The Bishop of Fulham finds help in preaching the Resurrection
Cross or Resurrection? It is absurd to make them into alternatives, but often we can be tempted to do just that. We pray in aid uncritical reflections on Christian art, or liturgy: the Latin West for the Cross, the Orthodox East for the Resurrection, generalizations only slightly less convincing than the conviction felt by so many that `Celtic Christians’ were all for vegetarianism and nature-worship.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on ourselves, or on others, when we struggle to hold together at one moment both Good Friday and Easter Day. The mysteries of salvation unfold sequentially; Christianity is an historical religion. Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh, then crucified, then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. In our thinking and in our praying, perhaps we can cope with only one thing at a time.
So now the Church gives us the season of Eastertide: the Great Fifty Days in which we are called to celebrate with special emphasis and joy Christ’s rising from the tomb. Every Sunday is the Day of Resurrection: now is the Season of Resurrection, in Augustine’s famous phrase, We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song:
St Thomas Aquinas considers the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in his treatise on Christology in Part III of the Summa Theoiogica, Q53. In the First Article of Q53, he asks Whether it was necessary for Christ to rise again? Thomas quotes St Luke 24.46 (`Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’), and offers five reasons why this is so. I summarize them below: they make a sound basis for a series of Easter sermons from Low Sunday to the Sunday before Ascension Day, inclusive. Note how closely St Thomas roots all his reasoning in Scripture.
First, the Resurrection of Christ attests to the Justice of God. God exalts those who humble themselves for his sake (see Luke 1.52). Christ has humbled himself on the Cross, out of love for God, and obedience to him; therefore, God has lifted him up to a glorious Resurrection.
Second, the Resurrection of Christ instructs us and confirms us in our faith. The Resurrection proves Christ’s divinity (2 Corinthians 13.4) and it establishes the sure ground for our belief in him (1 Corinthians 15.14; Psalm 29.10).
Third, the Resurrection of Christ is the grounds for our hope, for where Christ our Head has gone, we too hope to follow (1 Corinthians 15.12; Job 19.25, 27.)
Fourth, the Resurrection of Christ enables us to live justly and to be free from sin (Romans 6.4, 11).
Fifth, the Resurrection of Christ completes our salvation. The death of Christ on the Cross was to deliver us from evil; so his Resurrection is to open the way for our glorification. (Romans 4.25).
Lovers of the Book of Common Prayer might, in particular, wish to reflect on how these last two of these themes are reflected in the Collects for the Sundays after Easter: for example in the Collect for the First Sunday after Easter (the old Collect for the second Communion service on Easter Day in the 1549 Book).
Two more questions
In the Second and Third Articles of Q53, Thomas goes on to consider two questions which might seem to us less pressing: Whether it was fitting for Christ to rise again on the third day? And, Whether Christ was the first to rise from the dead? Thomas answers the first question with a mixture of very practical and more speculative thinking. Christ has to rise from the dead speedily; his Resurrection should not be deferred until the end of the world. But it was also needful that there should be a gap between death and resurrection, lest some should think that he was not truly dead. This is the practical reason. More speculatively: three is the perfect number, the number of everything (having a beginning, a middle and an end); and the third epoch begins with the Resurrection, the first being before the Law, the second under the Law, and the third under grace.
As to the question in the Third Article, Thomas argues that while others had been resurrected to life before Christ’s resurrection (e.g. those brought back to life by Elijah and Elisha; those who, according to St Matthew’s Gospel, came out of their graves at the moment of Christs death), they would die again: Christ is indeed the first to be raised to the resurrection life, to life everlasting.
Finally, in the Fourth Article of Q53, Aquinas asks whether Christ was the cause of his own Resurrection. He answers that insofar as Christ is raised by the divine power, and that this is the same thing as the operation of Father and Son, yes, Christ was raised up by the divine power of the Father, and by his own power.
So the Angelic Doctor and father of Western theology gives us plentiful teaching and reflection on the First Glorious Mystery, the mystery of the Resurrection which we celebrate with special intensity and joy for these Fifty Days.