The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross. (CCC #638)
Without the Resurrection of Jesus all hope is lost and there is no meaning to His death. The Resurrection makes it possible for us to share in His new life and is then followed by Jesus ascending into Heaven and sending the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at some of the essential truths of the Resurrection so as to understand what it’s all about.
There was a specific day and time that Jesus rose from the dead. It happened in history and was witnessed by many. Mary Magdalene and the other Marys were the first to see Him. Soon after this, some of the Apostles saw Him. Some doubted, such as Thomas. Others saw and immediately believed. The process of coming to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus was a process dependent upon faith. Faith does come from seeing and hearing. It comes from hearing accounts of Jesus being alive and, for some, actually seeing it. But ultimately, the act of believing in the Resurrection required the inspired gift of faith. And this gift of faith produced knowledge of its truth. In other words, upon hearing or seeing, the person must be open to the gift of the Holy Spirit speaking in their soul revealing the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. So even though the Resurrection was a real and historical event, it was only properly understood and believed in by a gift of God speaking to one’s soul.
Jesus did many miracles in His earthly life including the amazing act of bringing some people back to life after they had died. For example, He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5) and also brought Lazarus, His friend, back to life (John 11). What did Jesus do in these two cases and how did it differ from His Resurrection?
In both these cases a person had died. Jesus came to them after death, gave a command, and they returned to life. They were the same as they were prior to death, everyone recognized them, and they were able to resume their lives. This is different from what happened with Jesus in His Resurrection. Jesus did not just come back to life. He did not just resume the life He had been living. No, Jesus was resurrected. He took on a new form of living. He now had a transformed and resurrected body. It was His old body that was resurrected but it was different. With this new resurrected body Jesus brought about a new potential existence for all humanity. This new body was physical but could also appear and disappear as was reported. Many who knew Him did not immediately recognize Him in this new resurrected state. He was different. He could eat but also suddenly appear behind closed doors. He carried the wounds of the crucifixion but was not wounded. He spoke and people listened with hearts set aflame.
It’s important to understand this essential point of the Resurrection. Jesus takes on a new sort of physical existence. It’s an existence that is now meant for all to share in one day when the time comes for the final Judgment and the resurrection of all the dead. All of our bodies will be raised up and those who are just will share in this new form of living. What is this new state? It’s the glorified state. It’s life with a new glorified body. Jesus still has this glorified body in Heaven and it is this body which stands before the Father. So Jesus was not just raised up to His former state, He was transformed to the new physical existence we are all predestined to share in!
Jesus had the power to resurrect Himself but it was not only His action. This was an action of the entire Trinity. It was the will of the Father and done by the power of the Holy Spirit. But, as in all of their works, the entire Trinity acted as one. They were united in their one divine will for a divine purpose.
It’s also significant to point out that the Resurrection unites humanity itself to the Trinity in a new way. It brings this new resurrected and glorified human state into the life of God. The new resurrected and glorified human nature is now fully united to Christ and He is united to the Father and the Spirit which reveals the unity of humanity with the entire Trinity.
This points to the end and goal of all humanity. We now have hope for our own lives to share in this new glorified state of the Resurrection and union with the Trinity. We look forward to this and hope in this. And hope is not just something we wish for. True Christian hope is a virtue that is grounded in some divine truth revealed to us. We have true faith in the Resurrection and this gift of faith also produces hope of achieving what we hope for. It’s a hope and desire that is fully able to be realized because this hope is instilled in us by God and by the reality of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection of Christ tells us that all humanity is now predestined by God’s plan and by this historical act of the Resurrection to share in a new glorious state of life that goes even beyond the original intention of God in the Garden of Eden. We are now called to share in God’s very life, united with Him in a new and glorious existence. This should fill us with excitement, wonder and awe!
Even after Jesus rose from the dead in His newly resurrected and glorified body, things were not complete. The Catechism states it this way:
The veiled character of the glory of the Risen One during this time is intimated in his mysterious words to Mary Magdalene: “I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17) This indicates a difference in manifestation between the glory of the risen Christ and that of the Christ exalted to the Father’s right hand, a transition marked by the historical and transcendent event of the Ascension. (CCC #660)
What this means is that Jesus’ glory, the glory of His resurrected and glorified state, cannot be seen in its fullness by human eyes until we also enter into the glories of Heaven. So Jesus appeared to the various disciples in a veiled way. His full glory was hidden from them.
