I confess I found myself straining this week to find the words to give voice for you to the wonder of the Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection, and our share in it, should be overwhelmingly real to us. But it is not. Alas, faith’s experience of resurrection is more like the first blossoms of spring after a long, cold winter, an awareness of tender, improbable beauty.
Think of the Johnny-Jump-Ups and the crocuses as they make their appearance among the last leaves of fall. They hardily resist the still cold mornings of April before the warming rays of the noonday sun fall upon them. They are lovely to see, but there is in them no hint yet that the whole Earth will undergo an extravagant greening. That is the way our faith is alongside the wonder of the Resurrection.
We lack the overwhelming confidence that with the Resurrection everything has changed. If we believe in Christ’s resurrection and our own, it is with a darkened faith that lacks inner conviction. Our faith is more like a naked act of the will than a great “Aha” expressing joy at a blazing insight.
In that we are no different than the disciples themselves. As Easter morning’s reading proclaims, “They did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” The incomprehension the disciples showed during Jesus’ lifetime persisted even after the Resurrection itself. Sunday after Sunday in the coming weeks we will hear of disciples who didn’t understand, who came to faith only gradually after repeated encounters with the Lord.
There are first the stories of followers especially close to Jesus: “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who alone of all the disciples believes, though he only sees the empty tomb; Mary who mistakes Jesus for the gardener and Peter, who recognized “the Lord,” but who doesn’t trust Jesus enough to walk to him across the water. Then there is Thomas, the archetype of our unbelief.
On the other hand, there are the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a man and a woman, scholars suggest, who embody all the noblest yearnings of ancient Israel. They are models for all those who come to faith.
The liturgy of the Easter season runs us through all the changes on our incomprehension, our unbelief, our groping for faith and our still unsatisfied yearning for God. In all these stories, it is Jesus who reaches out and reveals himself to the disciples. These stories affirm that faith itself is God’s gift. What we subjectively experience as faith is our response to God’s initiative in seeking us out.
The whole Easter season is a time to encounter the Risen Lord. Each week, as we learn of Jesus coming to the apostles, we have a chance to let go of our doubts and resistances, and open ourselves to encounter him, not as the Jesus of history, but, as the Risen and Glorified Christ, transformed and empowered to make us like him.
Believing in the Resurrection is not at all like thinking Jesus was resuscitated or revived from a near-death experience. That view of the Resurrection is too small. It lacks any hint of transformation in the Risen Lord or in us who share in his resurrection. It confines Jesus to his time and place, without historical or cosmic significance. It doesn’t allow the glory to shine through, the sense that Resurrection brought Jesus and is bringing us into a wholly different dimension—not just at the end of life but even now.
One Christian thinker who grasped the reality of the Risen Lord was the Jesuit paleontologist and spiritual writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, one of the twentieth century’s great mystics. Teilhard has a great deal to teach us about Christ in glory. He wrote, “As long as I could see—or dared to see—in you, Lord Jesus, only the man who lived two thousand years ago, the sublime moral teacher, the Friend, the Brother, my love remained timid and constrained.” Teilhard grasped the enormous difference between the Jesus of history and the Risen Christ of faith.
In the Risen Christ, in Christ in glory, Teilhard found Someone large enough to receive the immense love of which his soul was capable. Teilhard, the evolutionary paleontologist, saw Christ at work in all the forces of nature. Of the Risen Lord, Teilhard wrote, “Master today, when through the manifestation of those superhuman powers with which your resurrection endowed you you shine forth from within all the forces of the earth and so become visible to me, now I recognize you as my Sovereign, and with delight surrender myself to you.”
He went on, “[Y]ou who gather into your exuberant unity every beauty, every affinity, every energy, every mode of existence[,] it is to you to whom my being cried out with a desire as vast as the universe, ‘In truth you are my Lord and my God.’” In the Resurrected, Cosmic Christ, Teilhard found One worthy of worship, who draws all things to Himself.
