Easter Sunday: Pope Francis & the Deep Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection

Pope Francis
Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10: 34A, 37-43; PS 118 1-2, 16-17, 22-23, ICOR 3L 1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

On this Easter Sunday, it’s appropriate to address the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really rise from the dead? Or is that doctrine simply a remnant of childhood like belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? And for those of us concerned with social justice, what can the Bible’s resurrection stories possibly mean?

This reflection tries to address those questions from the viewpoint of Pope Francis.

In response to the question about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s look at what the Christian tradition itself tells us. It indicates that the resurrection accounts are not based on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The experiences portrayed in tradition were more visionary and likely metaphorical.

As for the sociopolitical meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Pope Francis addresses that question quite meaningfully in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Life is stronger than death, he reminds us. Despite appearances, vital forces will always triumph in the end. But we’ll get to that presently.

First however consider the nature of the resurrection traditions themselves. They were inspired by women and emerged from the bleakest depths of despair not unlike what many progressives might be feeling today as our fondest hopes appear further than ever from fulfillment – as a rogue U.S. empire wreaks havoc and its savage economy destroys the planet.

Think about it.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples returned to business as usual – fishing most prominently. It was their darkest hour. Yeshua, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes for the liberation of Israel from Roman domination was dead. Their world had ended.

But then unexpectedly, women among them reported an experience which effectively raised Jesus back to life (MT 28:1-10; MK 16: 1-8; LK 24:1-11). He was more intensely present, they said, than before his execution. Their tales changed everything.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, visionary and prophetic?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I COR 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that at best the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.)

In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark not only are there no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes un-proclaimed. This in turn indicates either that Mark didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So, the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone present was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (JN 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (JN 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” Once again, it doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (MT 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (LK 24:30-32)?

Regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of Jesus’ dead body or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities resisting empire and serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

It’s here that Pope Francis helps us. In The Joy of the Gospel (JG), he relates the resurrection accounts, (whatever their factual basis) to our own despair – just as real and hopeless as that of Jesus’ bereft disciples. Francis writes to encourage us who might be worn down and hopeless in the face of a world:

  • Pervaded by consumerism and pleasure-seeking without conscience (JG 2)
  • Governed by merciless competition and social Darwinism (53)
  • Economically organized by failed “trickle-down” ideologies that idolize money (54, 55)
  • Controlled by murderers (53) and thieves (57, 189)
  • Torn apart by wars and violence (99)
  • Rooted in growing income inequality which is the root of all social ills (202), including destruction of the environment and its defenseless non-human animate life (215)

In the face of all that, here’s what Francis says:

“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history . . . May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope! (276, 277)

Here the pope says that the power and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is not found in the past. Neither is there reference here to the resuscitation of the Lord’s body. Instead, the pope explains the resurrection in terms of a story that calls attention to the persistent power of Life itself:

* Of nature and spring after a long cold winter

* Of goodness in a world that seems governed by evil

* Of light where darkness reigns unabated

* Of justice where injustice is simply taken for granted

* Of beauty where ugliness is worshipped as its opposite

* Of hope over despair

* And of activists who refuse to stand on the sidelines

No need for despondency, the pope says. Despite appearances, Life and its irresistible forces are on our side! They will not – they cannot – be controlled even by imperial agents of death as powerful as the Rome that assassinated Jesus or the United States whose economic and military policies are butchering the planet.

Even post moderns, skeptics and agnostics can embrace a story with a message like that.

After all, it’s spring! Life goes on! Jesus has indeed risen!

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Resurrection

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:34A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16=17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-4.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ supplies the details.