The Church today concludes the Octave of Easter, eight days of the celebration of Easter Sunday. The Divine Office prayed by the Church over these days repeats the psalms of Morning prayer and Evening prayer of Easter Sunday each day, thus asserting the liturgical unity of this sacred time as one great feast marking the Resurrection of Christ and the overflowing joy that brings to the whole Church. It is the feast of a new life, a whole new existence which has come forth from the tomb in the Risen Christ, a new life that has been given to us through the Risen Lord, and in the Risen Lord.
Today’s liturgy changes the focus of our attention, somewhat, in relation to this mystery, directing us more to the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for His people, for us, who have been baptized into his death and into his resurrection as Paul teaches. It is this new life that should catch our attention now, the life that is spoken about in today’s Gospel right at the end; “that believing you may have life in his name.
What is this Life John speaks of here, or that Paul speaks of in Romans 6:4, where he says, “we too might live and move in a new kind of existence.” This new existence, what is it; and how is it connected with the resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection?
The newness of this existence can be seen already in today’s first reading from Acts where we see the early Christians selling of and giving away their earthly goods and embracing a whole new way of life, based absolutely on their faith in Christ and His resurrection. Their dispossession of their earthly goods is a sign that something utterly new and transcendent has taken hold of them, that they recognize that their whole life has been changed. They now lead a new life already here in this world. For them, Christ has truly risen, and they themselves have been made sharers in that “new kind of existence” Paul speaks about, a new kind of existence that can only be glimpsed in Jesus as to its ultimate reality, but which they share nevertheless, no matter how imperfectly. And they have a firm hope of sharing its fulness one day in their own resurrection, and that allows them to leave everything behind and live a new kind of life here and now, as a living witness to their truth of Christ’s resurrection and the new life in inaugurates.
The Church has preserved this powerful witness to the resurrection in the state of life that we call religious, where men and women imitate that early witness of the Church by leaving all things and living a common life, and dedicating their lives to the Kingdom here on earth. This witness is vital for the Church in every age, precisely because it testifies to the radical newness of the Christian life, and the full truth of the resurrection which brought that life into the world in its fulness in the risen Christ, the source of that life for all of us.
One way to appreciate the newness of the life and resurrection is to compare it with the belief of Moslems or Mormons. Both of these religions natural reality. That is, in both religions the endless life of eternity involves simply a resurrection of the body to a perfect but only purely natural state. The resurrected body according to these religions no longer suffers and dies, and enjoys all the good natural pleasures of this world. In both these religions then the new life is really the old life, but without the negative aspects of suffering and unhappiness and death. One can see how attractive this is to man since we now experience only the natural pleasures of this world.
But the resurrection of Christ was something quite other than a mere resuscitation to a perfect, natural existence. We get hints of this in certain things that Christ says, such as the fact that there will be no marriage in the world to come: At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. [Matt. 22:30] It is not insignificant that in both the other two religions, an eternal marriage, be it polygamous or monogamous, is at the very core of their eternal happiness. For surely marriage is indeed a great good in this world, and can be a great source of happiness and pleasure. However, Jesus clearly teaches that there will be no marriage, and this revelation is a significant indication that the heavenly life and beatitude in the world to come must be of a wholly other order, not simply a perfection of natural goods and pleasures, but something much greater, which these earthly goods can only anticipate and point to here on earth.
an absolutely transcendent, supernatural, life consisting of the most intimate union with God, a union which will extend even to the flesh. This new life is now ours by Baptism, but only imperfectly, but we believe that this new life will be ours perfectly one day in the resurrection of the just, This new, risen life has its roots deep within the mystery of the Incarnation. First God became man, and this event is wondrously the “humanization” of God in Christ. But likewise in Christ, man also became God, and along with the Fathers of the Church, we can call this the “divinization” of man. This mystery is hidden in Christ till his resurrection, and then in the resurrection it is fully revealed in Him. Even the Lord, prior to the resurrection, did not have the full experience of this divinization of his flesh, for he had to be able to suffer in the flesh, and die in the flesh so that we might one day receive our share in His life in our souls and one day in our flesh.
What we Christians believe is that in baptism Christians begin to share in this ineffable mystery, that is, Christians begin to live a wholly new life, even if not yet fully, by the gradual divinization of our humanity. The baptized person becomes a child of God, not metaphorically, but truly, by truly sharing in the very risen life of Jesus, the life which is God’s. This new life is not simply a simple coming closer in friendship with God, but a wholly new mode of existence in which God now dwells in the soul, through the communication of Eucharist.
Nonetheless, like Christ, before His resurrection, we do not yet share the beatitude this life bestows, the overflowing happiness that finally flows from the possession of the divine life. That will happen only when we see God, dwelling in our souls; which vision will fill our souls with a happiness and an ecstacy that we can barely begin to imagine here in this world. And this beatitude will be completely experienced, like Christ, only in the resurrection our flesh, when His glory will raise our mortal bodies, glorify them, and communicate to our flesh this same beatitude, happiness, ecstacy, which belongs to Christ and Mary, and which surpasses all our ability to comprehend.
Thus, the resurrection we look forward to is not a simple continuation of our earthly life in some future earthly paradise of delights. The resurrection means nothing less than our whole being, body included, being divinized, making us all God’s children in the fullest possible sense, sharing the one Son’s glory and beatitude forever.
It was this Easter faith that motivated the early Christians to quite literally abandon everything on this earth and begin to live a common life which is truly new. It was not a rejection of the goods of this earth, in the way that some natural religions abandon them, as if they were evil in some sense. No, these early Christians were simply overcome by the joy of their new faith, by the glory they beheld in the Risen Lord, by their faith that this was their destiny also, and they simply began to live in the wake of its light, longing to possess only that glory, and thus detaching themselves from everything else. They were simply doing what Paul speaks so plainly of in his letter the Colossians:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at
the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you
have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life
appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
– Col 3 1-4
This passage expresses the new trajectory of the Christian life, Life in Christ, here in the shadows of faith, and there with Him one day in the full light of glory. The life issuing from the resurrection of Jesus is something that so far surpasses anything we directly experience in this world, anything purely natural, that we it dazzles our weak minds. And yet even our minimal understanding of faith is enough to make us yearn so much for that life’s full perfection that we also are ready to abandon everything for its sake. The example of the first Christians, the example of the consecrated religious who today truly live their common life in an abandonment to Divine Providence reminds us all of the power of this faith of ours, and the glory of the life that faith alone even begins to comprehend.