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Biblical Aspects of the Easter Revolution
by Patrick Henry Reardon
From the beginning of Christian history, the feast of Easter (called by the biblical word Pascha in most languages spoken by Christians) has been the most important in the liturgical calendar of the Church. Simultaneously ending the season of Lent and inaugurating the fifty days until the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost, this feast of the Lord’s Resurrection is what chiefly gives structure to the liturgical year as a whole. That is to say, Easter occupies in the Christian calendar that unifying and culminating place that the mystery of the Resurrection holds in Christian theology. The Apostle Paul indicated that place when he wrote, “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor. 15:17). Everything in the Christian year hangs on Easter, because everything in the Christian Church depends on the Resurrection.
Because it is so central and unitive in the faith, it is not surprising that the Lord’s Resurrection is the object of deep reflection in all parts of theology. There are various theological aspects of Easter on which it seems appropriate to meditate explicitly at this season of the year. Without too much attention to the logic of their sequence, perhaps we may reflect on a few of these, limiting our consideration to Christology, soteriology, apologetics, anthropology, history, and psychology. Finally, in order to reflect further on the Church’s experience of the risen Christ present in her midst, we will conclude by considering the forty days during which he lingered on earth prior to his Ascension into heaven.
Easter & Christology
We should begin by remarking, I think, that the Resurrection is proclaimed by a straightforward Christological formula. It says simply, “Jesus is Lord!” Thus, the message of the Resurrection directly addresses the fundamental Christological question, “Who is Jesus?” The Lord’s Resurrection, in other words, is the key to his identity. We should look at both of them 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, as we have seen, 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 13:32–33). The Resurrection is the gospel.
Hence, “Christ is risen” is just another way of affirming, “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” (Rom. 10:9). These two salvific assertions—Jesus is Lord, and God raised him—are substantially identical.
It is by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles went on to say, that we are justified. In fact, the first time the noun “justification” ( dikaiosis) appears in the New Testament, Paul proclaims that Jesus “was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 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 Cor. 15:16–17). Very simply, no Resurrection, no justification.
It is through Jesus’ resurrection, moreover, 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). No Resurrection, then, no salvation.
Second, the Resurrection is the key 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 “adoptionism.” 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” (Rom. 1:3–4). This statement concerning 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 does God establish Jesus his Son by the Resurrection? St. Paul says, “in power.” By his resurrection, Jesus is established as God’s Son “in power”— 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” (Heb. 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” (Matt. 28:18). 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.”
In short, the proclamation of the Resurrection is a specifically Christological affirmation. Consequently, there is no adequate treatise de Verbo Incarnato that fails to give attention to the Resurrection.
The Resurrection & Soteriology
Because of this biblical relationship between Christology and the Resurrection, it is not surprising that Christian thinkers rather early linked the mystery of the Incarnation, not only to our Lord’s obedient death on the Cross (as in Heb. 2:6–18), but also to his rising from the dead. One of the earliest to do so was Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century.
The approach of Irenaeus to the Incarnation is twofold. The Word became incarnate in order to die for us for our sins, but he also became incarnate in order to rise for our justification. Irenaeus treats both subjects explicitly.
First, according to Irenaeus, the Word’s assumption of the flesh was required for our salvation because Adam’s sin had been committed in the flesh. Sin in the flesh required salvation in the flesh. He explained, “So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us,” and “that so he might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).
In this doctrinal development Irenaeus is clearly the heir to St. Paul, who contrasted Christ and Adam in terms of “disobedience unto death” and “obedience unto life” (Rom. 5:12–19).
In his treatment of salvation, however, Irenaeus also stresses the Resurrection, and this emphasis in turn colors his approach to the Incarnation. Thus, he writes of “our Lord’s birth, which the Word of God underwent for our sake, to be made flesh, that he might reveal the resurrection of the flesh and take the lead of all in heaven.” In this way, explains Irenaeus, Christ becomes “the first-born of the dead, the head and source of the life unto God” (op.cit., 39).
In his development of this idea, of course, Irenaeus is still following the lead of St. Paul, who contrasted Christ and Adam with respect to death and resurrection: (1 Cor. 15:22,45).
In tying the soteriological intent of the Incarnation to the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, Irenaeus advances an important doctrinal perspective. We may contrast this perspective with the soteriology of some later Christians, who concentrated entirely on the Lord’s atoning death as the means of our redemption, with scarcely any attention to the soteriological significance of the Resurrection.
Thus, Irenaeus, not neglecting the biblical theme of “obedience in the flesh,” sets himself to provide a more ample answer to the question “Why incarnation?” His larger answer to this question, an answer that includes the Lord’s resurrection, colors his soteriology with a dominant concern for the total transformation of humanity, and all of creation, in Christ. As we shall see presently, this became a major theme in the theology of Irenaeus.
