The Emtpy Tomb

The Empty Tomb – Brother Sylvain, Taize Community

Count me among the Catholic Christians who always felt challenged by the central tenet of our faith – that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I was always able to justify many of my Catholic beliefs by focusing mostly on the Gospel message of forgiveness, love, and the truth of a God that lives forever.

But the Easter celebration, physically rising from the dead? I never said it aloud, but deep inside there was a voice that muttered ‘did that really happen?’.

To a large extent, my reservations were many of the same as those mentioned in the commentary by James Martin, SJ in the Wall Street Journal:

“Recent years have seen a tendency to water down the Resurrection. A popular tack in preaching and in contemporary books on Jesus is the ‘shared memory’ thesis. That is, the experience of the disciples after Jesus’s death was not about actual ‘appearances’ as about ‘shared memory.’”

“…In this view, the real ‘resurrection’ came after the disciples remembered and discussed what Jesus meant to them during his time on earth. Revivified by this ‘shared memory,’ the disciples were emboldened to spread the Gospel. In this way Jesus was now ‘alive’ among them. He didn’t need to rise physically from the dead; he lives in their shared memory and commitment to continue his work.”

Fr. Martin continues to explore some of the other criticisms or revisionist views of the gospel that work to erode the foundations of modern belief – that miracles really didn’t happen and, essentially, that the apostles decided to continue Christ’s work simply because He was a really nice guy.

That is the way of our times –  to use our need to understand everything by projecting alternative events that explain why people said what they said and did what they did two millennia in the past. Everything that has happened must have an explanation that can be believed.

Which leads to the question for today’s faithful wanna-bees – how can a modern person place religious faith in what seems unbelievable?

It doesn’t seem reasonable.

But it surprises some to know that the doctors of the Church and her teachings strongly argue that faith and reason are both required in response to God’s call:

  • Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 Encyclical “Faith and Reason” argues that faith without reason “runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition…. the parrhesia [confident speech] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.”
  • Thomas Aquinas saw faith and reason as two compatible disciplines – reason being what logic leads us to conclude by what we sense and experience while the object of faith is that which is absent from our understanding. Aquinas believed that reason provided our free will with a compass, a direction that leads us to faith.
  • St. Augustine also emphasized the need for reason to provide the questioning framework that leads to a closer understanding of God’s presence – he referred to reason as the ability to know and understand the true meaning of faith – you can’t have faith unless reason informs you of its meaning.

It becomes apparent that our Church wants us to think before we say we believe, otherwise our words become mere recitations.

Which brings me back to thinking about the Resurrection and what it means to me as a Catholic Christian. Fr. Martin’s posting strongly dismisses the ‘watered down’ version of the Resurrection as not being credible, given its affect on Jesus’ followers and the resulting beliefs followed by billions.

But he is a Jesuit priest and I’m a Polish guy from Buffalo. What am I to make of the Resurrection?

We live in a world that wants to dismiss anything that can’t be explained as something that didn’t happen. I need to know why I too can ignore the arguments that my faith is built on the tale-telling traditions of the era and that my Church’s success was due to some quirk of history and the fall of the Roman Empire.

My nature is to understand what I believe – what do I do with this story of an empty tomb and a Christ who rises from the dead and appears only to those who believe?

I can start with reason.

Reason tells me that what happened 2,000 years ago was far more powerful and impactful than anything that happened previously. Yes there were the practices of ‘making up’ gods and miracles – but something had to be different here. The ‘god-making’ practices of antiquity may have provided a framework of daily ritual, but none inspired, none survived, and few can think of the names of anyone who willingly gave his or her life for a Roman god.

And reason tells me that something distinctive and unique happened to the apostles, something that turned a room full of terrified men, men who had nothing to gain by carrying on Christ’s ministry (and literally everything to lose), into a team of global missionaries, most of whom gave their lives for what they believed.

Reason tells me that people don’t give up their lives for a lie; people don’t choose death to defend  ‘a good idea.’ Reason tells me that something more powerful happened there, something transformational.

Reason, the application of logic to what I know and experience, also tells me that the Resurrection continues. I myself have tried to live without belief in things unseen, only to understand that such a choice left me trying to live a life without that compass that St. Thomas talked about 800 years ago.

I have seen the miracles that happen when lives broken by alcoholism, drug abuse, loneliness any any other named infirmity are made anew when the sick turn to the Source, the one Truth, to God, for help.

Reason, the ability to use logic to explain what I have seen, experienced, and learned, tells me that faith in God’s love brings the dead back to life.

We don’t know what the apostles and the women of Jesus’ life experienced. The gospels said they saw, they heard and they touched a risen Christ. They experienced and lived through the events that will occur only once in the course of human history. Most died for what they believed in. Their examples inspired first thousands, then millions to do the same. Who are we to dismiss their witness as lies or exaggeration?

Two thousand years ago, a tomb was found empty. Terrified men and women were given courage. Gods of temples and themes were replaced by the Truth and the Way. And the law of ritual gave way to a law of service. That is what happened, that is history.

So when it comes the Easter and the Resurrection, I have reason to believe.


Auquinas 101 – A Basic Introduction fo the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Selman, Christian Classics, Notre Dame, Indiana