The Resurrection of Jesus: God’s Verb in the Grammar of Human Existence
When we studied English Grammar at St. Joseph’s Primary School in Mamfe, Cameroon several years ago, we were taught that a verb is a word that it used to describe an action, that is, the doing part of a sentence. A verb therefore connotes an occurrence. To say, therefore, that the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s verb in the grammar of human existence implies that the Resurrection is the action of God that fully captures, unravels, shapes, defines, and orients the meaning of human existence, of who we are in terms ofsource, purpose and the destiny of human being. The French philosopher, Blondel, pointedly asked in his phenomenology of human action: yes or no, does life make sense and does life have a meaning? To understand the Resurrection as God’s verb, God’s action in the totality of human existence points to the person of Jesus as the interpretive key to human existence.
To understand the Resurrection of Jesus one might find a helpful framework in the philosophical consciousness that came about, thanks to the problem of injustice, pain, misery, in fact, evil in the world. Plato offers a fitting capture of this in the Apology, as Boethius does in the Consolation. The protagonists in both texts are unjustly imprisoned. And so, the question appears on the radar: What is the outcome for the innocent who wrongly suffer in this world? Does evil, pain, injustice and the finality of evil, death, have the last word? Greek philosophy responded with a resounding NO! It explained itself by pointing to the immortality of the human soul, which it understood would outlive the body. Pain, suffering and death affect only the body and not the soul. The immortality of the soul is therefore philosophy’s solution to the human problem of evil, injustice, and death. And that explains Plato’s conviction that evil cannot afflict the good person, because evil cannot afflict the soul. But the immortality of the soul does not correspond to the reality of what Christianity understands by Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, for it speaks only about half of the human reality, the soul, leaving the body to rot. Philosophy or human reason alone, therefore, cannot establish or bring about the reality of the Resurrection. Human reason encounters an unsurmountable barrier in this regard.
The next step is the consciousness that developed in the inner experience of Israel’s faith. Judaism, when confronted by the question of evil, pain, and death, gradually arrived at the consciousness of the reality of the Resurrection. The high mark of this consciousness is found in Ezekiel, Maccabees, and Daniel. The most explicit articulation of Biblical Israel’s understanding of the Resurrection, however, is embodied in the response that Martha makes to Jesus before the tomb of his deceased brother, Lazarus: Yes, I know that he would rise again on the last day (John 11:24). The understanding of the Resurrection in Judaism was therefore tied to the eschaton, to the last day. To talk of a Resurrection within history was entirely foreign to the Jewish religious imagination, and as Ratzinger points out in Jesus of Nazareth, this fact explains the Jewish rejection of the Resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, then history was supposed to have come to an end. The Resurrection of the just meant God rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The problem of pain and evil would only be finally resolved at the end of history. Once again, as with Greek philosophy, Judaism as a religious experience, does not capture the full import of what Christianity understands when it professes faith in the Resurrection of Jesus. By limiting Resurrection to eschatology, Judaism misses out on what is most essential about faith in the Resurrection.
And this brings us now to the question, what is the nature of Jesus’ Resurrection. Aquinas captures this succinctly: Jesus bodily died. Jesus is bodily risen. In this way, Aquinas avoids the two pitfalls that can eclipse the true meaning of the Resurrection, namely, Platonization and Judaization. We must not delve too deep into the metaphysics of both positions here. Summarily, we can say two things: Firstly, that the Resurrection of Jesus is not the immortality of the soul. And secondly, that the Resurrection of Jesus cannot be limited to eschatology or more precisely, that Resurrection faith should not be restricted to the end of human history. Overcoming these two limitations brings us to the central nexus of the matter, which is, what difference, then, does the Resurrection of Jesus make?
A fitting response to this invites us to understand the Resurrection, not as noun but as a verb. God has done something in Jesus of Nazareth that has implications for the world. By raising Jesus from the dead, God has shown that God is interested in doing something about evil, pain, injustice, and sin in the world. God is not sitting on a distant sofa in heaven with a glass of red wine in his hand, watching humans wallow in pain, suffering, evil, and misery. With the Resurrection, God has shown that he is not a passive spectator. God has made an irrevocable intervention in history, which is no longer a series of neutral, disinterested events, but above all, salvation history.
With the Resurrection of Jesus, the Christian enters into a different time zone, in which salvation history permeates world history. This explains why John Paul II declared and rightly so, that we are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song. It means that with the Resurrection, we have the power of God to shape history from within. God did not wait for history to end. God acted in history regarding injustice and evil. And so must we. And that is the challenge and invitation of living the life of the Resurrection today. And that is why the Resurrection is essentially a verb and not a noun. German Idealism understood the Resurrection from a somewhat nominalist perspective that failed to engage the reality of the Resurrection. Kant reduced it to the resilience and survival of the moral law in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Hegel completely ignored it in his Life of Jesus. Both of them could not move from the noun to the verb.
But with the Resurrection understood as verb, God’s energy enters history and breaks the barriers of physics as put forth by Newton and Einstein. With the Resurrection, we enter, to use a category of Teilhard de Chardin, an evolutionary leap that while being quantitative and qualitative, still transcends the former and the latter. Hence, we can live differently, in the here and now. We do not have to wait for the eschaton to right wrongs and to do something about evil. We have power from beyond to make a positive difference in the world of the here and now. We have power to transform our world into the image and likeness of God. That is the mission and mandate that the verb of the Resurrection bestows on believers. And so, yes, we are truly an Easter people, and alleluia is our song (St John Paul II), because in the power of the Risen Christ, we can do something about evil, pain, misery, and injustice in the world, by living the Easter life which is a life of a different time zone in the here and now, a life that allows salvation history to permeate and shape world history, so much so that history becomes His-story, the story of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord
By Fr Maurice Agbaw-Ebai