The claim of Christianity is that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed by his actions and words, to be one with God, was crucified, died, and was buried, and, on the third day, rose from the dead. A man once living, died, and rose again. This is something new. Something unheard of before. Something surprising, especially to those first disciples. For most of us who have been Christian are whole lives, we kind of take this claim for granted, as we repeat it each Sunday when we recite the Creed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to us. But there is no bigger deal in all of history. At the Easter Vigil, we listened to extended readings from the Old Testament that trace the arc of salvation history - the story of human sin and God’s response to our sin. How God made us for himself - to live with him. How we were unfaithful to God’s love and turned away from that relationship with him. How God seeks us out in our sinfulness and infidelity, repeatedly intervening in our history to call us back to himself. God is faithful to his promises in the face of our infidelity and saves his chosen people in surprising ways. All of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Christ - prefigures or points to Christ as the fulfillment of the revelation of God’s love. Everything in the the Old Testament was preparing the way for us to receive Jesus as our Savior, as the Messiah. But it is clear from the Gospel accounts, that when Jesus came, the ones who were the most educated in the scriptures and the tradition - the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious elite, were often the last to believe and the most opposed to Him. They were not receptive. Even the disciples who heard Jesus preach many times about his death and resurrection, were surprised when it happened. When they heard Jesus preach about the resurrection, they did not understand. Resurrection is something totally new to the human experience. It didn’t fit in any previous category. Sure, there were miraculous healings in the Old Testament in which some of the prophets like Elijah raised someone from the dead, but those persons died again. They rose to the same life they had before. What Jesus was talking about was a new life that his resurrection would bring - a resurrection to eternal life, a share in the divine life. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection reveal that even when the disciples saw Jesus alive after he was dead, they were slow to believe, they didn’t understand. It just didn’t “compute”. Jesus spent 40 days with the disciples until his Ascension for them grasp the reality of the resurrection. But it was not until Pentecost that they really “got it”, literally, when the same Spirit - the love of the Father - that raised Jesus from the dead, was poured out on them, and they experienced the resurrection - this new life - in their lives. The outpouring of the Spirit is what changed them to be witnesses of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit makes the life of Jesus present in their lives. The life of Jesus is re-presented in them. One needs a living relationship with Jesus to know the truth of the resurrection. That living relationship with Jesus for us happens in the life of the Church, the communion of the faithful, the communion of the baptized, those filled with the Spirit, who are the Body of Christ on earth. The experience of the resurrection still comes in a surprising way. “And its content is mystery, even as the mystery reveals itself as perfectly ‘reasonable’ - as the fulfillment of what the heart has sought all along but could not conceive on its own.” One needs to encounter personally the fact of the resurrection through an event that happens in our life. We don’t get it merely by reading the scriptures or studying theology. The truth of the resurrection - an experience of the resurrection - can only be seen when one risks entering into a relationship - when one is willing to become a disciple and follow another who is living the faith. That is the method of Jesus: “come and you will see.”
