Let the Scriptures Speak
The Age To Come Is Here
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man 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.
Whatever Jesus had said to his followers about his death and resurrection—they were simply not prepared for either reality. Mark says that most of them scattered after the arrest and were not around for the crucifixion. John notes that they were cowering behind locked doors on what turned out to be Easter Sunday. And this Sunday’s Gospel, John's account of the discovery of the empty tomb, shows Mary Magdalene, and then Peter and the beloved disciple, as initially clueless. For Magdalene, the discovery that the stone had been rolled back could mean only one thing: grave robbers; someone had carried off the body of her Master.
When she informs Peter and the beloved disciple, they run to the tomb to verify her report. On closer inspection they notice not just the absence of the body; they notice the linen wrapping lying on the ground, and the napkin that had bound Jesus' face set aside and nicely rolled up. What to make of this? Would grave robbers have bothered to undress the corpse before carrying it off? And would not the removal of linen bonded to a bloody body be a difficult and uninviting task? And is not the whole point of grave robbery to loot treasure? Of what commercial value is a corpse? No. The presence of the wrapping demanded another explanation.
Most people are aware that the famous Shroud of Turin has long been venerated as precisely the wrappings mentioned in John's account. While the jury is still out regarding the authenticity of the Shroud, some of the observations of its scientific analyzers raise some fascinating questions about that piece of cloth. Trying to account for the negative image scorched on the linen and the nature of the blood stains, one (non-Christian) examiner said, in effect, “The only way I can account for these phenomena is that, to leave the blood stains intact and to produce this kind of image, the body must have somehow passed through the cloth.”
We'd love to know more about what exactly transpired in that tomb. On one point, though, the New Testament accounts are insistent: resurrection is not resuscitation. When St. Paul takes up that issue with the Christian community of Corinth, he makes it clear that the risen body is not a mere return to biological existence. Nor is resurrection an entirely nonphysical existence with no continuity with the pre-mortem body. It is a bodily existence all right, but a bodily existence that has been transformed. Paul uses the analogy of the seed that is planted, and the vegetation that emerges. The seed has been transformed into a new existence (1 Cor 15:36-38).
Well, however such considerations fascinate our late-twentieth-century minds, they are not the aspects of Jesus' resurrection that fired up his Jewish followers. For them, Jesus' resurrection was not just about the body of one person. His resurrection was about world history. Yes, world history. In first-century Palestine, there were several ways of thinking about postmortem existence. The Sadducees didn't believe in any kind of life after death. The Pharisees, however, did. They developed the teaching of the book of Daniel into an understanding that a general resurrection of the faithful in Israel would be part of the “age to come”—the time when the kingdom of God would be manifest by the restoration of the tribes of Israel, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the establishment of peace and justice. For people who thought this way—and Jesus and his followers apparently did—resurrection from the dead was part of the larger package of this Age to Come.
Once they experienced Jesus as their risen Lord, present to some of them in very bodily ways—the last one being Paul's own privileged experience on the road to Damascus—there was one obvious conclusion. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Age to Come—the kingdom of God—must have arrived! That's why the New Testament writers use the bold language of new creation to describe Christian existence.
The resurrection is not simply a proof that Jesus is truly son of God; it is also the sign that cosmic history has taken a new and fresh turn. We can sense this in the reading from Colossians 3. Paul dares to tell the Christians of Colossae that they have already died and been raised up with Christ. That is his way of reminding them that their baptism has begun a new kind of existence for them in this Age to Come. When he goes on to urge them to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth,” it sounds like he is urging a kind of withdrawal from ordinary life. As we read on in this letter, however, it becomes clear that he is very much thinking of ordinary life. He says that the negative stuff we all deal with—anger, lust, greed, deception—must be addressed with the healing power of the new life we have in Christ. The resurrection of Jesus enables us to let God reign in our ordinary lives in ways that demonstrate we are part of a new creation—not complete, obviously (just think of ethnic cleansing), but that kingdom is evident wherever communities allow the spirit of the risen Lord to have its way.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University