What the Church Really Teaches About the Resurrection (homily)
Third Sunday of Easter
If the Resurrection is just this weird thing that happened a long time ago, I don’t care about it. If the Resurrection is just this spooky, sort of supernatural thing involving this one man in the first century, what’s the point?
But the Resurrection isn’t just that. It’s far more profound and real than that.
You know, there are a lot of stupid versions of Christianity out there in the world, silly oversimplifications. Why do Catholics pray to Mary? Well, we don’t really do that. Why do Catholics think that the Pope is better than Jesus? Well, we don’t really think that. There are a lot of people who were raised Catholic but who heard things that are not true. I’m getting this a lot lately. I grew up Catholic, one of my students said, and so I was taught to read the Bible literally. Well, actually, Catholics don’t read the Bible literally, or they’re not supposed to. The other day another student told me that she was taught by a nun that Native Americans are going to hell. Well, no. Maybe my student was just hearing things in a childish way-- mishearing them--maybe it’s time for her to grow up and start thinking like an adult. But if she really was taught this, the teacher was wrong. It’s not what the Church teaches.
It’s the same with the Resurrection. I think too often people don’t know how beautiful and profound the Catechism really is. The Church is always celebrating the mystery, not reducing it.
I want to just quote you a fairly long passage from the Catechism. I’ve quoted it before, but it’s really beautiful and important. If you’re interested, you can find it on my blog --the address is under my name in the Bulletin.
“No one was an eyewitness to Christ’s resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb . . . still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history (647).”
Let me try to unpack this a little. There are three important things here and throughout what the Catechism teaches about the Resurrection.
First, the Resurrection was more than a physical event, more than a mere resuscitation. Jesus isn’t Lazarus. After Lazarus was raised people knew who he was, and they could touch him, too, anytime they wanted. Jesus can also be touched, sometimes, as he is touched in today’s gospel. He is not a ghost, he is not a hallucination. But there are also times when Jesus can’t be touched, when he comes through walls, as he does here in this story, or when he vanishes, when he just disappears, as he does in the great story of the travelers to Emmaus, right before this in Luke. And even when Jesus is present in some kind of discernible way, it’s really significant that people don’t always recognize him, even people who knew him in his former life. You have to be open to seeing him. You have to have imagination and receptivity and faith.
Second, the Resurrection is not just a single event. It didn’t just happen once. The Church is open to the idea that the gospel accounts are a kind of literary shorthand for a realization and a joy and a faith that took several generations to unfold and that is still unfolding. As the great Catholic scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, the Resurrection of Jesus was not “simply a matter of visions and appearances to selected individuals. . . . The experience cannot be confined to such sporadic events.” In fact, here’s another quotation from Johnson, another slightly longer passage I’ve also quoted before and that I want just to make available to you, because it’s so useful and good:
“The Resurrection faith that gave birth to Christianity was rooted in a complex combination of experience and conviction. The experience was that of transforming, transcendent, personal power, a power that altered not only the consciousness but the very status of those experiencing it.”
Something happened inside the early Christians, something profound. You can see it in the record of their courage and their joy, even in the face of great persecution, and you can see it still, in us, on our good days, at our best moments.
That’s the third and final point: that the Resurrection is not just outer but inner, not just something that happened long ago but something that is happening now, inside of all of us. The scholars don’t have to dig up the tombs. They just have to come here. They just have to come to Church. Because we are the body of Christ, we are the Resurrection, we are the living proof of it, no matter how weak and partial and stumbling our faith often is. We’re here. And we’re here because in some way we have felt joy. We’re here because in some way at some point in our lives we have been moved, we have been given the peace that Jesus gives his frightened disciples today in Luke.
This is what the Churches teaches about the Resurrection. That it’s not just a symbol, it’s not just an idea. That it’s far more profound, far more real than that. And that it’s far more profound than the merely physical, too, far more real than the merely scientific, the merely historical, the merely measurable.
I’ve said this before and I want to say it again. Just as the cross is a lens, the Resurrection is a lens. The Resurrection is a kind of logic. A kind of discipline.
If we’ve lost our job, if we’ve lost our marriage, if we’ve lost our hope, yes, that suffering if real and we have to go through it. But there’s more. That’s not all there is. There is also joy, there is also faith, there is also reason for happiness, and we have to hold ourselves to that, discipline ourselves to that: not be downhearted, even now, not be devastated, even when life devastates us. Why are we anxious, finally? Why are we sad? On what have we staked our hope and desire? On what are we counting?
If we feel lost, if we feel ignored by God, we have to think again. God isn’t ignoring us, we’re ignoring him. We’re looking in all the wrong places. If we doubt the Resurrection, if we doubt the source of the disciples’ first joy, we have to think again. We have look again, and in a new way. The Resurrection is going on all around us, in the beauty of the spring, in the gift of our friends, in the smallest, simplest moments, the moments we overlook and discount because they’re not big enough for us, not good enough. But no. These little moments are enough. They are beautiful and real and important, and they are here and they are all that’s here, just the present moment, just the present, and that’s everything, that’s the whole universe, that’s the whole cosmos, that’s Jesus Christ himself coming through the walls of our merely empirical minds, if only we will let him, if only we will surrender our stupid versions of things, if only we will die to our small and petty selves. He is risen. He is here. He is now.