Good Friday, March 29

Philippians 2:1-11: The contrast between Christ and Adam, found in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, does not appear to have been original with Paul. We already find that contrast in what is apparently an ancient hymn verse cited by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:5-11 RSV).

Relative to Good Friday, two points should be made about this passage:

First, its rich doctrinal character is surprising in a context where we would not expect it. The context is not doctrinal. It is, rather, a moral exhortation, in which Paul describes how Christians are to be humble and obedient in their regard and behavior toward one another (2:1-4,12-16). Settled in the middle of that context, the Christological passage quoted above has the feel of an insertion. It takes the reader in a specifically doctrinal direction. It appears that Paul, wanting to hold up the example of the obedience of Christ, reminds them of a text that he expects his readers to recognize. Familiar texts like this are frequently taken from well-known hymns, and a close reading of the passage suggests a strophic structure.

Second, at least part of the content of this hymnic insertion clearly relies on a contrast between Christ and Adam. Adam, we recall, was disobedient in trying to become like God. This is implied in what the serpent told Eve with respect to the forbidden fruit: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). That is to say, disobedient Adam “regarded equality with God a thing to be grasped” (harpagmon egesato to einai isa Theo).

God’s Son, in contrast, being “in the form of God” (en morphe Theou), was already “equal to God” (isa Theo). He had not need to grasp it. Yet He emptied Himself and assumed “the form of a servant” (morphen doulou), becoming obedient to death on the Cross. This is the model of obedience that Paul holds out to Christians, telling them, “Have this mind (touto phroneite) among yourselves.” Believers are to abandon the example of Adam and pursue the standard of Christ. This is the moral message of Good Friday.

Holy Saturday, March 30

God Rests From His Labors: The Presbyterian theologian Alan Lewis liked to describe Holy Saturday as a “boundary.” His use of this literary metaphor (invented by Karl Jaspers and made popular by Paul Tillich) meant that Holy Saturday served as a sort of dividing line between the Lord’s suffering and death on Good Friday and His triumphant Resurrection on Easter Sunday, thereby shaping the entire sacred “Three Days,” or Triduum. One function of a boundary, obviously, is to define something, in the etymological sense of conferring a finis, a “limit” that gives it form.

A real boundary, moreover, confers shape on two things, namely, those realities on either side of it. Like the god Janus, a boundary must cast its regard in both directions. A border unites two entities even in the act of segregating them. Ironically, they are disjoined by what joins them. They are put apart by what they share. What distinguishes them is what they have in common. I suggest that Alan Lewis was right in this respect. The image of the boundary really is a useful way of looking at Holy Saturday, and I believe that the theological insight of Holy Church respects the unique place of this day in her traditional liturgical customs.

Going beyond Lewis, however, let me further suggest that in Holy Saturday—the middle of the sacred Triduum—we recognize in Good Friday and Easter Sunday, somewhat as in the Lord’s two natures, twin realities placed “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Holy Saturday ‘hypostatically’ holds together, as it were, the two extremes of the Triduum.

To grasp what I mean here, it may be useful to recall that when the events of those days originally took place, the Apostles and Myrrh-bearers did not know that Holy Saturday was the central day in the sacred Triduum. They had no concept of the matter. For them it was simply the day after the tragic climax. They did not realize what was to come on the next day, as we see in their incredulous response when it did come. For Peter and Mary Magdalene, therefore, Holy Saturday was not a recognized interval (or “valley in between”). It was not the prelude of a victory but only the aftermath of a catastrophe.

Holy Saturday thus conveys the sense that Good Friday was not “confused or changed” by Easter Sunday. The other two days of the Triduum were not mingled, so to speak, so that each or either lost its identity. The gall of the earlier day was neither less bitter nor its stripes less severe. The great calamity of the Cross was not mitigated in the tiniest degree. This is Good Friday’s union with Holy Saturday.

At the same time, nonetheless, regarded from the perspective of the triumphant Third Day, Holy Saturday is Good Friday’s link to the Resurrection, and this link was “without division, without separation.” That is to say, only in Easter is revealed the full significance of the Cross. When Christ rises from the dead, bestowing life on those in the tombs, the Church knows that He tramples down death by death.

In addition, Holy Saturday is also the most mysterious day of the Triduum, in the sense that Sacred Scripture says less about it. Whereas we know in some detail what the first Christians witnessed on Good Friday and what they subsequently learned on Easter Sunday, we are told about Holy Saturday almost nothing except that “they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56).

And just where was our Lord during the Church’s time of rest? A rather full answer to this question is given in the liturgical prayer, I suppose, which describes Him as “in the tomb with the body, in Hades with the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” Now this was surely more than the original Christians knew. They had seen, of course, that His body was in the tomb, and they knew that His soul was in Hades, but they were not yet familiar with the whole story even about this second point.

