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Issue Date:  April 14, 2006

Easter always

The resurrection gives us a new community in the Holy Spirit


A few days before Ash Wednesday this year, a friend of mine from college days died after a long struggle with cancer.

Perhaps it was because Syd’s life had been so generous and good. Perhaps it was the strong circle of love around him at the end. Perhaps it was the fact that he was allowed to die with dignity. I think it was all of these things, and more, that made his death, for all its sadness, separation and pain, so hopeful a moment, so peaceful, so one with the Lord and his saints. I realized that in union with Jesus, Syd had given us not only his life but, in a special way, a new Lent, an old season made new again for preparing to celebrate the eternal eastering in us of the life of Christ.

As we turn the great gem of Easter faith to try to see new light in it, new depth, new hope, new reasons for loving the Lord, believing in him and hoping to be saved by him, it may be helpful to reflect on what the resurrection of Jesus is not. The fact that we confess Jesus raised from the dead by the power of a loving, living God is not a proof for immortality, as though the God of Christian faith had stepped in to support the argument in Plato’s Phaedo. The church in its first centuries and still today has been sympathetic to the view that human life is immortal. But biblical faith in resurrection from the dead is something larger than immortality, which after all concerns simply the soul of the human being. Resurrection from the dead speaks of a promise to the whole living, bodily person, with all the person’s worldly web of human connections.

So the resurrection is not, or at least not adequately, simply a matter of immortality. Nor is it the restoration or reanimation of a corpse, as in the cases of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Naim and the daughter of Jairus, whom the Gospels portray as raised from the dead by Jesus. John’s Gospel presents the raising of Lazarus as a wondrous event, a great sign. And so, surely, was the raising of the widow’s son and Jairus’ young daughter. But none of these marvelous events finally answered the questions posed by the eventual deaths of Lazarus, the young man and the girl: Was their final death simply their end? Was it truly the last word? Were they, in death, simply extinguished?

The resurrection of Jesus is not a return to the life he had led, as if his death had never really happened -- a sort of Rip van Winkle experience. The Gospels emphasize the passion, death and crucifixion of the Lord much too vividly for us to think that. (Except that we still sometimes do.) To be sure, there is not a little imagery inherited from the past, and not a little art, suggesting that Jesus lay wounded in the tomb and then broke from it with a victory banner in his hand. But that’s not what resurrection means.

Nor is the resurrection of Jesus a denial of death, as in many Gnostic frames of thought, including those that still exist in our day. We are all acquainted with too many tombs and troubles for the resurrection of Jesus to mean “Look past the troubles. Don’t go to the uncomfortable places. Your sorrows -- and especially your neighbors’ sorrows -- are transient.” Lebanon still mourns its assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The death of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens appalls us. We shudder at the genocide in Darfur. Human life is framed with public tragedy, and each of us has known indescribable anguish: a young man who took his own life, a young woman killed in a bus accident, a boy who died of a brain tumor. It is not away from such suffering but rather compassionately toward it that God’s power to raise new life directs us.

What then are the indispensable elements or dimensions of our resurrection faith that Jesus has been raised from the dead, that the man who died shamefully on a cross now lives forever? He stood before his disciples, showed them his wounds, spoke familiarly with them. Wouldn’t that be enough to say about the meaning of his resurrection? Were someone whom you had loved deeply but lost to stand once again before you, wouldn’t you say that was enough and all you hoped for?

But there is more to the resurrection than an individual man, even the Lord, being saved by a merciful and loving God from the power of death. The Jesus who stands before his at-first terrified disciples offers them peace and calls them to a witness that is intrinsic to his being raised. Those who experience his presence and receive his peace are meant to witness to it. Without that witness for others, the resurrection would be something done just for Jesus, and being just for himself was never the point of his dwelling among us. Rather, as the great Lutheran theologian and German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the former superior general of the Jesuits, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, each so deeply realized, Jesus in his life, death and resurrection was the man for others.

