Paul is very clear and firm, however, in his belief that God raised Jesus out of death and into a new form of life in God. Jesus’ resurrection transformed and raised Jesus into new life.
“Someone will ask,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish!….When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed….So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, and it is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, and it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, and it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, and it is raised a spiritual body.” Another dimension of life.
Paul died somewhere around the year 64 CE and never read any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I suspect however that many Christians, coming after Paul, have always read Paul through the lens of the later-written Gospels, with their great and imaginative religious imagery. This is unfortunate, because we miss the concise and clear Pauline testimony about Jesus’ being raised from the dead.
The authors of the Gospels, as they wrote some decades after the death of Jesus, used creative imagery and imagination to convey the experience of early Christian faith encounters with the resurrected Lord. Some experiences — especially faith experiences — are best, though still inadequately, interpreted and expressed through symbols and imaginative imagery. Think for a moment about the symbolic and imaginatively charged (and sometimes erotic) testimonies of the great Christian mystics.
In Mark, the first of the Gospels that we have today, the Risen Christ never appears. Jesus’ deceased body is taken from the cross and placed in the tomb. Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection speaks of grief-stricken women confronting an empty tomb and meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Later another ending was added to Mark’s Gospel; but contemporary biblical scholarship stresses that Mark’s Gospel probably ended without the Resurrected Christ ever being seen by anyone.
The authors of Matthew, writing between 80-85 CE, and Luke, writing between 88-92 CE, changed and greatly expanded Mark. They wanted their audiences to have no doubts about Jesus truly raised from the dead and divinely transformed. Their imagery is more physical yet spiritual.
Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. Mark’s messenger becomes an angel; and Matthew asserts that the women did see Jesus in the garden. They grasp him by his feet and worship him. Here Jesus’ resurrection seems, at first, more like a physical resuscitation of the deceased Jesus. When Matthew narrates the account of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, however, the resurrected Jesus is on a mountaintop in Galilee, where he comes out of the sky with heavenly power.
Luke echoes Mark’s narration about the women at the tomb, and they do not see Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. Luke, however, transforms Mark’s messenger into two angels. Luke greatly emphasizes as well the physicality of Jesus’ resurrected body. He wants his readers to to see that this is really Jesus. Nevertheless the resurrected Jesus in Luke is not a resuscitated Jesus, because although he walks, talks, eats, and teaches, he also appears and disappears at will. He invites the disciples to touch his flesh, and stresses that he is not a ghost. The post-death Jesus is real. Luke then removes the resurrected Jesus from the earth, by imagining the story of Jesus’ Ascension up to heaven: A cloud comes down and, like a heavenly elevator, whisks him up to heaven. Don’t forget the ancient Jewish and Christian cosmology, with God on God’s throne up in the heavens.
When it comes to the Ascension, Luke however is not consistent: In his Gospel the Ascension occurs on Easter Sunday afternoon; but in Acts, the Ascension occurs 40 days after Easter. Ongoing imaginative development.
In John, written between 95 CE and 100 CE when most eyewitnesses of the Jesus event were already dead, the physicality of the Resurrection is enhanced even more. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden and tells her not to cling to him. John then suggests that Jesus ascended up to heaven immediately; and from there he appears to the disciples. A transformed spiritual being, he enters a room with closed windows and locked doors, yet he is described as quite physical. A week later Jesus appears a second time to the disciples. This time Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ nail wounds and pierced side. Later in the Gospel Jesus appears to the disciples fishing in Galilee and eats with them. John wants to affirm that the resurrected Jesus is really Jesus….
Over the years, we see therefore that accounts of Jesus’ resurrection grew rather dramatically. Something Divine happened after Jesus’ crucifixion that convinced his disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was very much a living presence in their own lives. Human imagination, words, and images cannot adequately describe what happened. They are simply pointers. Pointers to the Divine in Jesus.
And so for us today? it is not enough to just study and ponder texts and events from the past. We live today. In today’s world.
Nevertheless, God’s working through Jesus in the past is God’s working through Jesus today; and just like the early Christians, our lives too are anchored in Jesus’ resurrection experience. Life is changed, not taken away. Through him, with him, and in him we meet the living God. Jesus in fact is the great sacrament of the human encounter with God. And “where two or three are gathered,” Jesus is present as well.
This Easter, and throughout the year, our biggest challenge is big indeed. It is not always delightful nor easy to realize and accept that we see and meet the living God in the man or woman standing next to us: whether handsome or ugly, whether gay or straight, whether “friend” or ” enemy,” they all have dignity and worth; and all can be channels to the Divine.
And like Jesus, when this life is over, we too shall continue on a new journey with God.