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PREACHING THE RESURRECTION TODAY

Fr Billy Swan



At this time of Easter in parishes up and down the country and across the Christian world, catechists, parents, deacons, priests, bishops and Pope Francis are preaching from the resurrection passages in the Gospels that the Church puts before us at this time of year. In this season of new life and renewal, the Church invites us to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus with the same vibrant faith and conviction as the Apostles did after Pentecost. But how do we do this?

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there emerged controversial re-interpretations of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. Some Catholic theologians proposed that the resurrection was not a historical event but symbolic and analogical. Influenced by an overly rational approach to Scripture and embarrassed by any suggestion of the miraculous, these theologians suggested that Jesus might not have actually risen bodily from the dead after all. Rather the resurrection is merely a symbolic vindication of Jesus’ truth and kingdom that lives on after his death. If this is true, the implications are immense. It means the preaching of the Apostles was basically an external declaration of an internal mystical experience they had of being forgiven by God for their failures. With this hypothesis, the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus gave way to analogical concepts such as optimism, ethics, fraternity, positivity and encouragement in the face of the negative experiences of life including death.


There are genuine concerns that this reduction of the full impact of the Easter message is still with us today. For example, in his 2016 Easter message, former British Prime Minister David Cameron described Christianity in general and Easter in particular as: “Values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, and pride in working for the common good, and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families, and our communities.” Now Christianity certainly does embody and ought witness to all these things. However, it is not difficult to see how the true Easter message was being pared down to suit the plural Britain David Cameron was speaking to. To put it another way, can you imagine St Peter after Pentecost saying something like this: “The message we proclaim is about values, hard work, charity and the common good”. If that was what the Apostles did preach, then few would have taken them seriously and Christianity would never have got off the ground.


This point was powerfully made by Chuck Colson (1931-2012) – an American and former intern in the Nixon administration who served time in jail for his part in the cover up of the Watergate scandal. After he and the others involved were arrested, Colson recalled how they came under intense pressure to tell the truth of what happened. In the end, their lies and inconsistencies were exposed and the truth came out, leading to their convictions. In prison, Colson re-discovered his Christian faith and, in his journal, he compared his experience with that of the Apostles after the resurrection. He said something like this: “After our arrest and during questioning, we came under huge pressure until eventually we broke. The lie could no longer hold. The truth had to come out in the end. Now take the early Church. Christians were being tortured and killed for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Could they possibly have held on to that belief if the story was a lie? The answer is no. The only possible explanation for what happened is that the resurrection was true. This was the reason the first Christians believed it.”


Recent Popes have addressed this topic and urged the Church to proclaim the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus in all its power as a force that changes us and changes the world. The late Pope Benedict XVI was very familiar with the reductionist schools of theology that emerged in the mid-twentieth century when he was a young scholar. For this reason, he is ideally placed to comment. In the second of the ‘Jesus Nazareth’ trilogy, Pope Benedict insists that the resurrection is both historical and trans-historical. It happened within history and yet transcends history. Here he is entirely consistent with the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states:

“By means of touch and the sharing of a meal, the risen Jesus establishes direct contact with his disciples. He invites them in this way to recognize that he is not a ghost and above all to verify that the risen body in which he appears to them is the same body that had been tortured and crucified, for it still bears the traces of his Passion. Yet at the same time this authentic, real body possesses the new properties of a glorious body: not limited by space and time but able to be present how and when he wills; for Christ's humanity can no longer be confined to earth, and belongs henceforth only to the Father's divine realm. For this reason too the risen Jesus enjoys the sovereign freedom of appearing as he wishes: in the guise of a gardener or in other forms familiar to his disciples, precisely to awaken their faith” (CCC, 645).


Regarding the hypothesis that the resurrection of Jesus was merely a symbol or a metaphor, Pope Benedict clarifies:

“The Apostolic preaching with all its boldness and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside with something entirely new and unforeseen, namely, the self-revelation and verbal communication of the risen Christ. Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the Apostolic preaching which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner, mystical experiences. In all its boldness and originality, it draws life from the impact of an event that no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined” (‘Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week’, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2011, p. 275).


