The Resurrection Is a Historical Event that Transcends History

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 1 March 1989, the Holy Father observed that, while Christ's resurrection was a historical event, it was also "transhistorical," meaning that He didn't merely take back His earthly life, “He passed from death to another life beyond time and space.”

Christ's resurrection was an event consisting essentially in a passage from death to life. It was a unique event which, like the Passover, took place in the context of the paschal feasts during which the descendants of Israel annually recalled the exodus from Egypt. They gave thanks for the freeing of their forefathers from bondage, and exalted the power of the Lord God which was clearly manifested in that ancient Passover.

Christ's resurrection is the new Passover, the new Pasch, which must be interpreted against the background of the ancient Passover which prefigured and foretold it. Thus it was considered in the Christian community according to the teaching offered to the faithful by the apostles and evangelists on the basis of Jesus' own words.

In line with what has been handed down by those ancient sources, the resurrection is, in the first place, a historical event. It took place in a precise context of time and place: "on the third day" after Jesus' crucifixion at Jerusalem and his burial in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea (cf. Mk 15:46). At dawn of the third day (the day after the paschal sabbath) this same tomb was found empty.

Jesus had foretold his resurrection on the third day (cf. Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19). The women who went that day to the tomb found an angel who said to them: "You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen as he said" (Mt 28:5-6).

In the Gospel account the circumstance of the "third day" is related to the Jewish celebration of the sabbath, which forbade work and movement beyond a certain distance from the evening of the vigil. Therefore the embalming of the body according to the Jewish practice had to be postponed until the first day after the sabbath.

While the resurrection is an event that is determined according to time and place, nevertheless it transcends and stands above history. No one beheld the event in itself. No one could have been an eyewitness of the event. Several people had seen the agony and death of Christ on Calvary. Some had taken part in placing Jesus' body in the tomb, well sealed and presided over by the guards whom the "high priests and Pharisees" had made it their business to obtain from Pilate. They remembered that Jesus had said that after three days he would rise again. "Therefore, order the sepulcher to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead'" (Mt 27:63-64). But the disciples had not thought of such a thing. It was the women coming with spices on the morning of the third day who discovered the tomb empty, with the stone rolled away. They saw a young man dressed in a white robe who spoke to them of Jesus' resurrection (cf. Mk 16:6). Certainly Christ's body was no longer there. However, no one was an eyewitness of the resurrection. No one could say how it had happened in its physical reality. Still less could the senses perceive the most interior essence of his passage to another life.

It is this transhistorical feature of the resurrection that must be especially considered if we are to understand to some extent the mystery of that historical, but also transhistorical event, as we shall see immediately.

Indeed, Christ's resurrection was not simply a return to earthly life, like those whom he had raised from the dead during his public ministry: the daughter of Jairus, Lazarus and the young man of Naim. These facts were miraculous events (and therefore extraordinary), but these persons reacquired, through the power of Jesus, "ordinary" earthly life. At a later time they again died, as St. Augustine frequently observes.

In the case of Christ's resurrection the situation was essentially different. In his risen body he passed from death to another life beyond time and space. This risen body of Jesus was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and shared in the divine life of glory. So it can be said of Christ, in the words of St. Paul, that he is the "heavenly man" (cf. 1 Cor 15:47 f.).

In this sense Christ's resurrection is beyond the purely historical dimension. It is an event pertaining to the transhistorical sphere, and therefore eludes the criteria of simple human empirical observation. It is true that Jesus, after the resurrection, appeared to his disciples. He spoke to them, had dealings with them, and even ate with them. He invited Thomas to touch him in order to be sure of his identity. However, this real dimension of his entire humanity concealed another life which was now his, and which withdrew him from the normality of ordinary earthly life and plunged him in mystery.

Another mysterious element of Christ's resurrection is the fact that the passage from death to new life took place through the power of the Father. He "had raised" (cf. Acts 2:32) Christ, his Son, and thus perfectly introduced Jesus' humanity—even his body—into the communion of the Trinity, so that Jesus is definitively revealed as "designated Son of God in power according to the his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1:3-4). St. Paul insists on presenting Christ's resurrection as a manifestation of the power of God (cf. Rom 6:4; 2 Cor 13:4; Phil 3:10; Col 2:12; Eph 1:19 f.; cf. also Heb 7:16) through the work of the Spirit. In restoring Jesus to life, the Spirit placed him in the glorious state of Lord (kyrios) in which he definitively merits, even as man, that name of Son of God which belonged to him from eternity (cf. Rom 8:11; 9:5; 14:9; Phil 2:9-11; cf. also Heb 1:1-5; 5:5, etc.).

It is significant that many New Testament texts speak of Christ's resurrection as a "resurrection from the dead" accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. Others speak of it as taking place through Christ's own power, as indeed is indicated in many languages by the word "resurrection." This active meaning of the word (noun and verb) is also found in Christ's prepaschal discourses, e.g., in foretelling the passion when he says that the Son of Man must suffer many things, die, and then rise again (cf. Mk 8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34). In John's Gospel Jesus explicitly states: "I lay down my life, that I may take it again...I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (10:17-18). In the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes: "We believe...that Jesus died and rose again" (4:14).

The Acts of the Apostles frequently states that "God raised up Jesus..." (2:24, 32; 3:15, 26 etc.), but there we also find Jesus' resurrection spoken of in the active sense (cf. 10:41). From this point of view Acts sums up Paul's preaching in the synagogue of Thessalonica, where "on the basis of the Scriptures he showed that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead" (Acts 17:3).

From all these texts taken as a whole, there emerges the trinitarian nature of Christ's resurrection. It is the joint work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and thus reflects the very mystery of God.

The expression "according to the Scriptures" which we find in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:3-4) and in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, emphasizes the eschatological nature of Christ's resurrection. We find in it the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. When speaking of his passion and glory with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus himself, according to Luke, rebuked them for their slowness of heart "to believe all that the prophets had spoken." Then "beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk 24:2-27). Likewise in his last meeting with the apostles he said, "'These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem'" (Lk 24:44-48).

This was the messianic interpretation, given by Jesus himself to the whole of the Old Testament and especially to the texts that more directly concerned the paschal mystery, such as those of Isaiah on the humiliations and the exaltation of the servant of the Lord (Is 52:13-53:12), and Psalm 110. On the basis of this eschatological interpretation given by Jesus, which linked the paschal mystery to the Old Testament and projected its light on the future (the preaching to all nations), the apostles and evangelists also spoke of the resurrection "according to the Scriptures," and subsequently the formula of the creed was fixed. It was another dimension of the event as mystery.

From what we have said it is clearly evident that Christ's resurrection is the greatest event in the history of salvation, and indeed, we can say in the history of humanity, since it gives definitive meaning to the world. The whole world revolves around the cross, but only in the resurrection does the cross reach its full significance of salvific event. The cross and resurrection constitute the one paschal mystery in which the history of the world is centered. Therefore Easter is the Church's greatest solemnity. Every year she celebrates and renews this event. It is fraught with all the prophecies of the Old Testament, beginning with the "protoevangelium" of the redemption, and of all the eschatological hopes and expectations projected toward the "fullness of time," which was realized when the kingdom of God definitively entered human history and the universal order of salvation.