But there is more. For the wonder of the resurrection proclamation is possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit breathed into the disciples by the present Jesus. That Jesus is risen means also that, mysteriously but truly bodily alive beyond time, he communicates to us through his Spirit a message of peace and hope that we are meant to share -- and live. Frail and limited indeed, we are nevertheless gifted with the confidence that the Holy Spirit will be with us on the mission. The gift of the Spirit is essential to the resurrection.

And there is more still. Jesus and his Gospel and his Spirit are there for a new people, a new community. We call it church. Unworthy though we are to be called to it, we may take comfort from the fact that the disciples themselves were not much better. For none of them seem to have been at the cross when Jesus died. Only St. John’s Gospel tells us that the beloved disciple was there with Jesus’ mother Mary and the two other Marys. Matthew and Mark tell us at least that “many women looked on from afar,” and Luke speaks of “all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee” standing at a distance to watch. But none of the other men, not even the bold, impetuous Peter, seem to have had courage for the cross. What is it like when those closest to you abandon you at the time of your testing? And if the terror of the crucifixion was too much even for the disciples, it is no wonder that crucifixion in the world today terrifies us, too.

It is not simply a new community, then, that Jesus shapes as he reveals his eternal life to them. It is a community dragged back from faithlessness, from lack of fidelity, from terror and estrangement. It is a wholly reconstituted community. The full reality of Easter is a risen Lord whose good news and mission constitute a new community in the Holy Spirit. His forgiveness is their new freedom; his outstretched hands become their hands stretched down the years toward us who likewise need forgiveness and reunion.

The full and true meaning of the resurrection is thus not only individual but communal, not merely theoretical but practical, not the beginning of another world but the redirection of this present, anguished one. As Boston College theologian Roberto Goizueta puts it: “The resurrection of Christ’s body must be more than the restoration to life of an autonomous, isolated individual; it must be the resurrection of Cristo Compañero, Christ-as-companion. The resurrection is the victory of companionship over abandonment, the victory of community over estrangement.”

And so the eastering of the Lord continues. His body grows, as St. Paul so memorably tells us in his letters to the Corinthians and the Romans, with gifts of incomparable variety and power. A communion of saints is gathered. Is being gathered. Will for all of time be gathered. For the Lord to be risen means that he gathers and gives and guides the love of the Holy Mystery we haltingly call God through an indwelling Spirit with which they are one. Like ourselves, the Lord Jesus can only be himself together with those whom he loves and who matter to him. And who does not?

To put it another way: Who matters most to him? Every mother knows the answer to this question, and every creative teacher, and caring counselor, and responsible public servant. The sick child, the confused student, the troubled friend, the poor and excluded and oppressed matter most because their lives are most at risk. Who matters most? Those most in need. We might even say that it is the very definition of God to know best who is most in need. It is that simple. From the mourning family of my friend Syd to the nameless victims of violence throughout our world, there is nowhere a human heart not in need, nor a heart unknown to the Holy Presence who was one with Jesus in his life and remains united with him eternally.

Easter is a time when we hope to believe fully, without denying our unbelief. It is the time when in faith and frailty we should turn to the whole Christ. And so when we puzzle over the great mystery of the crucified Lord who now lives among us as well as forever beyond our midst, and when even perhaps on a glorious Easter Sunday, with flowers on the altar and little children being beautifully catechized and fellow parishioners all around us who share our hope, when even then we wonder how this good news can really be true, we have only to seek the faces where Christ speaks and comes to life again: in the broken of heart and body and mind whom he, a good Jew, loves with his whole mind and soul and strength, because he knows that his Father has given them to him. They are God’s, and he can never forsake them.

Oh, easter in us, risen Lord. Be the power and the glory through which we touch and heal, are touched and healed, becoming forever yours, until all is yours, and you are God’s, and God’s is the world.

Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2006

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