How exactly does the Resurrection fit into the mystery of redemption? Though the question touches on the heart of our faith, many of us might not be readily able to answer it.
The question first came into focus for me one evening at my family’s devotions. Like many Catholics, we pray the Divine Mercy Novena from Good Friday to Divine Mercy Sunday. Over the years, however, we became concerned about the incongruity of repeating “for the sake of His sorrowful Passion” 450 times during the height of the Easter celebration.
Thus, our custom now is to insert the words “and His glorious Resurrection” to help us maintain the spirit of the season. On one occasion, however, someone voiced an objection: how could we pray for mercy “for the sake of . . . His glorious Resurrection,” when it was the Cross that paid for our sins? In fact, said person opined, it would have been more of a sacrifice if Christ had died knowing that He would not subsequently rise in glory.
Responses to this came quickly to mind; my first thought was of the words of the liturgy: “Dying You destroyed our death; rising You restored our life.” Of course, the Church has always taught that the Resurrection is an essential part of the whole Paschal Mystery. Not infrequently, however, we miss how this is so. The way we speak and think about our Lord’s death and Resurrection often implies that the former is really what brought about our redemption, while the latter is important to give the story a happy ending . . . but what does it directly have to do with salvation?
The Resurrection and Jesus’ Mission
It’s an understandable question. The Cross as redemption makes sense fairly easily, because almost everyone is familiar with the concepts of punishment for wrongdoing and of some generous person bearing the penalty due to another. One’s suffering buying another’s rescue is simple enough. But how would triumph and glory do that? We must, however, understand the answer, lest we trivialize Easter, reducing it to a time of merriment over an amazing event in the past.
To be sure, Easter devotions often describe Christ as conqueror of death, which indicates part of the Resurrection’s significance. What could be more grossly inappropriate than for Him who is “the Life” to succumb to death permanently? How could the Author of life and fullness of being assume to Himself a complete created nature and then let that nature be shattered and molder? Christ is God, the summit and source of all life; as such He had to overcome death, so to speak. As St. Peter explains on Pentecost, “God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). The hymns and other prayers that speak this way also indicate that Jesus’ Resurrection has saved all of us from death in some way (“Death is conquered, man is free . . .”). Nevertheless, it can be easy to lose sight of precisely why His Rising has these universal consequences.
To clarify the issue, we should consider what exactly Jesus came to do. He did not come merely to pay for our sins; that was part of His mission, certainly, but not the entirety. He came to be the new Adam, that is, to mend human nature. The first Adam, as forefather of mankind, determined all his offspring’s destiny by his choice. When he fell and upset the perfection of his being, becoming subject to corruption of soul and body, he inflicted the same loss on all his descendants. Why? Because they inherited their nature from him.
The New Adam
Thus, God the Son became a human in order to restore damaged human nature. His suffering does more than pay for our crimes; it enables all of us to be truly purified. This is why we speak of being baptized “into His death” (Romans 6:3): as we are joined to Him, brought into the renewed humanity of the new Adam, the merits of His atonement are applied to us too, just as the first Adam’s sin was passed on to all descended from him. St. Paul sums up this doctrine concisely: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
What does this imply about the Resurrection? The question is clearer now: if Christ came to bring a renewal of human nature, that renewal first had to take place in Him. As the “pioneer” (Hebrews 12:2) of the new mankind, He had to lead the way into the life He came to give.
That life is the perfection of what God intended for human beings. Thus, it had to be a physical resurrection, a reunion of soul with body; after all, God made men to be spiritual creatures, but also bodily creatures, not pure spirits like angels. Moreover, body and soul both had to be perfected, freed of all the corruption with which Adam’s fall had infected them. This is why Christ’s risen Body was no longer subject to pain or death; it could not be killed again. Even His five wounds were no longer torments, but rather symbols of His conquest. His Body now also possessed other perfections and powers, such as passing through walls and locked doors, giving us some intimation of what our own resurrection will be like.
Furthermore, the Resurrection offers hope not only to men, but to the entire physical order: as Adam’s sin brought decay and destruction into the cosmos, Christ’s Paschal Mystery promises the renewal of His creation. In the words of Romans 8:21, “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Christ brought His own humanity into glory so that He might lead His creatures to the same end.
The Chalice of Humanity
An analogy may help to illustrate this point. Venerable Fulton Sheen used the image of a chalice stolen from the altar and made into a beer mug, thereby losing both its sacred purpose and the form proper to that use. If someone subsequently found it and wished to restore it, he would first have to put it into a furnace and melt it, burning off the mug-shape, then mold it back into the shape of a chalice. Once it had been remade, he could bless it (or have it blessed) and restore it to the altar.
This chalice’s story is the story of humanity: by the Fall, man became “deformed” so that he could no longer live the life of holiness and peace which God meant for him. Through His Passion and death, Christ took human nature and burned off the deformities and corruptions. But merely erasing the old was not enough; the new, mended form had to be given. Thus, in the Resurrection, our Lord took humanity out of the “furnace” of death, restored it to its proper condition, and offered to all a way to regain the life Adam had lost.
From all this, it follows that the Passion alone would have been insufficient to save man. If one threw the chalice-turned-beer-mug into the furnace and left it there, it would no longer be a beer mug, but neither would it be a chalice; it would be nothing. Christ did not come to bring fallen mankind to nothing, but rather, as He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
If He had only died, without rising, He would have made a fitting sacrifice for our sins, but this reparation would have been useless to us, because He would have given us no new life beyond the destruction of our old one. This is why St. Paul insists, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The Catechism phrases this same point positively: “The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life” (CCC 654). One cannot lead people into something without oneself actually entering. Christ came into the perfection of human existence in order to give that same perfection to all who would be united with Him.
This, then, is what makes Easter the climax of the liturgical year, and its mystery the center and summit of our faith. This is why we can indeed implore mercy “for the sake of His glorious Resurrection.” Jesus is the new Adam, the founder of the new humanity; where He leads, His people follow. His Resurrection, far from being merely a satisfying conclusion to the God-Man’s sojourn on earth, is the completing of His redemptive mission, the human race’s hope of restoration, and the promise of His final victory over evil.
Since we have received so glorious a redemption, we must remember the breathtaking immensity of what our Redeemer has done for us, resolve to follow Him confidently through the Cross into His glory, and praise Him with hearts full of grateful joy. Amen.