Think back to the scene of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17). This also was a revelation of this reality. For the moment, Jesus lifted but a part of the veil of His glory and the Apostles were so overwhelmed that they fell face down. Now imagine this same Jesus, enjoying an even more glorified human state, with veil fully lifted in Heaven! It’s beyond imagination. So for now, the best thing we can do is to realize that we cannot realize the glory of Christ’s glorified state in Heaven.
But that is what He enjoys right now. Forty days after the Resurrection Jesus ascended into Heaven to take His place at the right hand of the Father for all eternity. And it was only there that the full veil of His glory was lifted eternally. So when we profess faith in His Resurrection and Ascension we profess faith in this particular aspect also. And it should give us great hope and anticipation of encountering Him there.
We also should note that Jesus ascended by His own power. This is different than what we profess about Mary His mother. We say she was “assumed” into Heaven body and soul. The difference is that Mary was taken to Heaven by the power of God. And Jesus, being God, ascended on His own authority and by His own power. Of course, as with every other act of Christ, this was done in full union with the Father and the Holy Spirit. They acted as one, but they also acted individually. Each freely choosing and acting but acting in union making them one. Yes, this is hard to understand but we need only to try and grasp the reality as best we can. It will be fully understood in Heaven.
As Jesus ascended He had to go somewhere. He ascended to some “place” since He was now in the form of a human and glorified body. This idea of a “place” is hard to understand and quite mysterious. Where is Heaven? Where is its physical location? Is it beyond the Universe? Is it in the Universe? The simple answer is that we do not really know. Many theologians have speculated about this but I will not try to arrive at an answer. It is sufficient to simply raise the question and let that question sit as a mystery still to be understood.
But we can also say that this “place” Jesus ascended to is the right hand of the Father. The Father is not physical but that’s where Jesus is, body and soul. To be at the right hand of the Father especially points to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah and King. He sits on that “throne” to rule all of creation. And He will rule from that place for eternity. Again, the key here is to understand that the image of being at the Father’s right hand is an image especially given to reveal to us Jesus’ unique kingly authority now and for eternity.
We say it every Sunday, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…” But what does that mean? How and when will He return? To properly understand this we must look at the three comings of Christ.
The first coming is all we have spoken of up until now. It’s His Incarnation. He came at one specific moment in time, was born, lived, died and rose again. This coming was complete when He ascended.
There is a second coming we speak about constantly but do not always refer to it as a “coming.” It’s where we are right now in the history of salvation. It’s Jesus coming to us daily by grace. It’s His presence in the Sacraments. It’s His abiding presence in the Church. It’s His communication to us and His help given us through our life of prayer. And this is a real coming!
The section of the Catechism on the Sacraments and Prayer reveals the full scope of this coming by grace. So for now, it’s just worth mentioning and identifying as a real coming of Christ. This is important because when Jesus ascended into Heaven He did not abandon us. He did not leave and tell us He’d be back, that we should be good while He’s gone and that He’s looking forward to meeting us again one day. No, He said He would be with us always until the end of time. That means He’d be with us until that final coming which we will speak of next. But this coming by grace is essential for us to understand.
Once He took His seat at the right hand of the Father He sent the Holy Spirit and the Church began. The Church will also be covered in Chapter 7 but it’s important to mention now that the Church is a true coming of Christ here and now. It’s Jesus, the King and Messiah, who is governing us and directing our lives in an active way through our life of prayer, the Sacraments, and the hierarchy. It’s Jesus who speaks to us through the Saints, the Scriptures, and one another. He is alive and active in our world here and now and He is establishing His Kingdom here and now. More on this later. For now let’s look at His final and glorious coming.
The third and final coming is when Jesus returns to Earth in splendor and glory. It will be “the end of the world as we know it.” It will be a time when His permanent Kingdom is established. There is much to say about this moment in history and it is actually quite fascinating to reflect upon.
Before you read on, open the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or view it online) and read paragraphs #671-677.
Wow! That’s good stuff! It almost reads as a deeply intriguing futuristic science fiction mystery novel. The only difference is that it’s all true, it’s all glorious, and it’s all beyond any mystery we will ever be able to comprehend until it actually takes place. And it will take place at one definitive moment in time to come!
So what does this all mean? It means that Jesus will be returning in all His splendor and glory. He will physically return to Earth one day radiant and glorious. We will see Him, and the world as we currently know it will come to an end. At that moment in time God will establish His permanent Kingdom and both Heaven and Earth will be united as one. It will be “a new Heaven and a new Earth” (Revelation 21:1). The former Heaven and Earth will pass away and the new order will be established.
