Bear witness to the resurrection

By  Vivian Ligo, Catholic Register Special
  • April 17, 2007
The belief in the resurrection of Jesus is central to Christianity, as demonstrated by the recent heated debate over the “tomb of Jesus” allegedly found by a Toronto filmmaker. It is a belief that comes to the forefront each year at this time.
Any question about the resurrection must reckon with the context of the first witnesses to Jesus crucified yet risen from the dead. They saw Jesus alive yet bearing the marks of the crucifixion. Some were incredulous at first but they slowly came around to belief. They believed because they saw.

No one witnessed the resurrection itself taking place. Its occurrence was inferred from subsequent encounters with Jesus. The empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus constituted the foundation of Christian faith. This faith formed believers into a church that proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, God-made-man.

Indeed, we need the resurrection because it manifests God’s power over the seeming finality of suffering, evil and death. It reveals God’s gracious intervention into the chaos of human history in order to bring about salvation, to draw good out of every sinful situation, to inspire and validate the quest for truth, virtue and holiness, and so that the whole creation itself may be granted ultimate completion or fulfilment.

When the church finds itself in a multifaith yet also largely secular and even militantly atheistic culture, the intelligibility, reasonableness and attractiveness of this core belief cease to be apparent. Moreover, throughout history there always have been detractors that sought to undermine it. Media hype surrounding Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the so-called Gospel of Judas or the purported discovery of the ossuary of Jesus is just the current version of the same old undertow. Paul in his time already struggled with the issue. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:12-14).

Not only Paul’s testimony, but also that of the apostles and the earliest disciples of Jesus were dismissed as fraudulent or merely confused. Biblical scholars know that later retellings of the resurrection account attempted to counteract claims that the apostles had made up their story about seeing Jesus again. No one else could verify the apostles’ account because Jesus did not appear to everyone. So Peter emphasized that Jesus appeared “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses (Acts 10:41).”

The apostles might just have stolen and hidden the body of Jesus. This charge was attributed to the priests and the Pharisees (Mt 28:11-13). The apostles might just have been desperate enough to want to believe in the resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew underscored that some doubted (Mt 28:17). They might just have seen a ghost. The Gospel of Luke insisted that Jesus ate with His apostles (Lk 24:41-43), and the Gospel of John included an account concerning doubting Thomas’ very palpable encounter with Jesus (Jn 20:24-28).

With advances made in the study of comparative religions, parallels are today drawn between the resurrection and the dying and rising of gods like Adonis, Osiris or Dionysius. The resurrection might only be the Christian version of ancient myths and legends, or perhaps a symbolic expression of a spiritual truth about the triumph of the heroic over the banal.

Situating the resurrection within its original context highlights the fact that it is a signatured truth. Someone stands behind it for its reliability, fruitfulness and splendour. Jesus signed it, as it were, not only with His post-resurrection appearances but also with His promise to be with His followers “to the end of the age” (Mt 26:20). Those who have proclaimed Him as the Christ had signed it as well with their lives and faithfulness unto death. Though not seeing Jesus, the first converts were simply moved by the bold testimony of the apostles (Acts 2:37-42).

“Do we need the resurrection?” is a question that betrays the historical, cultural, philosophical and theological chasm between the church and those outside its fold. It also suggests that perhaps we, the signatories to the truth of the resurrection, may not be compelling enough in our witness to it. We may even obscure it by our personal and collective sins. As signatured, the truth of the resurrection has entailments in our life personally, communally, ecclesially.

Conversion experiences affirm this. Think not only of Paul but also of Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Blaise Pascal, John Henry Newman, Edith Stein, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Thomas Merton, Chiara Lubich and a host of unnamed saints and martyrs of the faith. In effect, Christ happened to them. They in turn gave themselves wholly to Him. Their lives, their witness became their personal signature to the truth of the resurrection.

So whether you come to believe in it because someone has witnessed to it or because you have had your own personal encounter with Christ, you are called to embody and personify its reality so that others may also “come and see” (John 1:39). Though Jesus risen and present in our midst is objective reality in that it does not require our assent to be there, it does require our acceptance and very personal engagement so that in Him we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is on this strength that we can credibly answer the question with conviction, courage and joy. 

(Ligo teaches theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto.)

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