The Resurrection & Apologetics
In addition to Christology and soteriology, the Resurrection of Jesus is also 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. 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” (Matt. 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 who 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 Cor. 15:4–8; Mark 16:9,14) and touched (Matthew 28:9; 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 commonsense 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.
The Resurrection & Anthropology
The themes of Christology, soteriology, and apologetics introduce that of anthropology. That is to say, what does the Resurrection of Christ say about the human being?
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 who 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 preexisting divinity of the One who rose. St. Peter did not say, “Well, Jesus was God, after all, so 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). The Lord is called “Jesus,” the name by which he was known among men with whom he dwelt on earth.
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 a 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 Christian anthropology. In the man Jesus the human race commenced its journey through death to life. In the “faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 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” (Heb. 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, whom we have already considered. Irenaeus 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 the personal experience of history that 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.
History & Psychology
Our reflections on the anthropology of the Resurrection would be incomplete without some attention to history and psychology, because these two subjects are integral to our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
First, then, what does the Resurrection of Christ mean to human history? In truth, it begins an entirely new and defining phase of history, because it introduces into human experience, for the first time, a transcendent and utterly certain foundation for hope. It is the absolute novum quid of history.
With God’s vindication of Jesus of Nazareth, there was posited into history, through the preaching of the apostles, an entirely new thesis with respect to human destiny. For those who put themselves under the sway of the gospel, history could no longer be “more of the same,” or “business as usual,” because the Resurrection of Christ conferred on history something it had never known before—a metaphysical telos, a goal, a directing and energizing purpose deliberately placed into the process itself.
Since that first Christian Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ has worked as yeast in the dough of the human enterprise, actively kneading that history toward its final shape. Those who confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead stand most literally “on the side of history.”
For this reason it is worth mentioning that the Orthodox Church celebrates Pascha by beginning the first book of Christian history, the Acts of the Apostles, and all through the Paschal season regular readings from this book replace the normal reading from the New Testament epistles during the Divine Liturgy. This Book of Acts records the first thirty years or so of mankind’s new history, Church History. We appropriately commence our reading of it in the liturgical context of the Resurrection, because it enunciates to the world the “new thing.”
Throughout the history of the Church, the Resurrection of Christ is the perennial source of power and renewal. This is the reason the Church has survived its worst enemies and always will. All of Christian history thus becomes a revelation and extension of the Resurrection. Christians live and thrive on the compound interest of the Paschal Mystery, a limitless font of joy, strength, perseverance, and victory in the face of the myriad demonic forces raised against them.
Second, the proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ is the announcement of true human “psychology,” this term being understood in its ancient and etymological sense as “the study of the soul.”
Classical philosophy, regarding the human soul as the permanent and essential part of a man, did not understand its relationship with the human body, which is manifestly impermanent. There were various theories on this subject of the soul’s relationship to the body, but scarcely any philosopher regarded the soul as “incomplete” without the body. Some, in fact, thought of the union of body and soul as an aberration, a fall from the soul’s proper spiritual state. Many even regarded the soul and body as mutual enemies, and those who, like Plato, believed in the soul’s native immortality, were not disposed to think its departure from the body as much to be mourned. Such was the argument that Socrates elaborated for Phaedo and his friends as he prepared to drink the hemlock.
The doctrine of the Resurrection, which posits the reunion of soul and body as man’s permanent and proper state, stands as an affront to pagan theories of that sort. It is no wonder that the Athenians and others treated this doctrine with derision and as a species of madness (Acts 17:32; 26:23–24; 1 Cor. 15:12). They laughed, because pagan philosophy was overly taxed by the preaching of the Resurrection; “our reason cannot conceive such things as the resurrection of bodies,” wrote St. Bonaventure. Consequently, those pagan philosophers “were unaware that the world had an end and that bodies would rise from their dust” ( In Hexaemeron 7.6).
Apart from the Resurrection, that is to say, philosophy rather deeply misunderstood the very nature of the soul, thinking of it as a separate and independent entity, maintaining its essential being apart from the body. This was a serious aberration characteristic of much of classical philosophy. According to the Christian faith and hope, in contrast, the final perfection of man will include the reunion of his soul and body, and the soul itself will remain incomplete, even in heaven, until that reunion at the final resurrection.
In the thirteenth century, when much of the Scholastic movement tried to treat philosophy as an autonomous source of wisdom, a scientia separata, a font of understanding independent of divine revelation, St. Bonaventure appealed to the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection as part of his ongoing critique of that Scholastic effort. Taking his cue from Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, Bonaventure refuted the philosophers with the message of the Resurrection. Without the gospel of the Resurrection, he argued, philosophers were unable even to understand the human soul. “Assured eternity,” he wrote, “is incompatible with the possibility of loss, and it is certain that perfect peace is possible only in the reunion of body and soul. If, then, the soul is essentially disposed toward the body, the soul is fully at peace only after the body has been returned to it” (7.5). For this reason, heaven itself will be incomplete until the resurrection of the dead, the fulfillment of history, and the restoration of man’s psychological integrity.