Certain disturbing developments, you see, had already begun in Hades, and the place would never again be what once it was. It was already the site of an invasion. Death was even now in the process of being trampled down by a death. A Champion had appeared on the scene and was making a royal havoc of the neighborhood. The ancient gates, those everlasting doors, had been lifted from their hinges, the iron bars were rent asunder, and the King of glory had entered in. The reign of death was over.

What came to pass in Hades that day was later described by Dante, who claimed to have received the information from Virgil. More likely, we suspect, Dante learned about it in the Exultet sung by the deacon on the evening of Holy Saturday: Haec nox est, in qua destructis vinculis mortis Christus ab inferis victor ascendit—”This is the night in which Christ comes up victorious from Hell, having destroyed the chains of death.”

Easter Sunday, March 31

First Corinthians 15:1-11: The permanence of the soul, its continued life after death, was not in contention among the early Christians. Indeed, thanks in part to Plato, some form of belief in a spiritual afterlife was quite in fashion in the Greco-Roman culture where the Apostles proclaimed the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul, for his part, certainly anticipated an afterlife immediately following death. This persuasion prompted him to “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). This immediate afterlife was not, however, the true goal of Paul’s striving, which was to “attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:11). Anyway, no early Christians—as far as we can tell—contested the expectation of an immediate afterlife.

When the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as risen, however, they did not mean that he had somehow survived in a spiritual state after his death on the Cross. They meant, quite plainly, “he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). It was an event, not a static condition.

Also, it was emphatically physical, not in the sense of induced by physical forces, but in the sense that it happened to the body. Had this not been the case, the Resurrection of Jesus would not have happened according to the Scriptures. The Resurrection-hope held out by Holy Scripture had to do with the body. When Isaiah prophesied, “Your dead shall live,” he went on to specify, “their corpses will arise” (Isaiah 26:19).

It was this physical quality of the Christian hope that proved to be too challenging for some of the brethren at Corinth. They summarized their argument with the sarcastic query, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35)

What those individuals contested was not a belief in an afterlife, but the physical cosmology implicitly contained in the thesis, “the God of our fathers raised up Jesus” (Acts 5:30). They were unable to grasp that the Gospel proclaimed this truth as a vindication of the whole created order.

Holy Scripture, after all, had not declared, “God approved of all the spiritual things He had made,” but, “God saw everything (kol) that He had formed, and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).

It was in refuting the skeptics at Corinth that the Apostle Paul came to understand the Resurrection of Christ as God’s historical act for the purpose of rectifying the evils inflicted on the created order by Adam’s Fall. The Resurrection had to be physical, because death and corruption were physical.

Although it was a single event in history, the “logic” of the Resurrection implied that the whole physical world, starting with the bodies of Christians, was destined for restoration and transformation through the risen and glorified flesh of Christ. This meant that the true and ultimate afterlife anticipated by Christians was not based on the immortality of the soul, but on the resurrection of the body.

Monday, April 1

First Corinthians 15:12-19: In answering the Corinthian skepticism, Paul established the “logic” of the Resurrection in a chain of short hypothetical syllogisms. Within 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the word “if” appears nine times, leading to the final inference, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”

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.

Tuesday, April 2
First Corinthians 15:20-34: At this point, Paul is ready to move from apologetics to theology, and he marks the transition with a formal “now”: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).

To speak theologically means to address truth through the categories, the images, the questions, and the declarations of Holy Scripture. The Resurrection of Christ was not just a bare fact; it was a theological revelation. It happened “according to the Scriptures.” Because this was so, Paul consulted Holy Scripture, in order to grasp what the Resurrection meant.

It is most significant that the first Scripture he consulted on this matter was Genesis. Whereas St. Peter consulted the Book of Psalms for this purpose (Acts 2:24-36), Paul went back to one of the earliest episodes of biblical history, the account of the Fall: “For since death came through a man, through a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

Adam’s reign over the rest of Creation was seriously impaired by the Fall inasmuch as this introduced into human experience an alien component—death!—over which man had no authority at all:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; / In toil you shall eat of it ?/ All the days of your life. / Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, / And you shall eat the herb of the field. / In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread? / Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

What, then, does Paul assert by this allusion to Adam in reference to the Resurrection from the dead? He is declaring that Christ’s fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 110—“Sit at My right hand until I subject your enemies as a footstool under your feet”—also will restore the primordial state of human sovereignty over the created order. When death will be completely conquered in the final Resurrection, the crowned Messiah will also, as the Second Adam, vindicate human history.
In doing so, he will likewise restore the proper structure of Creation. The final “subjection” of all things to God, which is integral to the Resurrection, means the complete restoration of the created order, inasmuch as man’s bondage to death and corruption subverted that order.
All Creation, therefore, looks forward until this will be accomplished. A couple of years later, Paul elaborated this theme, when he wrote:

For the earnest expectation of Creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the Creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because Creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21).

