Easter Friday, March 28
The Resurrection and Apologetics: Inasmuch as Jesus “was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25), it is entirely proper to study and ponder the mystery of the Lord’s Resurrection as part of theology in the strict sense. Specifically, such study pertains to soteriology, the theology of salvation. In addition, however, the Resurrection of Jesus is a proper theme of Christian apologetics, that theological discipline which defends the faith and supports its proclamation to the world.
An inspection of the New Testament, moreover, shows that the apologetic approach to the Resurrection came first; the early believers proclaimed the fact of it before they reflected on its soteriological meaning. In the earliest Christian preaching, the Resurrection was emphasized as probative before it was pondered as redemptive.
St. Peter’s first sermon demonstrates this point. With respect to the Resurrection, Peter stressed two points in that sermon: the historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy by that fact (Acts 2:24-31). In that sermon the apostle said not a word about the redemptive meaning of the Resurrection. He concentrated entirely on the historical fact itself, “of which,” he said, “we are all witnesses” (2:32).
The apostolic writings likewise record that the Resurrection was the point at which the first enemies of the Gospel directed their attack. In order to explain Jesus’ empty tomb, those responsible for His murder “gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,” bribing them to claim that Jesus’ disciples came, while the guard was sleeping, to take away His corpse. This explanation of the empty tomb, Matthew wrote, “is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:12-15).
Early Christian apologists recognized, of course, that the empty tomb itself proved nothing. So much was this the case that the first Christian to find the tomb empty presumed, not that Jesus had risen, but that His body had been stolen (John 20:1-2,13-15). Common sense testifies that this was a normal assessment: if we find a grave empty, it is not our first thought that the dead person arose. We suppose, rather, that someone took away the body. Hence, Jesus’ empty tomb by itself had no probative value, which is why it receives relatively little attention in the New Testament.
Alas, there are modern critics that draw a completely skewed inference from the New Testament’s comparative lack of interest in the empty tomb. The empty tomb is not emphasized, these critics claim, because it was not important to the early Christians. Nor, they often enough go on to assert, should the empty tomb be important for us. It is not uncommon for such critics to avow, in fact, that the “essence” of the Christian faith is quite compatible with the tomb’s not being empty!
It should be obvious that suggestions like this are incompatible with the proclamation of the apostles. In fact, these assertions are a kind of delirium. Even the earliest enemies of the Gospel did not dispute that the tomb was empty. If the New Testament lays no special stress on the empty tomb, therefore, the reason must be sought elsewhere. And the reason surely has to do with the fact that an empty tomb doesn’t prove anything to anybody. It not only has no theological significance; it also has no apologetic weight. It doesn’t explain anything. On the contrary, it must be explained.
The correct explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb came through the physical experience of those who testified that Jesus, risen from the dead, had been seen (1 Corinthians 15:4-8; Mark 1:9,14) and touched (Matthew 1:9; Luke 24:39; John 20:27) by them. Far from being hallucinations brought on by wishful thinking, these physical manifestations of Jesus went directly contrary to the common-sense expectations of those who saw Him. The most important thing to observe about that evidence is that it was conveyed to–indeed, overwhelmingly forced itself upon–those who were deeply reluctant to believe it. To a man, the first witnesses of the risen Jesus were at first skeptical of their experience. They could be convinced only when the risen Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). They came to believe in the Resurrection, only when the undeniable evidence coerced their assent.
Easter Saturday, March 29
John 20:11-18: Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1-4), Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark (John 20:1) and goes out seeking him who her soul loves. She searches for the one whom she calls “my Lord” (John 20:13) and, in an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden where he is buried (19:41). Indeed, at first she takes him to be the gardener (verse 15, which, as the new Adam, he most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know him. He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognize his voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name, “Mary” (verse 16). Only then does she know him as “Rabbouni,” “my teacher.”
In this lovely story, then, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting the risen Lord (“my Lord”). The tone of the story is similar to the story of Thomas in the same chapter (verse 28) and the parable of the Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; he calls his own sheep by name . . . for they know his voice” (19:3-4). The narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “. . . the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an “in house” memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not available to the world.
St. Thomas Sunday, March 30
St. Thomas was a philosopher. Lest, however, this statement sound too obvious, let me promptly say that I don’t mean Thomas Aquinas but Thomas the Apostle.