The Forty Days of Lingering
During the forty days following his resurrection, we find Jesus acting very differently than he did before. During this period when, says St. Luke, “he presented himself alive . . . by many infallible proofs,” our Lord seems to be only half on earth. He appears in one place, then appears somewhere else, but he does not seem to travel from the one location to the next. He comes on a scene without warning, passing mysteriously through doors, and then making it a point to demonstrate the solidity of his flesh and bones. Then, just as abruptly, he takes his leave, we know not how. Jesus’ behavior—if the word be allowed—during this time is strange, unpredictable, and certainly inconsistent with normal expectations.
Just as he passes spatially through the closed door of the upper room, our Lord seems also, without actually rending it, to make repeated openings into time. The various post-Resurrection stories, which are notoriously difficult to reconcile as parts of sequential history, indicate that Jesus’ new existence does not display what we normally think of as sequence. It is as though his life is set free from the limitations of time and space. Indeed, we Christians believe this to be the truth.
The unpredictable absence and presence of the risen Jesus during this time convey the impression that he is living partly in eternity, partly in time, half in heaven, and half among mortals. It is as though he is hesitant to take his physical leave of history, and we believe this, too, to be the truth.
In fact, he prolongs his stay on this earth so that the Church may be further strengthened. For forty days he fortifies in his believers the sense that he is gone but is still with them. In sundry ways he acquaints them with a new mode of his presence.
During this time, he appears repeatedly to speak of things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). Certainly in his earlier days on earth, Jesus discoursed on this very subject times out of mind, but now the teaching of the kingdom is contoured and nuanced by the new condition of the Teacher. In some sense the kingdom itself is different now; at least it is experienced differently, as the risen Lord delicately accustoms his Church to a new way of his being with them.
Sweet indeed are these forty days, and unique beyond any period in the history of the world. Jesus of Nazareth has died, has descended into hell and triumphed over death by coming forth from the tomb, but he has not yet taken leave of history. He prolongs his sojourn among those who love him. These days are not only tender and loving, but also exciting.
Indeed, there is something about this time that one dares to describe as jocose. Is there not something exceeding playful, for instance, in our Lord’s incognito appearance to Mary Magdalene, just before revealing himself in a single word? Again, still playing the stranger, he walks some seven miles with two disciples, using the grammatical third person to question them about his own death, lecturing them at length on the Holy Scriptures, and then finally disappearing at the moment they recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
If we look for a term to describe such conduct, the words “hide and seek” may come to mind, and this is the name of a game. Is he not in some sense playing with his friends? There is a delicate touch of frolic in all this, a quiet celebration among these intimates of the Victor over sin and death.
Thus, there is an element of mirth and teasing in the Lord’s invitation to skeptical Thomas to inspect the wounds of the Passion, and irony is perhaps the word that best describes the way our Lord presses Simon Peter three times at the lakeside: “Do you love me?”
Just what is our Lord about during this time? He is putting the final touches on his Church. And I use the word touches on purpose. Touching us here is exactly what he does. He employs this brief period to impress an immediate and final shape on the memory and imagination of his people. Yes, touch is the word we want.
Indeed, when the gospel was preached to the world not long afterwards, that preaching was shaped by the events of these forty days (Acts 2:32). When, decades later, the Gospels were written, they were composed in the warm light shed quietly upon the Church during this brief period. The Church would never be able to look back at the life of Jesus except through the post-Resurrection lens. Indeed, the very attempt would be irreverent, like analyzing the physics of a kiss. (This is the reason why, by the way, there is a radical frustration built into later attempts to find “the historical Jesus.” The Church rightly reacts against such efforts. Those forty days were an essential component, even a defining part, of that history!)
The Lord’s final act on earth is to raise his hands in blessing, as he ascends into heaven, after which we faithful return to the upper room for a prayerful retreat to assimilate in our hearts the mystery so recently, so gently too, and so deftly revealed.
How long will it last? We have no idea. “When” is none of the Church’s business. It is not for us to know the times or seasons that the Father has put in his own authority (Acts 1:7). Concerns about God’s schedule are a great distraction and open to terrible deceptions.
And this is perhaps the most important lesson that we learn during these forty days of the Lord’s mysterious lingering with us. He will do what he will do, and he will pick the time and place of doing it. Until the end of the world, our task, according to the earliest page of the New Testament, is simply “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10).
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.