Understanding Jesus’ rising from the dead and its implications is central to understanding Christianity.
Here, John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, explains the fantastic opportunity the Pope has given us through his new book Jesus of Nazareth II,to understand more about the Resurrection of Jesus and its meaning.
Three false ideas
In the final part of Jesus of Nazareth II, Pope Benedict considers what it would have been like to encounter the risen Lord and distinguishes between three false ideas.
First, that the Jesus of Easter Sunday was simply a reanimated corpse, second, that he was a ghostly apparition, and third that the sight of him was some kind of mystical vision of an other-worldly figure.
He insists that the resurrection was both a historical event, occurring at a particular time and place, but an event that “nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it” and one in which “matter itself is remodelled into a new type of reality”.
Here the Pope is both looking back to find a coherent account of what happened that day, but also inviting us to look forward to our own resurrection.
Picturing the after-life
If they think about it at all, Catholics today tend to view the after-life either in terms of some congress of the departed, gathered in an unending summer afternoon, or else as some kind of spirit life in which vaporous souls engage in psychic communication.
Neither vision is satisfactory for all sorts of reasons but principally because they miss the whole point of Christ’s resurrection which is that in overcoming death he transformed the expectation of the after-life.
While we cannot know quite what lies ahead we do know that, in the words of St Paul:
“Now Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep: For by a man came death: and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But every one in his own order: the first fruits, Christ: then they that are of Christ, who have believed in his coming” (1 Corinthians 15: 20-24).
A complete change in history
As Benedict observes “the Resurrection is not the same kind of historical event as the birth or crucifixion of Jesus. It is something new, a new type of event”.
More than that it is an event by which all humanity was changed, becoming creatures that could live anew beyond the destruction of death. Out of this episode, involving a figure then barely known, the whole of human history was changed.
As we reflect upon the course of Lent and prepare ourselves for Easter week, we could have no better guide to the historical meaning and everlasting significance of the events of those few days than the successor of Peter, the one of the apostles to whom Jesus first appeared, before later appearing to the twelve. In singling Peter out for that privilege Jesus was, as the Pope observes, “once again renewing Peter’s particular mission”.
That mission has been handed on and, as this second volume testifies, it remains a powerful means of bringing people into the company of Jesus of Nazareth.
John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.
This piece was originally published in the Scottish Catholic Observer earlier this month.
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