The philosophy embraced by Thomas the Apostle was not of an academic brand. It was, rather, the peasant variety, a common type, the truly useful school of thought that aids an ordinary man to brace up in adversity, face disaster bravely, and cope with valor on the bitter day.
A philosopher of this sort is less interested in exploring the essence of things, and more concerned about how to get through life without falling to pieces. Thus, he emphasizes sobriety of soul and is deeply suspicious of anything even faintly resembling fun. His aspirations are modest, the better to soften the inevitable disappointments that life will bring. Ever resigned to the next unforeseen but inexorable tragedy, fairly certain that all will come to a bad end, this philosopher tightens the reins on enthusiasm and dissuades his heart from inordinate hope. The last thing he would trust is a bit of good news.
If such a school of thought can be summarized in two sentences, those sentences might be an hypothesis and an imperative: “If anything can go wrong, it probably will. Get used to it.” One could never be too cautious, after all, or he risked getting too rosy a picture of things. Therefore, be careful. Near every silver lining lurks a cloud. Some, I suppose, would call this philosophy pessimism, but those who espouse it usually think of themselves as realists.
Such a philosopher was Thomas the Apostle, significantly known to history as “Doubting Thomas.” One suspects, however, that the doubting of Thomas had less to do with his epistemological system than with his nervous system. Ever brave to drain the draught of sadness and misfortune, he dared to imbibe joy, if ever, only in small sips.
Thomas, therefore, was very cautious about all those miracles and healings that he witnessed. Things were going far too well. There had to be a downside to the whole business. All these blind people were receiving their sight, to be sure, but who could say what they would see before the thing was all over?
It came as no great surprise to Thomas, then, when he learned that disaster lay just down the road. Indeed, Thomas was the first among the Apostles to embrace the imperative of the Cross. Unlike Peter (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), he put up no resistance to the news. When Jesus declared His intention of going to Jerusalem to “wake up” Lazarus, the other Apostles expressed their fear at the prospect. “Rabbi,” they answered, “lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?” It was Thomas who found within himself the generous strength to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:8, 16). In this scene, Thomas is no skeptic. He is, rather, very much the realist, the man who discerns the stark realities awaiting His Lord at Jerusalem, and he is resolute with respect to his own course in the matter. When it comes to the prospects for tragedy, Thomas is not deceived by any inappropriate optimism. Nor, let it be said, by cowardice. If there is one thing he knows how to take with a stiff upper lip, it is bad news. It is, so to speak, his specialty.
Thomas may also have been something of a loner, which would explain why, when the risen Lord paid His first visit to the assembled Apostles, Thomas “was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). He apparently had gone off to get a better grip on himself. It had been a very tough week. Just as Thomas had foreseen, Jesus’ life had ended in tragedy. This, the Apostle was sure, was the biggest tragedy he had ever seen. Yet he was coping with it somehow. Years of an inner docility to inevitable fate had schooled him in the discipline of endurance. Yes, he would get through this too. He was a man who could deal with misfortune and sorrow.
Thomas returned to the other Apostles in the “upper room” that evening, having wrestled his soul into a quiet acquiescence. It was the first day of a new week. He had faced down the disaster, and his control over life was starting to return. What he had not anticipated, however, was that the other Apostles, in his absence, would completely lose their minds. “Well, Thomas,” one of them announced, “fine time to be gone. We have seen the Lord, and you just missed Him!”
Thomas knew how to deal with sorrow. His real problem had always been how to deal with happiness. And that problem was about to get a lot worse. A whole week the risen Lord would make him wait, sharing that room with the ten other men to whom he had hurled his challenge: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (20:25). As each day passed, the case for skepticism was strengthened.
But then it happened. The room was suddenly filled with a great light. New evidence had arrived and stood now undeniable on the scene.
Doubting Thomas sensed that his long-established thinking was about to be rather deeply shaken. However embarrassed, he rose and turned toward the entering light, bracing himself to learn a bit of good news.
