The Meaning of Easter
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Easter is the most important feast in Christianity. In fact, it is the pivot of the ecclesiastical year around which everything in the Church's calendar revolves.
Already in the first century of the Christian era, Sunday replaced Saturday as the Lord's Day, a weekly commemoration of Easter. Yet in secularized cultures like the United States and Canada, Easter is not much celebrated except liturgically. It is too religious and too Christian for people who are immersed in the things of this world to pay much attention to a world to come and to a life after death, yet that is what Easter is all about, to those who believe.
My purpose here is to ask three questions and briefly answer each one in sequence:
What do we commemorate on Easter Sunday?
Why did Christ rise from the dead?
How are we to live out the mystery of Christ's resurrection?
What Do We Commemorate?
On Easter Sunday. we commemorate the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the grave on the third day after His crucifixion and death on Calvary.
Of course. the resurrection of Christ is a mystery that we believe. But it is also and emphatically a historical fact that we know actually took place.
It is a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth really lived, really died, was really buried, and really rose from the grave.
It is a provable fact that Jesus came back to life after being crucified, that His disciples were unwilling to accept the fact, but were given overwhelming evidence that Jesus had truly risen. It is a fact that Christ's resurrection was no mere subjective experience. It was no illusion or merely spiritual phenomenon. No, the risen Christ had a body, and flesh, and could be seen, heard and touched.
Why Did Christ Rise from the Dead?
The great minds of Christianity have written volumes in explanation of why Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave.
The resurrection of Christ is the great vindication of divine justice, which elevates those who humble themselves. In the words of St. Thomas. "Since Christ humiliated Himself even to the death of the Cross out of love and obedience to God, He was therefore exalted by God even to His resurrection from the dead." It is this glorification of His risen humanity to which Christ refers in St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises when He says, "My will is to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father."
The resurrection of Christ is also the great proof of His divinity and in that sense the keystone of our faith. During His mortal life Christ had often professed Himself to be God in human flesh. "The Father and I are one." He declared. In testimony of this claim He allowed Himself to be crucified, died, and by His own power arose from the dead; thus clearly manifesting that He was indeed the Resurrection and the Life, first in His own favor and then for all the rest of mankind. Without the divinity of Christ, confirmed by the miracle of Easter Sunday, the incarnation is a misnomer and the redemption a sham. "If Christ has not risen," says St. Paul, "vain then is our preaching." And vain all the mysteries of our faith.
Besides confirming our faith in His divinity, Christ's resurrection gives the hope of our own restoration from the grave. As the first fruits of those who sleep, the Head of the Mystical Body became a pledge of immortality to His faithful members on the last day. This is integral to the promise of Christ that those who follow Him in labor and suffering will also follow Him in glory. While only part of the reward, the glorification of our body after the example of Christ can be a powerful motive in the spiritual life. Since the control of bodily passions by "acting against sensuality and carnal desires" often demands a great deal of sacrifice, there should be a corresponding remuneration, not only for the soul but also for the body which shared in the earthly struggle. For the soul, this reward is the beatific vision, for the body, it is the resurrection which endows the sensible faculties with transcendent powers and inebriates them, in the words of revelation, with the torrent of God's pleasure.
Finally and most importantly the resurrection of Christ is the cause of our reinstatement in the friendship of God. As the result of Adam's fall we were twice removed from divine love, once by reason of original sin that infected our human nature and once again by the loss of sanctifying grace that gave us a title to the vision of God. Two kinds of life were to be restored, as there were two kinds of death from which we had to be redeemed, the one bodily and the other spiritual. As the passion of Christ removed both forms of death, so His resurrection restored both forms of life.
How Can We Live the Mystery of Christ's Resurrection?
The answer to this question is as simple as it is startling. We live the mystery of Easter by our devotion to the Holy Eucharist. Let me repeat: We live out the mystery of Christ's resurrection by our devotion to the Eucharist.
How is that? Or better, how is that possible? It is not only possible but practicable because the Holy Eucharist is the Risen Christ. It is the Risen Jesus, now on earth in our midst.
In the Eucharist the Risen Lord is ready to bestow His graces, provided we believe and humbly ask Him for what we need.
The Eucharist is the Risen Savior offering Himself in the Mass, coming to us in Communion, and living among us by His very Real Presence on our altars.
The Catholic Church is undergoing the most difficult ordeal in her history. She has had more martyrs since 1900 than in all the previous centuries put together.
But the Church will survive and even thrive where and in so far as she has faithful members who believe that the risen glorified Jesus Christ is with us - as He promised - in the Holy Eucharist, even until the end of time.
Copyright © 1997 Inter Mirifica