For Pope Francis, the recovery of the centrality of the kerygma for the preaching and apostolic mission of the Church is fundamental. He outlines this in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ and has returned to it on many occasions. In the document, he urges the Church to have a new conviction of faith in the resurrection and a new boldness in proclaiming Christ as risen from the dead. The Pope clarifies that, in contrast to symbolic interpretations of the resurrection, what has come back to life is not just Jesus’ message and kingdom but his person. In a section entitled ‘Evangelisation and a Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma’, Francis writes:

“We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal. The kerygma is trinitarian. The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’ This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment” (The Joy of the Gospel, 164).


Later in ‘Rejoice and Be Glad’, Pope Francis again exhorts that the boldness of early Christians inspire the Church today:

“We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesia (boldness): “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29)”.

He continues:

“Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward. Let us ask for the apostolic courage to share the Gospel with others and to stop trying to make our Christian life a museum of memories. In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate history in the light of the risen Jesus. In this way, the Church will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises” (Rejoice and be Glad, 133, 139).

So, what does a renewed faith in and focus on the resurrection, look like? What difference might it make to our preaching and teaching today? Here I probe four examples that suggest an answer.


(i) Prayer and spirituality. Too often we think of the resurrection of Jesus as something external to us. We also think of it as a mystery that has only to do with Jesus. The truth is that because of the bodily resurrection of Christ, all of the material world has been raised to a new level of being, including our own bodies. Because of the incarnation and the resurrection, flesh, blood, elements and compounds have been divinized by God’s spirit. Furthermore, although Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, he shares that new life with us. Because we have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, the explosive power of the resurrection is not external to us and our nature but now resides deep within our human nature: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you’ (Rom. 8: 11). This theology has major implications for how we pray or rather how we allow the Spirit to pray in us. It also reveals the power of God’s Spirit active in our nature that seeks to transform us and conform us to God’s nature, maturing us in the art of love and shaping us to become an image of Christ himself. It is the Spirit of God that revives anything dying inside us, illuminates any darkness, heals every wound and forgives every sin. The action of the Spirit of the risen Christ within us, does not replace or overwhelm our nature but pervades it, perfects it and assimilates it to God’s nature as life-giving and self-giving love.


(ii) Funerals. The mystery of the resurrection speaks to the mystery of death that touches us all. We all grieve the death of a loved one and one day we will die too. As a priest who has the privilege and responsibility to preach God’s Word at many funerals, I often find myself tempted to scramble for scraps of comfort for the grieving family, especially if it is a tragic death. Another option of approaching this challenge is to highlight the positives from the person’s life, remember the good times, name the gifts of the deceased and honour their contribution and legacy to their families and the community.


All of this is legitimate provided that the resurrection is not reduced to a symbol of positivity that helps us to feel better. For example, we often hear it said at funerals that “He/she will live on forever in our hearts”. But while this means that the deceased will be remembered by those who grieve them, the truth of our faith in the resurrection is much more breathtaking in its bold hope that the person who has died is not just alive in human memory but actually still alive in God. The desire to console people at funerals, however important, must not be the central focus which must always be the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ from the dead and our hope that the deceased shares in that new life that Christ won for us. What ought to stand at the center of every funeral liturgy is not the person who has died but Christ and the deceased’s share in his new life because of their faith and baptism. Here is a great opportunity we still have as Church to be bold and to proclaim the hope that flows from Christ being alive having conquered death – a truth symbolized by the lit paschal candle that stands in a prominent place in the sanctuary for all to see. Outside of the funeral liturgy, the spirit of the risen Christ unites us permanently to loved ones who have died, to the communion of saints and ultimately to God himself. For in the words of St Paul: ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ’. Love never dies and it is the resurrection that has made this hope possible.


(iii) Suffering. The mystery of suffering is as incomprehensible as God Himself. Nevertheless, because Christians believe that Christ was God incarnate, then through Christ and his cross, God has not taken away suffering but taken it to himself to be transformed from bitterness into love. While people continue to suffer horrendously every day, the resurrection of Christ invites us to endure suffering in time with the resurrection and eternity in view. This is what St Teresa of Avila did when she wrote that, compared to the joy of eternal life with God, all the suffering endured in this world will be like a night in an inconvenient hotel. The cross was but a moment, the joy of the resurrection lasts forever. Similarly, St Paul glimpsed that ultimate goal of his life was union with Christ and the ecstatic joy that we taste in the present and will be ours fully in the future: ‘Eye has not seen, ears had not heard all that God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9).


