The Risen Christ Here and Now: The Feast of the Resurrection
Some members of my household decided to give up sweets for Lent (and it wasn’t my wife and I, because we know better). So over the course of those 40 days a strange new post-dinner ritual emerged in our home. After dinner, our two children (ages 10 and 5) would clear their plates, and then do this sort of aimless zombie walk around the kitchen. They would open a drawer, look in the fridge, or just stand there with a faraway look in their eyes as if life had nothing left to offer them.
Such is Lent. If taken seriously, it can be a very enlightening time. Our fasting disciplines highlight for us just how attached we are to the many and various “wants” in our lives.
We all have them… things that we want. We all have different wants. But perhaps the most universal human “want” is life itself. On a very basic level, I think we’d all agree that we want to live. This universal desire to live makes death a universal problem.
From the beginning of time, cultures have puzzled over the mystery of death, and questions of what happens next. Over time, the answers to these questions were as varied as the cultures themselves.
One nation in particular grew firmly in their belief that a time would come, at the end of the age, when God would raise them from the dead. This nation was Israel, and this God was Yahweh.
It is a matter of historical record that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed firmly in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ own disciples believed in the resurrection of the dead.
By resurrection, they did not mean that a disembodied soul would rise to heaven where it would live happily ever after. Nor did they mean that a soul would return to earth as a ghost or a spirit.
By resurrection, they meant exactly what the word means – a rising again of the physical body – this material flesh and bone which we are made of. The early Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead was the belief that at the end of the age, Yahweh would restore His people from the dust of the earth, in the same way that He created them from the dust of the earth. They believe that the bodies of the dead would be raised, that death itself would be reversed, that God’s Kingdom would come, and that His creation would be completely renewed and restored. The resurrection that was hoped for was not a metaphor, it was a straightforward belief that the dead would be raised up again to life. And not just a single person, but an entire nation.
What Jesus’ disciples did not believe, nor did they expect, was that one person would actually be raised from the dead apart from this general resurrection at the end of the age.
This idea was nowhere on the radar screen.
Which means… that when Jesus died on the cross, their hopes that he was the Messiah died with him. They didn’t sit back and say, “That’s all right, he’ll be raised from the dead in three days.”
It is hard to imagine the devastation they must have felt when the man they had followed for several years was executed. In that moment, all that they had believed in and hoped for was gone.
It is equally hard to imagine their utter shock, bewilderment, and joy at the realization that in fact, Jesus had risen from the dead.
Our Lord’s rising from the dead did not change the disciples’ fundamental belief in the resurrection of the dead – it confirmed it!
This incredible redemptive event that they had all hoped would one day happen to them, had happened to their master. Jesus’ resurrection was for them proof – a sure and certain hope – that they too would be raised from the dead.
But that is not all that Jesus’ resurrection meant. The real mind-blow was that this resurrection had happened, not to everyone at the end of the age, but to one man, right in the midst of a fallen and imperfect world.
This singular resurrection just invaded time and space. The new and incorruptible had entered into the old and corruptible. Life beyond the grave had crashed into a world imprisoned by death.
This magnificent event – this mystical collision between the eternal and uncreated light, and the darkness of this world – marked the beginning of the dispelling of that darkness once and for all.
This wonderful gift of salvation is expressed with such simplicity, and power, and beauty, in the beginning of the ancient Easter Vigil liturgy. In the darkened church, we light the Paschal Candle, giving us the image of a single flame that shines in the darkness.
That flame is the Risen Christ – the light of the world – in whom there is no darkness at all.
And we are invited to share in this risen life – a life that is freed from the power of sin and death – a life that is freed from darkness. We are invited to share in this life, not when we die, not at the end of the age, but right here and right now! In the very midst of this fallen world.
We are invited to share in this mystical collision.
How do we do this? How do we share in this eternal life and light here and now?
Our share in Christ’s resurrected life begins in the waters of baptism.
Through the waters of baptism we are united with Christ in his death. That holy water is our spiritual cross, by which we die to ourselves. In the same way that the Israelites were freed from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of baptism cleanse us from the power of sin and death. Emerging from the font we are raised to new life in Christ.
Our union with the Risen Christ begins in baptism; where that eternal and uncreated light that knows no darkness is born within us. This is precisely the symbolism of the flame of the Paschal Candle, which is passed on to the newly baptized through their own baptismal candle, as they “Receive the light of Christ.”
It is no coincidence that this great Feast of the Resurrection is the principal feast of baptism in the church, welcoming those new lights of Christ who are born into the darkness of the world on this holy night.
The beginning of the Easter Vigil liturgy is a rich and beautiful sacramental portrait not only of Christ in the world, but also of Christ’s Church in the world.
We begin in darkness. We behold the light of the Risen Christ that pierces the darkness. And, as the flame from the Paschal Candle is passed on to light the torches and our hand-held candles, and we share our candle’s flames to light the candle of the person beside us, we see that light spreading through the darkened church. We see, indeed, the light spread throughout the darkness, as it shines in the hearts of his faithful people.
There is only one Christ – only one Light – and that light shines in each one of us.
And as it shines, it spreads.
And as it spreads, we see the power it has to dispel the darkness.
In him we have life, and that life is the light of men.
The beginning of the Easter Vigil liturgy is a picture of the old earth; the world in which we live today; a world where darkness has been defeated by the light of the Risen Christ; a world where every new Christian adds to the fullness of the light of Christ as it spreads throughout, and overcomes the darkness of the world.
But the second part of the Easter Vigil liturgy is a picture of the new earth; when all the lights come on, and all the bells ring; and the choir sings songs of endless praise; and the incense rises unceasingly before the throne of God; and where there is no darkness at all. This is a sacramental portrait of the Kingdom of God right here in the midst of the world.
This Easter liturgy, and every liturgy in which we proclaim and rejoice in the resurrection, is indeed a mystical collision; where we enter – through the resurrected Christ – into the fullness of the Kingdom of God, right here and right now.
I ask you, what more could one want?
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!