Because He Lives

04-10-2021Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

This is the greeting Jesus gave to his apostles and disciples after he had risen from the dead. And it was good that he did. The disciples were grief stricken and fearful. This year we read from Mark’s account of the Empty Tomb, Chapter 16. In verse 8, we read that after the women heard this news:

And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

They were frightened out of their mind. They had come to the tomb and saw the stone rolled away and assumed someone had broken into the tomb only to be told that what actually happened was that someone broke out of the tomb! Yet they were still caught by surprise and anxiety. Why? What was it they thought Jesus had been talking about when he said; I will be raised on the third day?

At this point we might want to take a step back and consider what exactly did the people of Jesus day believe about life and death? You know we have heard the story so often that we might miss how earth shattering the Resurrection event was. We just assume that resurrected life is what awaits us. But not so for the people of Jesus time.

If you trace the notions and understandings of an after life in the Bible you find certain beliefs or theological positions on the issue.

Initially there is very little consideration of what comes after this life in the early part of the Bible. In fact, the ancient’s cultures believed this was all there was. Heaven was for the gods and humans just did the best they could to make this life good. For most ancient civilizations life on earth was merely acting out of what had already been decreed by the gods. You could not affect your destiny nor did your history have any bearing on your present.

But this would change with Abraham who heard God’s voice and obeyed, creating for himself some new understanding. But in those early stories of the Bible the lesson was simple: God is present in the here and now and it is here that you will find him. In fact, the dictates of the commandments reminded the people: be faithful to the Covenant and you will live long and prosper in the land. Not much to say about the after life.

But at certain point the Israelites begin to ask themselves why is then that good people suffer? They began to see that there was indeed something beyond this life. What it was no one seemed to understand.

By the time of Jesus this idea had developed somewhat. For most people death sent you, they believed to Sheol, the land of shadows, a mysterious dark place where you were disconnected from all you love. We hear the Psalmist declare: the dead shall not praise the Lord, nor those who go down into the pit” Then we begin to see a belief in the Resurrection of the just start to take shape. In the Book of Wisdom, we hear: the souls of the just shall rest in the hand of God. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus says, when the poor man died, he was carried to the bosom of Abraham.

Now mind you all of this was shaped by the Voice that first spoke to Abraham. And it was the cumulative understanding of the Torah and the development of human consciousness that this could come about. That’s an important point. For we humans did not invent a delusion to keep us going. Rather we pondered God’s creative goodness with the reality of death.

This idea was also influenced by Greek philosophy. For instance, Plato, saw the body as a prison for the soul. And death would release the soul from its prison.

We see the debate in the gospels between the Pharisees who believed in resurrection/after life and the Sadducees who did not. Even when Jesus asks Martha, dead Lazarus sister about him, she exclaims, I know my brother will rise on the last day.

And then we come to the empty tomb and no Jesus body. The After-life, the resurrection was completely different than anyone had imaged or any theology had developed. It was the resurrection of the body and soul together! Not a ghost, not a detached soul from his body but living again in a whole new way.

One of the arguments against the Resurrection of Jesus is that the apostles made it up. If they did why did they not use the ideas of resurrection that were understood in their day. How in the world did they come up with the idea of corporeal, bodily resurrection?

Before we finished our course of study in Seminary, we were required to take Comprehensive Exams both written and oral. The oral portion was done before a board of faculty members. During the course of the exam, one of the professors asked me, “what if archeologists would discover beyond a reasonable doubt the remains of the body of Jesus? I remember thinking the professor was setting me up for some sort of dogmatic torture line of questioning. My answer was to quote St. Paul: But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:12-14) Since the bodily resurrection of Jesus is core to our faith, if the remains of Jesus were discovered I would walk away from Christianity, so I answered.

This is what was astonishing; this is what freaked the women out who went to the tomb. This is what was so life changing and history changing. This is the good news! This is what took the Apostles from fear-ladened group of men locked in the upper Room to a joy filled people who could not stop talking about it.

And neither should we.

Love, Fr. John B.