(From P. H. Reardon, Christ in His Saints)
Monday, March 31
The Resurrection and the Twelve: An apologetic consideration of the Lord’s Resurrection leads logically to the subject of Ecclesiology, the institution of the Twelve being the link between the two subjects. We learn about the Resurrection, after all, from the testimony of witnesses, and the Church from the beginning was formed and structured around the testimony and authority of specific men who were the appointed witnesses of the risen Jesus. These men were originally known simply as “the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5; John 6:67; 20:24)
Certainly the Lord appeared to others besides these Twelve (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8; Matthew 28:9; Mark 16:9-12; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:11-18). Nonetheless, each of the four Gospels concentrates attention on a specific revelation to the Twelve (or, more precisely, the Eleven, because of the recent defection), a revelation in which the risen Lord commissioned these men with particular authority as His appointed witnesses (Matthew 28:16-19; Mark 16:14-15; Luke 24:47-49; John 20:21; 21:15-17). Although the four Evangelists differ greatly among themselves with respect to the details of this revelation–and even the locale where it took place–the fact of the apostolic revelation is the same in each account, and each contains some form of the Great Commission.
This means that the authority of these Twelve is in every case related to their qualifications to testify to the factual truth of the Resurrection. The four Evangelists, in varying ways and in accord with the local traditions on which they rely, bear witness to that common apostolic authority. By reason of a special commission given by the risen Jesus Himself, those Twelve formed a corporate, cohesive unit of apostolic authority in the Church.
Indeed, their number itself was deemed important to the Church’s foundation. When the Twelve were reduced to Eleven because of the defection of Judas, they promptly provided for another man to take his place, prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit. It is worth reviewing the conditions on which that choice was based: “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
When God’s choice fell on Matthias, therefore, “he was numbered with the Eleven Apostles” (1:26). Chosen from a larger group of those who had seen the risen Jesus, Matthias was now officially taken into, “numbered with,” this distinct body of authorized witnesses. This was not an individual but a corporate calling. Matthias became a “witness” to the Resurrection “with” them. To these Twelve, all of them chosen by God, was entrusted a special authority to speak to and for the Church, particularly with respect to the Resurrection.
The Apostles themselves did not select Matthias. He was not voted on. He was chosen, says the Sacred Text, by “lot.” Indeed, the Greek word for “lot” here is kleros, and it is worth noting that this is the root of the word “clergy.” Matthias became, rather literally, a “clergyman,” a man selected by lot.
The ministry of the men thus chosen as authoritative witnesses was rooted in the Lord’s Resurrection. This truth is perhaps clearest in Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, where Jesus begins by declaring, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” It is in virtue of that authority that Jesus then directs this select group of men, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-19).
The important link word of this passage is “therefore.” That is to say, the mission of the Twelve is the proper inference drawn from the premise of the authority and glorification of Jesus by virtue of the Resurrection. The office and ministry of apostolicity is inseparable from, and totally depends on, the Resurrection of Christ. The apostolic authority in the Church was founded on the Resurrection as on a validating principle.
Finally, inasmuch as they were eyewitnesses, the Twelve could have no “successors.” Witnesses cannot be replaced, and the institution of the Twelve could not be replaced. This institution pertained only to the founding of the Church, not its later history. The “apostolic succession” of the Church does not include a succession to the institution of the Twelve. Thus, after one of them was martyred (Acts 12:2), no substitute was chosen for him. Other men in the New Testament were called “apostles,” but no one could take the place of these Twelve. Their ministry was unique, because it was “foundational” to the Church’s origin (cf. Revelation 21:14).
Wednesday, April 2
The Gospel of John: Almost from the beginning of Christian history attentive readers of Holy Scripture have referred to the author of the Fourth Gospel as “John the Theologian,” thereby testifying to the special theological depth that seemed to set him apart among the evangelists. Only in recent times, however, have biblical students been disposed to analyze, critically and systematically, those distinctive features that render John so unique, and to arrange those features into a synthetic picture.
We may contrast their treatment of John, in this respect, with their treatment of Paul. Even as Christians referred to John as the “Theologian,” it was the theology of Paul that they critically and systematically analyzed and arranged into a synthetic whole. There seem to be three reasons for this anomaly.
First, it is a fact that the New Testament contains more information about Paul than about John. The Acts of the Apostles in particular provides a biographical outline, of sorts, for the Apostle to the Gentiles, an outline that gives the careful student a measure of critical and analytical control in the study of the Pauline epistles. (This was true for centuries. In more recent times, alas, these students have been largely controlled by non-biblical presuppositions that often prompted them to doubt the very authorship of various epistles of St. Paul.)
