April 14, 2006

2006 Easter Supplement

Jesus’ rising confirmed all that he had done and taught

By John F. Fink

Why did Jesus rise from the dead?

The fact that he did is a basic doctrine of Christianity. But have you ever asked yourself why he rose?

Another basic doctrine is that the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, assumed a human nature in order to redeem humanity. He did that through the Incarnation and then by his Passion and death by crucifixion. With that, his mission on earth was complete and he could return to heaven, where he lived for all eternity.

So, was the Resurrection really necessary?

When phrased like that, we’d have to say that no, the Resurrection wasn’t strictly necessary for God to accomplish our redemption. So why did Jesus rise from the dead?

Basically, it was to prove that he is God and to confirm all that he had done and taught. Before his death, he claimed that he was one with the Father, that he had power to forgive sins (which only God could do), that he existed before Abraham and several other claims to be God. Now, by rising from the dead, he proved it for anyone who might doubt it.

He had predicted his resurrection, but the Gospels indicate that even his Apostles didn’t take him seriously. They didn’t understand what he meant by rising from the dead. They didn’t even realize that he was about to be arrested and put to death. When that happened, they were completely demoralized.

We can imagine the conversations that took place in that upper room where the Apostles had gathered after Jesus’ crucifixion: “Well, I guess it’s all over. It looks like Jesus really wasn’t the Messiah as we thought he was. We might as well go back to Galilee and get on with our lives.”

What else could they have been thinking? Even when they began to hear from Mary Magdalene and the other women that the tomb was empty and they had been told that Jesus was raised, they didn’t believe it. Thomas wasn’t the only Apostle to be skeptical about the Resurrection. It’s just that he was the only one who wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to the other 10 Apostles. The others had also doubted the report of the women.

Now, of course, Jesus’ resurrection changed everything! God the Father had raised his Son from the dead! That meant that all that Jesus had been teaching was true. What he had said about the Father glorifying him had come to pass.

Now it was possible to look more deeply into the meaning of Jesus’ death. He had said that he had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again, and now he had done so. But exactly why had he done so?

We believe that he died to atone for our sins. St. Paul’s letters are full of expressions that say that Jesus took our sins upon himself so he could take them away. John’s Gospel says that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Before his death, Jesus prayed that he might somehow be spared from undergoing his passion and death—that the “cup” might pass from him. But then he accepted his Father’s will because that was God’s plan for our redemption.

It wasn’t that God was punishing Jesus on our behalf. As the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in You Crown the Year With Your Goodness, “Nor can we say that God the Father ‘punishes’ his suffering Son in our place. It is not a question of punishment, for the work accomplished here between Father and Son with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit is utter love, the purest love possible.”

John’s Gospel says it best: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

This act of redemption could only be done by God. No mere human could accomplish it. However, if redemption was to be accomplished through death, God cannot die. That is why the second person of the Trinity became human. He could, and did, die as a man while remaining alive as God.

St. Augustine explained it this way: “He had no power of himself to die for us; he had to take from us our mortal flesh. This was the way in which, though immortal, he was able to die.” He went on to say, “He effected a wonderful exchange with us, through mutual sharing: we gave him the power to die, he will give us the power to live.”

That’s what he accomplished on Good Friday. Who would have known that, though, if he had not risen from the dead on Easter Sunday?

That’s why Jesus rose from the dead.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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