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The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead at the first Easter is the fundamental truth which the Christian church preaches, beginning with the testimony of the apostles in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are witnesses, Acts 2.32. But why is the bodily resurrection of Jesus so important, and how can something – however miraculous – that happened two thousand years ago affect us now?
What is resurrection? Emphatically something that happens to a body, the body of Jesus in the tomb. Two points are crucial here. First, by divine power life is restored to what had been dead: as S. Paul writes to the Corinthians, For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. Second, the body so raised remains definitively human, the human body of the divine Word imbued with all the glory of heaven, but still a body like ours from which we are able to receive the vitality of Christ’s risen life. So the body of the risen Christ is tangible to those who encounter him: to the women at the tomb, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Thomas the apostle who will not believe until he has touched the mark of the wounds, but tangible in a way that touches them with a new and vital power.
The Christian hope then is one of resurrection: For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ shall all be made alive. When Dante describes the souls of the blessed in heaven in the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy, he has them say, The lustre which already swathes us round/Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long/ Day after day now moulders underground. Immortality, survival after death, even the vision of God enjoyed by the souls of the just, these things are not in themselves the consummation of the Christian hope. The Christian hope is one of bodily resurrection, as Paul writes to the Philippians: He will transform the body of our humiliation, so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, (Phil 3.21).
But even if Christians hope that this is true, how can it have value for us here and now? The Book of Common Prayer expresses this in the prayers it sets for the Easter liturgy. On Easter Eve the Church prays that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son … so by continual mortifying of our corrupt affections we may be buried with him. On Easter Day she prays that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect. Christians are not bound to a moral law that they cannot keep; they are incorporated into the life of the one who fulfilled every “ought” through his own obedience to the Father, and who brings to good effect in us the good desires he sends.
The monastic writer Blessed Columba Marmion compares the linen cloths left in the tomb after the resurrection to our infirmities, which they symbolize: He comes forth from the sepulchre; his liberty is entire; he is animated with intense, perfect life with which all the fibres of his being vibrate. In him, all that is mortal is absorbed by life. The dominion of sin, death and corruption is defeated and Christ who is our head receives the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7.6). This indestructible life is our Easter faith and hope. At this time of great affliction, in which the certainties and securities that encompass our lives and which only a month ago seemed so solid now appear fragile and precarious, the Church of Christ still has confidence to sing, even if not this Easter from within her churches: The strife is o’er, the battle done; Now is the Victor’s triumph won; O let the song of praise be sung: Alleluia.
The Revd Canon Dr Robin Ward is Principal at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.