Generation after generation, the Christian community re-examines its teaching regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Carefully developed explanations continue to clarify the most minute details of this doctrine. Many of us are so familiar with these details that we may have ceased to be amazed at their claims: A man whose brutal execution was witnessed by crowds of people, who was buried in a sealed tomb, returns to visit his closest companions. Were the same claims made today, who would not be skeptical?
But these claims are being made today! In the Sequence before the Gospel, we sing, “Christ my hope is arisen.” Perhaps we too should be a bit skeptical; we should stand dumbfounded before its mystery. At least we should acknowledge that, like the disciples, we do not understand.
The honesty of the earliest Christians has never ceased to amaze me. They are the ones who reported their experiences of the risen Lord. They could very well have portrayed themselves in a better light, but they did not. (Today’s Gospel suggests that the “beloved disciple” believed. But then he was probably the religious hero of the Johannine community that is telling the story.) Most resurrection accounts acknowledge their misunderstanding. One would think that if anyone were prepared for this extraordinary event, those instructed by Jesus himself would be. But Jesus’ return from the dead was more than they could possibly anticipate, much less comprehend.
Accounts of the empty tomb do not prove that Jesus rose from the dead. They simply state that the tomb was empty. Even Mary of Magdala, one of Jesus’ closest companions, thought, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they put him.” It took an explanation of the Scriptures for Jesus’ followers to understand what had happened.
In the first reading, Peter does just that. He first summarizes Jesus’ public ministry as a way of insisting that this wondrous occurrence took place in actual history, and “We are witnesses of all that he did.” As ordinary as its setting may have been, Jesus’ resurrection burst the fetters of the ultimate historical reality, death itself, and there is really no way of understanding this. We often use the expression “life out of death” in our attempts to do so. But this image suggests cyclical life, while resurrection means complete transformation into something new.
If we do not really understand resurrection, how can we follow the injunction to preach it or to testify to it? Paul answers that question. “Seek what is above” (Col 3:1); “Clear out the old yeast” (1 Cor 5:7). If we believe that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead, then the way we live should demonstrate this. We will “seek what is above,” rather than the greed and indifference toward others that seem to be so much a part of “what is on earth.” We will resemble “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” rather than “the yeast of malice and wickedness.”
Many of the Easter customs that remain with us today originated as demonstrations of faith in the resurrection. The new Easter outfit is more than a fashion statement; it announces that we have indeed “put on Christ.” The tiny chick emerging from the Easter egg is more than a cute greeting card character; it represents Christ bursting from the tomb, eager to begin a new life. The same is true about the Easter bunny with its prodigious fecundity; it symbolizes the abundance of this new life. We may have preserved these Easter customs, but are they still signs of our faith and commitment?
Will we ever really understand what resurrection means? Probably not; but then, how could we? As the basis of our faith as Christians, it requires just that—faith, not understanding. In his own declaration, Peter underscores the importance of believing. The Gospel writer too maintains that the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” The faith to which the biblical writers refer is more than mere intellectual assent. It calls for a living commitment that takes hold of our entire being. Faith in the risen Jesus transforms our minds and hearts so that we live lives modeled after his. Such faith reminds us that we have died, and our lives are now “hidden with Christ in God.”
We enter into the celebration of this great feast with faith, and it is this faith that cries out, “Alleluia!” All of the feast’s symbols of new life are signs of hope for a world bogged down in death and despair. But they are not the only signs of hope. Our unselfish openness to others, our genuine efforts at peace, our willingness to forgive—all these testify to the world that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he continues to live in us. Proof of the resurrection is not found in an empty tomb. Rather, it is seen in the committed lives of those who believe.