Thoughts on the Resurrection II:
How Jesus Isn’t Lazarus
Resurrection can become for each of us a daily experience.
Every slight pain, every small anxiety, misunderstandings, disappointments,
and life’s contradictions—all of these are experiences of little deaths.
Our daily hurts, every one of them, have within them the joy of the resurrection.
–Cardinal Basil Hume
The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) prepares us for the raising of Jesus. It is what John calls a “sign” or a symbol of the resurrection. And yet what’s so important about the raising of Lazarus is how different it is from the resurrection itself.
We see Lazarus walk out of the tomb, but we don’t see Jesus. Jesus is gone by the time we get there. The tomb is empty.
When Lazarus walks out of the tomb we know it’s Lazarus. It’s obvious. It’s him. But when Jesus rises and appears to people, even people who knew him before, even his friends, they don’t recognize at first. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener. The disciples are fishing and see a figure by a fire on shore and that’s all they see at first.
Lazarus doesn’t come through locked doors. He doesn’t come through walls. He doesn’t appear and then vanish.
And he will die again. Just like anyone else.
But not Jesus. Not Jesus. He will never die. He will ascend.
This is the most important difference of all: that the raising of Lazarus is good news only to him and to his family. It doesn’t change anything except for him. But what happens on the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus radically alters the very nature of reality for all of humanity forevermore.
“If in Jesus’ resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse,” Pope Benedict says, “it would ultimately be of no concern to us.” “It would be,” he says, “no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors.” This is from Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazarethand it echoes The Catechism in every detail. “The New Testament testimonies,” as he puts it, “leave us in no doubt that what happened was utterly different.” The Resurrection of Jesus–and I’m quoting here still–“was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” It was not “an isolated event” but what the pope, in a really striking phrase, calls “an evolutionary leap.”
In the Resurrection “a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future.”
Wow. Powerful, striking stuff. As my late friend and colleague Marc Borg often used to say, if we went back in a time machine, if we could actually stand before the tomb, we couldn’t really videotape the Resurrection, we couldn’t actually see it directly, and though as Catholics we disagree with some of Marc’s ideas and the ideas of the Jesus Seminar, I think this is exactly what Pope Benedict is saying, too, and what the Catechism tells us and what the raising of Lazarus tells us. This wasn’t just a physical event. The gospel accounts of the resurrection are a kind of literary shorthand for something far more profound.
But we have to be careful. We have to immediately qualify this. Because as contemporary people we are so used to thinking in either/or terms that we immediately think, well then, the Resurrection was just an idea, it was just a feeling, it didn’t really happen. No. No. The gospel writers knew the difference between a dream or a vision and a real event and they don’t call the resurrection a dream or a vision, and we have to take them at their word. When people did recognize Jesus they recognized him. When the encountered him after the resurrection they could touch him. Thomas put his hands in the wounds. On the shore of the lake he made the fishermen breakfast. No. This was real, absolutely real.
Indeed [Pope Benedict says] indeed, the apostolic preaching with all its boldness and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside . . . Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner, mystical experiences.
The Resurrection, in other words, was historical. It happened. The disciples aren’t making it up. The Church in all its courage and conviction could never have come from a mere idea and it could never have lasted until now if all there was here was a metaphor.
What Pope Benedict is saying and what the Catechism is saying is that the Resurrection wasn’t just historical. It was more than historical. Again, I’m going to quote the Pope. Just one more time. I want to get this right:
Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?
Well, I know I’ve been risking your patience. This is all pretty abstract and complicated. But here at the end of this last quotation we get to the real point, to the wonderful implication, to the astonishingly good news: something unexpected, something new has happened, and it’s happening in your life right now. Something new has happened inside of you, too.
Because you, too, are making an evolutionary leap. You, too, believe that there is more to life than biology, more than the merely physical, more than the digital and the industrial and the relentlessly commercial, more than your sins, more than doubt and anger and violence and greed. It’s happened in you, a new faith, a new hope, and it’s happened because of the Resurrection, because of what happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, because what happened then was real, more real than anything that has ever happened and ever will happen, and it is still real, it is still happening, in you and in me and in the Eucharist and in all of us here. We are the Body of Christ, we are the Risen Lord, He is in us and we are in Him, and like Mary and like Martha we know now, we really know, that we, too, will never die, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, we will never die, we will live forever, we really know that, we really believe that, because we feel it now, it’s happening now, in this place.
We are already living forever, because the Lord who has risen is risen indeed, is truly risen, and his life and his goodness and his beauty fill all the universe, fill every atom, fill and overflow and transcend every quark, every Higgs-Boson, now and forevermore.