God's Answer to the Problem of Death
“For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”
The Resurrection is a mystery that requires faith. Without faith, we’re celebrating the Hallmark Easter – you know, the one where there are bunnies and pastel colors and fresh flowers. The Hallmark Easter is nice, but it is nothing compared to the Resurrection of the Son of God. The Resurrection requires faith because it relies upon the testimony of witnesses. As we heard St. Peter announce to the crowds in Jerusalem, “This man [Jesus Christ] God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
The Christian faith is based on the testimony of those witnesses, the Apostles, who experienced the Lord’s real presence after He rose from the dead. But as we all know, there is a deep crisis of faith in our world, a crisis of faith precisely in whether or not there exists a God who could raise someone from the dead, or whether what we read about in the Scriptures is a real historical event that actually happened two thousand years ago, or just so much nonsense, as the disciples themselves thought when the women brought the news to them. We live in a world that prefers the nice Hallmark Easter to the real one. So this question is posed to us: Why are we here? What are we seeking before the empty tomb?
The crisis of faith in the Resurrection of Christ is brought about in part by an unresolved question: How can we claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, but still allows so much suffering to exist in the world? There is a puzzling lack of a clear response to this question in the Scriptures. But if we do not see God’s response to the world’s questions, it is because God communicates in a very different way. God does not propose a philosophical argument to the problem of evil and suffering. His answer is not an argument, but a person, a person who has Himself suffered and has emerged victorious – One who is not merely a human person, but a divine person who fully shares our human nature in all things except sin.
This is even the answer given by the most notorious sufferer in the Old Testament, Job. After his faithless friends castigate him for refusing to recognize the evil he must have done to bring about the loss of all that is dear to him, Job responds, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Job realizes that God proposes not an answer, but a victory, and a victory that will not only be His, but will be shared with all those who have faith in Him.
But to really understand how this mystery matters to us, we need to rewind a little. On Holy Thursday, we saw the profound union of the Eucharist that Christ instituted that night and the Cross whose sacrifice the next day that first celebration of the Eucharist anticipated. We saw that the Last Supper was “the anticipation of the violent death of Jesus, and that the Cross without the Supper, the Supper without the reality of the Cross, would remain void. Now we have to add that the Last Supper also anticipates the Resurrection, the certainty that love is stronger than death. This act of love to the last is the transubstantiation of death, its radical transformation, the power of the Resurrection already present in the shadow of death” (Ratzinger 122). In the Eucharist, the Resurrected Christ not only changes bread and wine into His body and blood – He changes death into life.
If the power of Christ’s Resurrection could already be present the night before He died, transforming His violent death into a sacrifice of love, the power of His Resurrection is, as Job professed, already present for those of us who still wander in the shadows of this life. This is why we call the Eucharist the medicine of immortality, because It is Christ’s risen Body and Blood, guiding “us to the fount of true life, of invincible life, and showing us where and how true life is to be found” – in following Christ, and Him risen from the dead. His body that He gives us is the Body that has been raised, so that what is dead in us who receive Him might also be given new life.
The fear of suffering that we all experience, and that causes us to question whether God is really there, is ultimately a fear of death. The human person, after the fall of Adam of Eve, is always going towards death. “But at the same time, there is in physical life a spiritual center which aspires to eternity,” and so in some sense death is a contradiction that denies the essential human yearning for a life beyond this one.
When we profess in the Creed that Christ became man, we affirm that He was also walking towards death. “The contradiction inherent in human death reaches its culmination in Jesus” (R, 123). His death interrupts His constant dialogue with the Father. “Something more is shattered here than in any ordinary death. There is an interruption of that dialogue which in reality is the axis of the whole world” (ibid).
Thus we can understand the full weight of that mournful and disturbing cry that Christ let out on Good Friday: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” He gave voice to the great tragedy of the greatest and worst death of all time.
Jesus’s humanity that seemed to have been killed, though, was hidden in the exchange of love between Him and His Father. It was fixed on the rock of eternal love, and cannot but rise from the dead and resume once more its human fullness.
If the great question of past ages was, “Who is God?” the great question of our age is, “Who is man?” “Who is the human person?” This does not mean, though, that Jesus Christ has become any less relevant. He reveals God to us, and He also reveals what it means to be men and women. By being born in obscurity, living most of His life in a humble tradesman apprenticeship, and then spending three years as an itinerant preacher in an obscure corner of the Roman empire, but at the same time teaching a Good News that challenges all who heard it then and hear it now to a new way of life, and then giving His life in the ultimate sacrifice of love, and rising victorious from the grave on the third day, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, taught us that God is not so distant as the ancient philosophers imagined, and not so possessive of one nation only as He first gathered the Jews; and that the great questions that vex us – Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be a human person? Does the suffering in my life have any meaning? – are not so mysterious as to have no answer.
Faith in Him, and in Him crucified and risen, is everything. The tension that we experience inside us, the questions that puzzles us, He is the answer. We wonder about the meaning of suffering, and we wonder about the meaning of life, because we know that one day we will die. God’s answer to the problem of death is not a philosophical argument or proof, but the person of Jesus Christ. He is the solution, because He is risen from the dead. Just as the disciples were invited to make an act of faith before the empty tomb, we are invited to make an act of faith before His living presence in the Eucharist. This solution which is a person, and which is truly His victory of death – He is present here.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord, A.D. MMXXIII
All references to:
Pope Benedict XVI. Journey to Easter. Crossroad, 2006.
Image: St. John and St. Peter at Christ's Tomb. Painting by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (Italy, Viterbo, circa 1640)