by Fr. Michael Shanbour
The Holy Apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith when he wrote to the Corinthians:
“And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).
It would be fair to say that one who does not believe in the Resurrection of Christ cannot be called a Christian.
But what does it mean to believe in the Resurrection of Christ? What is resurrection in the Christian understanding and what are the undeniable and essential theological implications of the Resurrection of Jesus as reflected in the Holy Scriptures and the whole Tradition of His historical Church?
The Resurrection is Present Not Future
In a conversation with Martha of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, our Lord Himself revealed the true nature of this resurrection when He corrected Martha’s limited understanding. When the Lord assured Martha that her brother would rise from the dead, Martha responded in this manner:
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn. 11:24).
In other words, Martha understood the resurrection as a future event, a reality that would occur (only) at the end of the age. As a typical and pious Jew, she could not conceive of the resurrection as something to be participated in now. In her mind the resurrection was a static event relegated to some “time” in the future, not an organic reality made possible through relationship with the God-Man, Jesus. The Lord then corrects her, seeking to change the whole paradigm of her understanding, saying,
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (Jn. 11:25).
Among other things, Jesus was telling Martha that in Him the Resurrection will be a reality available in the present to those who are joined to Him. By His death He would destroy Death as it had existed up to that time, transforming it from the inside out, filling up Death with Life by entering into it Himself as Man and overcoming it as God through His Resurrection. Through Him, Resurrection would be a function not of time but of relationship. Death is overcome NOW by all those whose humanity is joined to the Resurrected Humanity of God!
Implications of the Resurrection
It is not surprising then that the immediate consequence of Christ’s Resurrection was that
“the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:52-53).
This raising of the righteous was not a mere “show” of God’s power to bolster the ranks of his disciples. Rather it reflects the new Reality of the Resurrection, the transformation of the condition of death and of human nature through Christ.
The appearance of the “dead” to those in Jerusalem as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew is the very same phenomenon which occurs so often in the life of the Orthodox Church, typically but not exclusively with those recognized as “Saints.” Therefore in recent times we hear of appearances by Saint John Maximovich of San Francisco and Saint Nectarios of Aegina in Greece to “many” in need of healing or help, or for some other purpose in the will of God.
Yet many who claim to believe in the Resurrection unknowingly share a similar understanding of resurrection as did Martha of Bethany. Some believe in “soul sleep,” the idea that people are unconscious after death, only to awake at the Second Coming of the Lord. Others hold there can be no relationship or communication with the dead, even with those who are
“dead in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:16).
Somehow these Christians have placed a barrier between heaven and earth that is not found in the New Testament.
Resurrection: The Unity of Heaven and Earth, Living and Dead
Quite the opposite, the New Testament proclaims the unity of
“both things which are in heaven, and things which are on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
If no such unity exists, and if it is not a unity that is actualized and made present in the Church of God, we must wonder what in the world
“an innumerable company of angels,”
“the spirits of just men made perfect”
were doing in the churches of St. Paul’s time (Heb. 11:22-23). After Jesus’ crucifixion the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, but not just to show the abolition of the Law. It was torn “from top to bottom” to show that the separation of heaven and earth was abolished in Christ. Speaking of the Liturgy of the Church in the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom agrees with the Holy Apostle Paul, when he says,
“This Eucharist of ours liberates us from earth and transports us to heaven.”
Mother Gavrilia, an undeniably holy woman of the 20th century was once asked to speak to a Protestant group in America. Of all things, she chose to speak about the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. After her talk, time was allotted for question and answer. A man got up and said, “How can you speak of ‘praying to Mary,’ after all, she’s dead?! Mother Gavrilia immediately quipped,
“Oh, we believe in the Resurrection!”
While her answer may seem to some overly simplistic, it could not be more profound. If we follow to their logical end the implications of the Resurrection of Christ, who is the
“first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20),
we will not be able to separate those who are “living” and those who are “dead” in Christ, for His Resurrection has changed everything! Rather we can only allow for separation between those who are in Christ and those who are not. As our Lord testified to the Saduccees who did not believe in the resurrection,
“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).
And Saint Paul teaches the same:
“For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:9).
In the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31), a “great gulf” separated the rich man from Lazarus. However there is no such gulf mentioned between heaven ( or “the bosom of Abraham”) and earth, only that the rich man’s brothers would not believe even if someone came to them from the dead. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, our Lord conversed both with Elijah, who did not die but who was taken up bodily into heaven in a fiery chariot, as well as with Moses who did die and was buried with his fathers.
The unity of heaven and earth is nowhere more obvious than in the Revelation of St. John. For instance in chapter 5 we are allowed to peer into the liturgy which continually takes place in God’s kingdom, where the church of heaven is actively praying for the church on earth:
“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints [on earth]” (verse 8).
Rupture and True Resurrection
Not long after the Great Schism, the West began to forget the nature and importance of the Resurrection as a result of its myopic focus on the Crucifixion. Thomas Aquinas, revered as one of the greatest saints and doctors of the West, wrote that the Resurrection was only necessary to confirm that Christ is God. In this mindset the Resurrection has no real theological meaning and no organic connection with the salvation of human persons through the glorification of human nature in Christ. Aquinas also believed that through the sin of Adam, man’s will had become fallen, but not his mind. This further contributes to the perception that faith is a function of thought, of logic, of philosophy, rather than being a function of the transformation of human persons through their union with the Resurrected Humanity of Christ.
It is easy to see how such a position can devolve into mere “belief-ism,” the idea that “if we believe in Jesus we get to go to heaven when we die.” Such a stance has little to do with the good news reflected in the Holy Scriptures. Because real Christian belief and faith is more than an intellectual assent to certain doctrines; it is a union and communion with the Resurrected Lord through His Body, the Church. The doctrines are primarily necessary to promote and nurture this union. Therefore, the Lord Jesus ties life and salvation to the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.
“If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”
The life that comes through Holy Communion is a result of being joined to His Resurrected Humanity, which is Itself joined to His Divine Nature. Only inasmuch as we organically incorporate into our souls and bodies this life of resurrection, now in this life, can we say we are
“being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15).
If salvation is not a real participation in the resurrected life, the glorified and grace-filled Humanity of Christ, then there is no practical function or need for prayer, for fasting and ascetical effort, nor even love for neighbor. Without it, “Christianity” becomes a mere moral compass for this life by which we view ourselves as “good” people.
But if indeed Christ is risen, Christianity can never be reduced to this.