Thus, it is possible to detect a personal development in Paul’s theology. Under the influence of the Acts of the Apostles, a synthetic reading of Paul’s thought takes on something of a biographical character, which links his theology more closely to his person. Such an approach to Paul is discernable as far back as St. John Chrysostom.
This kind of approach is far more difficult in the case of John. Except for a few extra-biblical references, there is no historical way to control the study of John’s writings. Among the works traditionally ascribed to John, only the Book of Revelation actually claims to have been written by him (if it is the same John!). For this reason we do not have a clear picture of John, such as we have for Paul, so that we are somewhat deprived of a personal center around which to focus our study of Johannine thought.
This consideration leads immediately to a second reason why a synthetic study of John is so difficult. Readers of the Johannine corpus have often differed very much among themselves about which of the various Johannine writings should rightly be ascribed to John. To say the least, this situation makes it very difficult to form a synthesis of “Johannine theology.”
There is a third reason why a systematic, synthetic analysis of Johannine theology has been relatively slow in coming: Unlike Paul’s letters, which dominate the epistolary section of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, which is the major component of the Johannine corpus, is simply one of four gospels. Hence the study of John has tended to be just a subsection of a more ample category, namely, “Gospel studies,” in which category John was compared and contrasted with the Synoptic Gospels. While it was always recognized that John is special among the four gospels, it was always a case of “among.” There was no consistent pattern of isolating John’s theology itself as distinctive, because the study of John was normally part of a larger picture.
Of these three impediments to a Johannine theology, the most difficult is surely the second—the determination of limits of the Johannine canon. How can we arrive at a synthesis of Johannine thought if we are uncertain about which books John really did write?
The problem in John’s canon usually has to do with the Book of Revelation. If this book is set aside from the Johannine corpus, however, the final product of Johannine study will be more abstract, less historical, because it will be missing the prophetic, apocalyptic dimension supplied by that book. We shall certainly end up with a different John if we eliminate the Book of Revelation, very much as those who deny the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles end up with a different Paul.
How then should one proceed? I believe that the only viable presupposition on which to base a systematic study of John is the prior acceptance of Johannine authorship, at least broadly understood, for all the writings traditionally ascribed to him–to wit, the Fourth Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. This hypothesis is not attractive to those who find it difficult to imagine that a single author was responsible for works that differ so much among themselves with respect to genre and style. I confess to a lack of sympathy for their failure of imagination.
I believe that the full synthesis of John’s theology requires the study of three different literary forms, each with its separate characteristics: meditative narrative, epistle, and apocalyptic vision. This combination is true of no other New Testament writer.
It is also my persuasion that the acceptance of this authorial hypothesis is amply justified by the resultant fruits of such a study.
Thursday, April 3
The Resurrection and the Gospel: The essence of the Gospel is the Lord’s Resurrection, which is the key to His identity. Because they are inseparable, let us look at these two subjects together.
First, the Resurrection is the core substance of the “good news.” It is not just one of the things that Christians believe, but the heart and kernel of the evangelion. For this reason the earliest, shortest version of the Creed asserted simply, “Jesus is Lord,” an assertion explained in the first apostolic sermon: “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32,36).
The Apostle Paul, in his sermon at the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, proclaimed the same Gospel of the Resurrection: “And we declare to you glad tidings (evangelion)–that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus” (Acts 13:31-32).
Hence, “Christ is risen” is just another way of saying, “Jesus is Lord.” His lordship and His resurrection are synonymous, forming the fundamental thesis of the faith, through the confession of which we are saved. “If you confess with your mouth,” wrote Paul, “that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). These two salvific assertions are substantially identical.
It is by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection, therefore, that we are justified. In fact, the first time the noun “justification” appears in the New Testament, Paul proclaims that Jesus “was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). He had earlier written, “For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17) No Resurrection, no justification.
It is through Jesus’ Resurrection, then, that we are begotten as children of God. St. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
Second, the Resurrection is the answer to the identity of Jesus, because it is by His Resurrection that He is constituted as God’s Son. This is not a denial of His eternal sonship in the bosom of the Father, nor a rejection of the doctrine of the hypostatic Incarnation. This thesis of Sonship-by-Resurrection has nothing to do with “adoptianism.” It affirms, rather, that the redemptive sonship of God’s eternal Son, the very man Jesus, includes His perfection through death and the resurrection from the dead.
