Easter – the Death of Death

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The following is the homily of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, delivered during a livestreamed Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne, on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.  This man God raised on the third day…”.  These words of Saint Peter from the Acts of the Apostles express the very heart of our Christian faith.  “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead” (Pope Benedict XVI).  

If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, He would just be remembered as a great religious teacher who taught some beautiful things and performed some miracles.  If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, His disciples would have just gone back to their previous lives and professions.  They would have continued to celebrate the Jewish sabbath and not begun to celebrate Sunday as the Lord’s day.  But they didn’t.  The Resurrection of Jesus changed everything.  They went out to bear witness to the Risen Lord.  

Saint Peter and the other apostles went forth and bore witness to the Resurrection of Jesus.  They did so because they actually saw the Risen Lord.  He appeared to them, spoke to them, and ate with them.  They were able to touch Him.  They encountered a reality that no human being had ever encountered.  For these disciples, the Resurrection was just as real as the cross.  They were surely astonished and overwhelmed by this reality.  It was an utterly new experience, something we can only imagine.  We celebrate this reality today.  We do so with faith.  In next Sunday’s Gospel, we will hear Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  Thomas and the other apostles received tangible proof of Jesus’ resurrection.  We believe through their word.

The apostle John believed before he even saw the Risen Jesus.  He believed when he saw the empty tomb and the burial cloths.  What did he believe?  It was at least some degree of faith in the resurrection.  He believed that God had somehow acted there, that God was responsible for the tomb being empty.  Saint John was the beloved disciple. Love leads to greater knowledge.  When John entered the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

What do we believe?  What is our Easter faith?  After all, none of us has ever experienced what we read about in the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels.  They speak of something new, something outside our world of experience.  We’re talking about a new dimension of reality.  Pope Benedict XVI has famously spoken about the resurrection as the greatest “evolutionary leap.”  It wasn’t the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse.  God raised Jesus.  He did not just resuscitate His body.  In this final stage of human evolution, the barrier of death was overcome.  It was truly “the death of death.”

With Jesus’ Resurrection, we are brought to “a new horizon in which matter, space, and time are enveloped by divine love and power” (Christopher Baglow, Faith, Science, and Reason).  Jesus “rose to an entirely new and indestructible kind of life, a life that is beyond the biological life that we have by our nature” as human beings, beyond the life which Jesus assumed when He became man in the Incarnation.  “From the perspective of physics, the Resurrection is the elevation of matter to a new way of existing beyond what is possible in the normal state of the universe.  From the perspective of biology, the man Jesus, belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal.”  His body now is “in” God (ibid).

What happened on that first Easter was an evolutionary leap, a leap to a whole new kind of life.  We celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection today with joy.  We celebrate also with hope because Jesus promised us this new kind of life.  At the end of the Creed, we proclaim our faith in this promise when we say: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”  We believe that we will have a place “in God,” in His life which transcends the limits of biological existence. 

Biology always involves death.  We are even more keenly aware of this during this terrible pandemic.  With the Resurrection of Jesus, “the dominion of biology has ended” and “the sovereignty of death has ended as well.”  Jesus has opened for us a life that will no longer be restricted by biology, a life no longer subject to death.  Jesus conquered death.  That’s what we celebrate today.  

Saint Paul calls the Risen Christ “the firstborn of many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29) because He offers us the way to join Him, body and soul, into the glory of this new life, the glory of the Kingdom of God.  Remember what Jesus said to His disciples before His death: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14: 2-3).  The Father’s house is not so much a place as it is the divine communion of life and love in which we share through the glorified humanity of Jesus. 

Even though our world is going through a terrible trial with so many deaths from the coronavirus, we still celebrate Easter Sunday.  So many are grieving the deaths of loved ones.  We have all experienced this grief in our lives, but as Saint Paul writes: “do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13).  Jesus says to us as He said to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Have faith in God; have faith also in me (John 14: 1).”  

My brothers and sisters, no virus can destroy our hope and our joy today or ever.  Our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting fills us with this hope and joy.  Easter teaches us that God has conquered death, that His love is stronger than death.  As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, says: “death, solitude, and fear are not the last word.  There is a word that transcends them, a word that only God can speak: it is the word of the Resurrection.”  May the Risen Lord bless all of you with the joy and the hope of Easter!