Wednesday, April 3
First Corinthians 15:35-49: When Paul answered the skeptics at Corinth—those so-called Christians who denied the Resurrection—he became a bit agitated at one point. As he answered this denial, his language was unusually harsh. “Fool!” he said (aphron1 Corinthians 15:36).

It is significant, I believe, that the noun here is in the singular, not the plural. If Paul intended simply to address the Corinthian skeptics, we would expect him to write, “Fools!” Let me suggest the reasons he didn’t:

First, I believe Paul would not have felt comfortable addressing fellow Christians with such a term of opprobrium. After all, Jesus had warned against this very thing (Matthew 5:22). Paul probably came closest to doing it when he reproached the Galatians: “Oh thoughtless Galatians”—O anoetoi Galatai(Galatians 3:1).

Second, at the point when Paul used the word “fool” in 1 Corinthians, he had already answered the skepticism of those Corinthians who denied the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Paul’s mind had moved on.

Third, the expression “fool” was addressed, nor directly to the Corinthians, but to a hypothetical interlocutor: “But someone will say.” Paul did not accuse the Corinthians of asking, ““How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” The person posing this question was imaginary; he was a conjectural “someone” (tis) Paul introduced as a partner in his argument.

The Greeks referred to this form of argument as a diatribe; literally a “wearing away,” in the sense of a pastime. The term was often used of arguments based on hypothetical objections. At this point, in other words, Paul was going beyond the mere unbelief of the Corinthian skeptics. He was pushing the question of the Resurrection in a new direction, for the purpose of clarifying it.

The hypothetical skeptic, who pretended to dismiss the resurrection by asking what sort of body the dead rise in, is a fool, said Paul, because he contradicted the sovereign power of the Creator: “God gives a body as He pleases” (15:38). To deny God’s ability to raise the dead was to affirm that death lies beyond the reach of God’s power. This was an irrational, or foolish, claim.

Jesus, we recall, argued the same case when the Sadducees questioned him about the woman who had been married seven times. They, too, had raised a hypothetical objection to resurrection: “Now there were seven brothers. . . . Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife” (Mark 12:18-23). In answering the Sadducees, Jesus put his finger on the lack of logic in their denial. It was based in part, he said, on their unfamiliarity with “the power of God” (12:24; cf. Acts 23:7).

The sovereign power of God over death also served the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. When he wrote of Abraham’s resolve—in obedience—to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham took this step of faith, he said, “considering that God is able to raise from the dead”—ek nekron egeirein dynatos ho Theos (Hebrews 11:19).

We find the same presumption in all three of these sources: If there is an almighty God, then there can be no a priori argument against the Resurrection.

For Paul, this power of the Creator was manifest in the great variety of bodies He had already brought into being (1 Corinthians 15:39-41). The God who could bring a large living plant from a puny seed—a seed which did not even slightly resemble the plant—will certainly not be taxed to transform a mortal body into a body filled with glory (15:37).

Paul went on to elaborate this agricultural illustration, in which the dead body, “sown” in the earth, represented the seed from which will spring the harvest of immortality. The dead body and the resurrected body are numerically the same body, but what a difference:

What is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption. Sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power. Sown a psychic body (soma psychikon), it is raised a spiritual body (soma pnevmatikon) (15:42-44).

To me it seems likely that Paul derived and extended this agricultural analogy from a metaphor in the treasury of the apostolic preaching. It preserved a parable of Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

Thursday, April 4

First Corinthians 15:50-58: The Lord’s victory over death is the demonstration, not only of His power, but also of His compassion. Given the full human trauma of death, both remedies are required.

Death, after all, entails not only the collapse of the personal human structure (the separation of soul and body, the physical decay of the latter, and the eternal loss of the former), but also the radical dissolution of society, the decomposition of human relationships, the severing of those ties of love that bind us mortal beings together. If the power of Christ can be said to remedy the problem of personal corruption, perhaps we can say that the compassion of Christ is directed against our dilemma of social dissolution. Having considered the power of the risen Christ with respect to the one, therefore, it is time to reflect on His compassion with respect to the other.