For many of the great saints, the experience of suffering was always linked to love and being made more perfect in love. For St John of the Cross, when the Christian participates in the suffering of Christ, in progress is nothing less than “the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover’ (Dark Night, 6). For St Therese of Lisieux, suffering is none other than a preparation for heaven: “I thank you, O my God, for all the graces you have granted me , especially the grace of making me pass through the crucible of suffering…I hope in heaven to resemble you and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of your passion’ (Story of a soul).


St Elizabeth of the Trinity urges those who suffer to see it as a time of purification and growth in holiness: “Believe that at those times he is hollowing out in your soul capacities to receive him, capacities that are, in a way, as infinite as he himself. Try then to will to be wholly joyful under the hand that crucifies you” (Letter 249).

What these witnesses testify is that suffering and death do not have the final word but are mere preludes to an even great joy that awaits us in the fullness of resurrected life.


(iv) Hope. Finally, a word on hope. Believing anew in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the source of all our hope. For the first disciples, the death of Jesus and the manner of his death was the end of their hopes and dreams. No where is this more evident that in the wonderful story of the encounter of the disciples with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus as they were walking away from the community of faith, away from the place of mission and away from Jerusalem (Luke 24). Provoked by the questions of Jesus, the disciples revealed that their hopes had been that he would be the one to ‘set Israel free’. Then, Christ began to re-shape their hopes with the Word of God in a way that led their hearts to burn again, to hope and to believe once more. Suddenly, all things were possible. With the death of Christ, the worst thing that could ever happen did happen when the Son of God, when truth and love itself was killed. But God raised him high and by doing so showed that God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe, stronger even than death.

Therefore, the resurrection is the source of our hope, the hope that saves. Hope is not believing that bad things will never happen to us. Rather it means that if and when they happen, the love of God that is present and active in all the events of life is working all things for the good of those who love him. In the words of St Paul, hope does not disappoint us, because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). And so, the prayer of the Easter Christian becomes: “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful’ (Heb. 10:23).

Again, the saints encourage us to hold steadfast to the promises of Christ and never give up hope. Shortly before his death, St Oscar Romero anticipated what might happen to him and despite his death being a real possibility, Romero hoped beyond it to a new future . He said: “A bishop will die, but the Church which is the people will never perish.” Similarly, St John Paul II, who lived through two totalitarian regimes with Nazism and Communism, spoke about the limits God places on evil (‘Memory and Identity’). For this reason, his main biographer named him a ‘Witness to Hope’ for the third millennium. To the youth of the World in Toronto in 2002, John Paul II said:

“Although I have lived through much darkness under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young…do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it!”

Most of us will not have to encounter regimes that threaten us like John Paul II did. But we all have to face some struggles. These might be a health problem, a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or some other event that uproots us and raises many questions and doubts. What do we hope for when these things happen? What is our hope when all hope is gone? Our hope is that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ and that despite the worst that can happen, his love endures forever – the love that is our strength and life.


Conclusion:

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul clarifies what is at stake with the doctrine of the resurrection. If it is not true, then we are the most pitiful of all people (1 Cor. 15:12ff). The stakes were high then as they are now. Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection. Easter is a time to allow the resurrection stories in the Gospels to speak for themselves, on their own terms. It is a time to proclaim them in all their power and newness. Just as a large stone could not contain the presence of Christ in the tomb, no symbol, metaphor or analogy of the resurrection can capture the power of Christ’s person, truth and love, risen from the dead. As we have seen, the declaration that Christ is alive has major implications for how we pray and how we understand ourselves as partakers in God’s very life. It has huge significance for how we view suffering and death. The resurrection is ultimately the source of our hope, the hope that saves us. These are just some of the ways that a bold proclamation of the resurrection makes a difference, not only at this time of Easter, but throughout the whole liturgical year. May we not be lacking in the boldness and courage we need today to proclaim the resurrection of Christ with the same joy and conviction as the early Apostles, saints and martyrs!!!

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