Recently I listened to a podcast in which an evolutionary biologist was commenting on religion and faith. Even though this scientist is not a person of faith, he is not hostile to religion or religious traditions. In fact, he would say it would be dangerous to get rid of religion or dismiss religious practice. Because it is something that is common to all known cultures since the beginning of history, religious belief and practice, it must convey some evolutionary advantage or it would not have developed. From his perspective, looking at religion through an evolutionary lens, he explained his reasoning this way. It was a great advancement for humanity to develop consciousness of time and the awareness that making sacrifices today could benefit one in the future. Learning to “delay gratification” by saving money or storing up goods would provide a way to survive and enjoy the benefits later - trade with them for a future benefit. But why would you make sacrifices if you yourself would not see the benefit down the road? The purpose of religion, he says, is to pass the benefits on to the next generation. I’ll make this sacrifice now and gratification will be delayed until the next life. God will reward me for the sacrifices I make today in the next life. I wont’t see the benefits now. So self-sacrificial charity is explained by either an eternal reward or an eternal punishment. Cultures that developed the concept of an afterlife with a judgment on behavior would better pass on benefits to the next generation and therefore have an evolutionary advantage. Get rid of religion and it is really going to mess up our cultural stability and our survival as a species. He concludes that religion is metaphorically true but literally false. Like a myth, it conveys a truth about human nature that is helpful for our survival, but it is really an invention, a fiction. When I heard this, I thought, “has he met any real Christians?” Is this what our faith looks like from the outside? Is this how we are living our faith? I did not make the sacrifices to become a priest because I think God is going to reward me. Do you work that extra job to put your children through Catholic school and send them to college because God will punish you if you don’t? I do have to admit that many people have reduced the faith to this type of exchange mentality. People do see heaven as a reward for good behavior. But that is not what God has revealed to us. Eternal life is a gift that can’t be earned or merited. Perhaps this is the difference with Christianity as compared to pagan religions or other religious ethical systems. God is not a punishing God, but a god who is merciful and loving and came to save us from our sin. He is a god who comes close to us and treats us with tender mercy. He is a god who is willing to sacrifice himself for our future benefit. We love not to earn a reward but because He has loved us first. The life of charity is a free response to God’s love for us. His presence, his risen presence generates this “newness” of life in us. St. Paul, describing the effects of baptism writes, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” There is something “new” or different about the life of a Christian that can be recognized but not explained by a scientific theory.
A well known Spanish sociologist, Mikel Azurmendi, recently wrote a book called “The Embrace” about his encounter with Christianity that brought about his conversion. He didn’t simply study a “tribe” of Christians from the outside but dropped the lens of sociology and followed what he began to admire in them - the way they educated their children, cared for the poor, and formed their families. Through this admiration, he began to identify with them. He wanted to be like these people he saw. After some time the question emerges, could what they say is the source of their life be true? He describes his experience this way: “This life, which is so beautiful that I would like to live it, the lifestyle of these people made up of dedication and joy, this life- style, what makes it possible?” You can have a flash of inspiration. There are spectacular, beautiful people who have a kind of flash of inspiration, but then they burn out. Instead, you see these lives, I followed the story of these lives for two years; these people, families, and I know it is impossible without a miracle. This family is a miracle; that person is another miracle. There are miracles everywhere. It is very mysterious. The lifestyle pushes me to ask myself, “What causes this lifestyle?” You can live a flash of inspiration for a year or two, but an entire life... But your life, the next person’s life, lives like these: they’ve been around for two thousand years. I think Christians have lived as you live for two thousand years, making humanity beautiful, bringing charity and love into blossom…. You could explain one life, one life for a good bit of time–not one’s whole life–but explaining the families, the many lives, generations who do good, who embody goodness...
There is only one explanation for that fact: that what they tell you is true; that the truth is really truth in action. Truth is always operative. Truth produces life. This lifestyle is produced by something: they say it is Jesus Christ. If I need that life, if it is an object of admiration for me, I have to look with admiration at the motor that animates this life. And that’s everything. Then, you understand that motor was hu- man. God made man. That’s the only way you can understand…. And it is not just that Jesus said it, it’s that these people are the ones who are doing it. So, you put two and two together, and you say, “I have to believe in this; this is the living Jesus in whom I believe.” If it wasn’t for this unexpected encounter which set his admiration in motion, he would not believe in God. “God” is an idea, an abstraction, but our belief in God is rooted in a fact, an event that happened 2,000 years ago and continues to happen today, in the same surprising way.
We renew our baptismal promises to remind ourselves of the fact that God has entered our life - that we belong to God, that God has chosen us and shared his life with us, making us “new creations”. May we keep watch for the Lord. Seek the Lord and be attentive to the newness of life we see in others and not be afraid to follow what we find attractive. We are often surprised when someone notices this newness in us. We are made for this newness of life. As we hold up our candles and renew our baptismal promises, may we be reminded that we share in the light of Christ - the light that has changed the world, the light of the resurrection. May this saving light shine in our lives for all to see.