When God’s holy Word portrays the compassion of Jesus in the presence of death, our attention is directed chiefly at the obvious social consequence of death, the separation that it creates among loved ones. This perspective is clear, for instance, in the story of the widow of Nain, who had lost her only son. “When the Lord saw her,” we are told, “He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise’” (Luke 7:13-14, emphasis added).

In this text we observe that nothing is said about the Lord’s concern for the dead man; it speaks only of his compassion for the mother. It is to her grieving heart that Jesus directs His attention. Indeed, our Lord exercises here His power over death in order to express His compassion over sorrow, and this priority is conveyed by Luke’s remark that Jesus “presented him to his mother” (7:15).

The same perspective is also clear, I think, in the story of the raising of Lazarus. As our Lord approaches the tomb of His deceased friend, He first encounters the two sorrowing sisters, both of whom say, “If You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21,32). This near-reproach by the sisters gives voice not only to a fact but also to a feeling. Consequently, John goes on to portray the compassion of Jesus as He comes to the tomb. Prior to manifesting His power with respect to the dead man (“Lazarus, come forth!”), Jesus first displays His compassion for the grieving sisters (“And Jesus wept.”) That is to say, Jesus first addresses the feeling before He deals with the fact. Indeed, it is the prior depth of His mercy that prompts the ensuing display of His might.

In both these cases the Lord’s first attention is directed, then, not to the persons that have died, but to those that are left behind, the dear ones that death has touched and deeply wounded. For death is not only decay; it is also bereavement at the loss of loved ones. Just as the power of Christ prevails in the first, so His compassion prevails in the second, because victory over death means both things. Consequently, when “there shall be no more death,” we are assured, there shall also be “no sorrow nor crying” (Revelation 21:4).

Significantly, our extant literature’s first reference to the resurrection of the dead was addressed to Christians suffering bereavement at the loss of loved ones. In A. D. 50 Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, emphasis added). The apostle then went on to expound the doctrine of the Resurrection as the foundation of Christian comfort, and he finished by exhorting the bereaved, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18). That is to say, Paul wrote those expressions of hope in order to address, not the problem of despair, but the pangs of sadness.

What the resurrection promises to Christians, then, is not only their personal integrity recovered and transfigured in glory but also the final and transformed restoration of their community, all those loving tendrils that tie them together and comprise a “we.” Thus, Paul uses entirely corporate language to describe this foundation of the Christian hope: “we shall always be with the Lord” (4:17). And again, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). For this reason, the hope of believers is necessarily a shared expectation of comfort, when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).

Friday, April 5

Luke 24:13-35: For a few minutes the risen Jesus playfully concealed his identity from Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, but in the afternoon he carried this play much further, remaining unrecognized during a prolonged and detailed conversation with two other disciples:

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was sixty stadia from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not recognize him (Luke 24:13-16).

Jesus listens to their conversation for a while and then asks, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” This “ignorance” on his part persuades the pair that he must be “a stranger in Jerusalem,” who has managed to miss the things everybody else has been talking about.

Jesus asks a second question, again feigning ignorance: “What things?” He listens while they inform him about his own death, their shattered hopes, and the very dubious report from the women who had been at the tomb that morning.

The reader is, of course, amused by the irony of this discourse. What I want to suggest here is that Jesus is amused by it, as well. He strings these men along. He will reveal himself to them in due course, but he first leads them through a process of learning:

Then he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Messiah to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

The meaning of these Scriptures has been a preoccupation of Luke’s Gospel from the start. It was the burden of Jesus’ first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. It was the subject of his conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration. In the present scene, Jesus feigns ignorance precisely with a view to teaching these two disciples—and through them, all Christians to the end of time—his own understanding of the biblical text.

All of Christian doctrine is rooted, I believe, in Jesus’ paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of His rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that he “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.” He was worthy to do this because He was slain and had redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:5, 9). Jesus interprets Holy Scripture—indeed, he is the interpretation of Holy Scripture—because he “fulfills” Holy Scripture through the historical and theological events of his death and Resurrection. His blood-redemption of the world is the formal principle of Christian biblical interpretation.

As for the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, Jesus continues to act his play to the end: “Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and he indicated that he would have gone farther.” This is at least the third time, since the trip started, that Jesus teases these men in order to take the conversation in the direction he wants it to go. As though reluctantly—and only at their explicit invitation—“He went in to remain with them.”

At last, Jesus’ points of instruction having been made,

He took bread, said the blessing, and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew him; and he vanished from their sight.

The two disciples promptly turn around and head back to Jerusalem. As they returned, they reflected that their hearts had burned within them as the Stranger had spoken to them on the way and had interpreted the Scriptures.

Luke does not say so, but one hopes they also apologized to Mary Magdalene and the other women for their unbelief.