Thus, St. Paul wrote of “Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and established [horisthentos] as the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Paul’s statement of Christ’s sonship does not refer to His eternal generation by the Father, nor does it mean simply the Incarnation. It is specifically a reference to the Lord’s resurrection from the dead.
In what sense, then, does God establish Jesus His Son by the Resurrection? St. Paul says, “in power.” By His resurrection Jesus is established as God’s Son en dynamei. Through the resurrection from the dead, that is, something really new happened to Jesus. He is different from before. This divine Person incarnate has gone through, tasted, and been transformed by the experience of dying and rising again as a human being. He has thus been “made perfect” (Hebrews 2:10; 5:9). His perfected Sonship is established now “in power.”
It is the risen Lord, therefore, the perfected man Jesus, who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” It is a human being, God’s Word in the flesh, who claims all authority, both in heaven and on earth, by reason of His resurrection from the dead. Because God raised Him from the dead, Jesus became something that He was not before. By His resurrection from the dead He is constituted God’s Son in power, having universal authority in heaven and on earth. Through His resurrection He becomes the Head of creation and the medium of humanity’s union with God. This is the meaning of the glad expression of our faith, “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is Lord, inasmuch as “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Friday, April 4
The Resurrection and Anthropology: A common complaint against the proclamation of our Lord’s Resurrection is the claim that this story is only a variant of the ancient fertility myths about dying and rising gods. According to this objection, the risen Christ is just a Galilean version of Osiris, as it were.
It is convenient to this argument, of course, that both Jesus and Osiris rose again in the spring, and their celebrations make endless references to vernal themes like renewal and rebirth; they are reasonably regarded, therefore, as variations of a common and nearly universal motif. Of course, usually those that make this point also mean to imply that Jesus is to be taken no more seriously than Osiris.
This argument is very far off the mark. In fact, the Paschal Mystery is not about the death and resurrection of a god. The Church proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as the Resurrection of a dead man. According to the Christian faith, it is as a human being that Jesus was raised from the dead. He arose in His humanity, just as He died in His humanity. It is a human being, then, who is transformed and glorified by victory over death.
Consequently, the first time the world heard the proclamation of the Resurrection, no mention was made of the pre-existing divinity of the One who rose. St. Peter did not say, “Well, He was God, after all, and there was no way to keep Him down.” On the contrary, he proclaimed, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ”(Acts 2:36).
With respect to the dying and rising of pagan divinities no one ever announced, “of which we are all witnesses” (2:32). Strictly speaking, no one ever testified to the death and rising of some historical character named Osiris, and no one was ever invited to believe in Osiris. And it is very certain that no one ever laid down his life for preaching about Osiris.
In contrast, the Resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed as an historical fact, which involved a real man, a person recently deceased, someone whom everyone knew to have died. “This Jesus” was the One who rose.
The difference between these two cases is important, not only as a point of apologetics, but also as a concern of theology. In the man Jesus the human race commenced its journey through death to life. In the “faith of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22,26), “the author and finisher of faith,” humanity passed from the power of death to eternal life. It was this Jesus “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
As “forerunner” (prodromos), Jesus became our high priest and mediator (6:20; 9:15; 12:24). Opening the way for us, He was the first to pass through every stage of human existence and experience, including the stage of death resultant from the fall of Adam, and to attain mankind’s new and definitive stage, the Resurrection. Rising from the dead He became the true and efficacious Head of the human race.
This doctrine is what Christian theology calls humanity’s anakephalaiosis, or “re-Heading” (in Latin, recapitulatio). This term means that God’s eternal Son, who became man, took unto Himself the fallen race of men in order to re-create all humanity through His own humanity. Jesus Christ did this by passing through every stage of human experience and development–the First to do so–restoring to union with God what had perished in Adam.
An early expression of this theology comes from St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop of Lyons, who wrote of God’s Word, “when He became incarnate and was made man, He re-headed in Himself (in Seipso recapitulavit) the long line of human beings, providing us with salvation in a brief, comprehensive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam we might recover in Christ Jesus–that is, our being in the image and likeness of God” (Against the Heresies 3.18.1).
In His assumption of our humanity, God’s Word took to Himself, not only our nature, but also that personal experience of history which is proper to human beings. He sanctified our personal histories by gaining a human, first-hand, personal familiarity with life and death, adding thereto the utterly new experience of eternal life gaining victory over death. His Resurrection was of the essence of man’s redemption, His consecration of human experience from within.