Easter faith rooted in personal encounter with Christ
By Glen Argan
(First published in The Catholic Register)
Belief in the bodily resurrection from the dead of the crucified Christ is the core of Christian faith. St. Paul stated the point succinctly – “If Christ had not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15.17).
Indeed, the importance of the resurrection goes further than that. The empty tomb reveals that the resurrection is not a testimony to the immortality of the soul or to a “spiritual” rising in which Christ’s spirit lives in his followers while his body decays in the ground. As well, the rational grounds for belief in the resurrection are evidence that faith is not blind or irrational.
The empty tomb does not “prove” that Jesus rose bodily; his body, as many allege, could have been stolen. Indeed, the annual celebration of Easter is frequently accompanied by articles in mainstream media which contain assertions that Christ’s body was stolen, and the evangelists concocted a tale to justify their continued allegiance to Jesus.
That is an easy line of argument for those who do not accept the Christian faith and its implications for how one might live. But the real fairytale is that of the stolen body; it does not withstand rational scrutiny.
First there is the witness of the apostles. All, except St. John, accepted disgrace and martyrdom for their faith, a fate few, if any, would accept if they were promoting a lie about a dead saviour.
Then there are the Gospel stories themselves. If the apostles were concocting a fable about Jesus rising from the dead, one would think they would tell the same story. Yet, the Gospel accounts of the resurrection vary considerably in length and detail without, however, contradicting each other. St. Mark’s account of the resurrection is only eight verses and does not report any appearance by the risen Jesus. John’s account runs for two chapters and tells of four post-resurrection appearances.
As well, women are the primary witnesses to the resurrection. If one wanted to provide a credible account of the resurrection in first century Judah, women would not be part of the story. Their testimony was not accepted.
Fourth, Paul testifies that the risen Lord appeared, not just to a small coterie of his friends, but to more than 500 “brothers and sisters,” most of whom were alive at the time of his writing and could be questioned about their experience.
Further, the Gospel stories about the resurrection include oddities which writers would avoid if they were spreading fake news. Jesus passes through walls but can eat a meal; Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is a gardener until he speaks her name; the two disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus until bread is broken. Instead of tying up loose ends, the evangelists make them public, thus testifying to the resurrection as an event beyond human understanding.
This is an essential point. For while we can marshal historical and literary evidence in support of Christ’s resurrection, faith requires more than reason. It requires an encounter with the risen Lord. Faith is not only rational; it is also personal.
We rise to faith when we hear Jesus speak our name, when we feel him speaking to us through Scripture, when we meet him in the Eucharist, when we experience love or the miracle of birth, or when we are astounded by the awesomeness of nature or great art.
An encounter with Christ can radically change how we perceive the world and how we live. Those holy people in our midst whose lives previously struck us as odd may now overwhelm us with their beauty. Happy events which we once saw as fortunate coincidences we now understand as gifts from God which inspire gratitude and awe. We may abandon sinful or unhealthy habits overnight because God has touched us.
Such encounters cannot be proven to be epiphanies, revelations of God’s presence. Non-believers can easily dismiss them as delusions or superstitions. But for those who have encountered Jesus, no proof is necessary, and reason is here irrelevant.
Christ made this new life possible through his resurrection. The resurrection also makes possible our sharing eternally in divine life. Reason can help set the ground. But a personal encounter with Christ in the garden, on the road or through Word and sacrament offers a lasting taste of the divine presence.