But that’s not all! At that moment in time all the dead shall rise. That’s right, all people who have ever died will rise. This means that everybody who has been “laid to rest” in a cemetery or elsewhere will be brought back to life, given a new glorified body, and that body will be rejoined to his or her soul.
The Catechism also states:
When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace. (#682)
This is a fascinating thought, and a bit scary, too! It means that all that is hidden will come to light. This can be good or bad depending upon what is hidden. The thought should both fill us with a bit of holy fear, and it should also fill us with a holy joy. The holy fear is actually a gift from God to help us eliminate any secret and hidden sin we have now or have struggled with in the past. Since it will in fact all come to light one day, we might as well deal with it now so that our sin is no more. If we do, even our sin is turned into virtue and grace. And then, at the end of time, that grace and virtue is what will be made manifest. This manifestation of our virtue will be the cause of holy joy not only for us but also for others to whom it is manifested.
We will be judged, then, based on what is there within our conscience. It will no longer just be exterior. We will not be able to put on a good face and pretend we are someone we are not. The full truth will come out and will be made manifest for all to see in accord with God’s plan.
Another thing to note is that at the Final Judgment even those who are in Hell will rise. Why? Because as humans we are meant to eternally be united with our bodies. We are, in essence, body and soul. So even the dead will receive their bodies back. But sadly, they will then suffer eternally not only spiritually but also physically. What this actually entails we do not know. But it will be a real pain of loss. Loss of God and loss in that the body and soul will not be able to share in life with God. This can seem harsh and unfair but we should remind ourselves that God is perfectly just and perfectly loving and however this eternal loss and eternal suffering is lived, it is right and just.
What will this new life look like for those who share in the resurrection to new life? It will be life with God, physically and spiritually, as well as life with each other. The Book of Revelation speaks symbolically of this new life as a city where God is on the throne in the center of the city. Light shines forth from Him so there is no need for the sun or moon. The streets are gold. The gates filled with precious stones. And so much more. This symbolic language should not be taken literally, rather, it should be seen as imagery that helps us understand the beauty, splendor, and magnificence of the life that awaits us. It’s the new Heavens and new Earth. I can’t wait!
One interesting note on this is our customs in cemeteries. First, as I mentioned, we say the person is “laid to rest.” This language comes from the belief that death is temporary. Each body is in the “sleep of death” and awaiting that final resurrection. In Catholic cemeteries we even have the custom of burying a person facing the East. The reason for this is that the “East” is said to be where Jesus will return from. Perhaps it’s just symbolism. We really have no way of knowing, literally, how this Second Coming will take place. But as an act of faith we acknowledge this return from the East by burying our loved ones in a position so that, when they do rise, they will be facing the East.
Some may be curious about those who have been cremated or who died in a fire or in some other way that involved a destruction of the body. That’s easy. If God can make the Universe out of nothing then He certainly can bring together any earthly remains no matter where or what form these remains are in. But it does bring up a good point to address regarding cremation.
Today, cremation is becoming more and more common. The Church does permit cremation but adds some specific guidelines for cremation. The purpose of the guidelines is to safeguard our faith in the resurrection of the body. The bottom line is that as long as the intention of cremation in no way conflicts with faith in the resurrection of the body, then cremation is permitted. In other words, what we do with our earthly remains after death, or with those of our loved ones, reveals what we believe. So what we do should reflect clearly our beliefs. Let me give an example to illustrate. If someone were to be cremated and wanted to have their ashes sprinkled in Wrigley Field because they were a die-hard Cubs fan and wanted to always be with the Cubs, this would be a problem of faith. Why? Because having ashes sprinkled that way does not make a person one with the Cubs. Furthermore, by doing something like this it ignores the fact that they are to be laid to rest with the hope and belief in their future resurrection.
But there are some practical reasons for cremation that make it acceptable at times. It can be less expensive and, therefore, necessary for some families to consider given the high costs of a funeral, it may allow for couples to be buried together in the same grave, it may allow the family to more easily transport their loved one’s remains to another part of the country where the final burial will take place (such as in their town of birth). In these instances the reason for cremation is more practical than having anything to do with faith.
One last key point to mention is that cremated remains should be buried. This is part of the whole Catholic ritual and mirrors Jesus’ own death, burial and resurrection. So burial is also a matter of faith.
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