Teilhard’s Christ is a scientist’s Christ. He sees Christ, as the firstborn of all creatures, working through natural forces on immense, geologic time-scales and across intergalactic space. He’s a Christ ever active in scientific intelligence and human inventiveness as much as in our toil and suffering. But, whether we are scientists or not, and most of us are not, Teilhard shows us how when we say “Christ is risen”, we are affirming the power of Christ’s presence, the scope of his influence, the transformative power of his action in geologic time, in human history, and in our very selves.
I am not a scientist; at best I am amateur student of the human side of science. By profession I am a social ethicist, and this Easter, despite all the darkness around us, all the sin we have to name, from the fratricidal war in Syria to the anguish of refugees in almost every corner of the world, I see the power of the Resurrection at work in the evolution of morality and the growth of our moral capacities on a global scale.
I don’t deny there are many places in which our hearts have grown cold, that people of our times have large moral blindspots. But I see the enormous growth in humanity’s capacity to respond to the needs of the suffering as the power of the Resurrection making our world new.
Think of forgiveness. A generation ago forgiveness was something we received in confession or we exercised in interpersonal acts. But since the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, forgiveness has become a public act. President Clinton apologized to Rwanda for the inaction of his administration when it was faced with the Rwandan genocide. Pope John Paul II carried on an extensive, though little known, ministry of apology for sins of the institutional church, and in 2000 sought God’s forgiveness of the church’s sins in the previous millennium.
Ethnic and religious conflicts are resolved through forgiveness and reconciliation commissions. In divided societies, psychologists lead small groups in dialogues leading to apology, forgiveness and reconciliation. Even domestically, victim-offender reconciliation programs are now a part of the legal landscape. Public apology and forgiveness, programs of reconciliation, are evidence of the elevating activity of the Spirit of Christ in the world.
Think, too, of the institutions we have today dedicated to peacemaking, to preventing conflict and promoting dialogue between adversaries. They are terribly imperfect, I admit, but they constitute alternatives to war exercised even at official levels. Or consider the range of groups committed to defend human rights, the number of voluntary agencies serving refugees of every type and movements like Doctors without Borders caring for the victims of war and natural disasters.
Most are not religiously inspired agencies. But, nonetheless, they represent a growth in moral awareness and in humanity’s capacity for moral action. Even when these groups are professedly secular, they manifest the power of Christ’s resurrection transforming the moral world we dwell in, making it more sensitive, more responsible and even more repentant.
Easter should be about who we are as members of Christ, as sharers in his resurrection: how we have changed, how we have every confidence, by God’s grace, we will be changed still further—changed beyond imagining. Identifying Christ’s transforming power in the world, whether in nature or in society, is essential to our faith in the Resurrection, of understanding the range and scope of the Spirit of Christ in our lives.
Equally important, however, is appreciating how the Risen Christ unleashes in us the capacity to do good. The Resurrection sanctifies us; it deepens and expands our capacity for doing good.
The grace of the Resurrection expands our hearts to love those who are far off, as the assassinated Jesuit Franz van Lugt did in Syria, welcoming the victims of war into his home, building them a bakery and finally giving his life last week for war-ravaged Christians and Muslims alike.
Resurrection grace also makes our love more sensitive in loving those who are nearby but unattractive, as Pope Francis did, giving a long, lingering hug to the disfigured man in Saint Peter’s Square, blessing him with kisses, like Saint Francis kissing the leper.
That kind of love is not just for saints like Mother Teresa or religious like Father van Lugt and Papa Bergoglio. It is for all of us, you, every one of you, and for me, who were baptized not just into Christ’s death but also into his Resurrection. The Easter season is time to encounter Christ, and, as we do, to surrender our incomprehension, our resistances, our unbelief. But it is even more time to encounter the transforming power of the Risen Lord, who is able to change our hearts, make us generous and creative beyond what we think is possible, and who, through us, suffuses all of humanity with the glorious goodness of God.