The Easter long weekend is a highly anticipated holiday for many. The extra days of respite afford us time with our loved ones and for leisurely activities. This Easter was a time of reflection for me. I am unashamedly a Christian woman and recently I completed an essay reflecting on the paschal mystery as part of a Theology course I am studying. I wanted to share this with you all as a blog post of a more theological theme given that Easter is a celebration of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I hope that you all had a wonderful Easter and hopefully you didn’t glutton on too much chocolate.
Why is the death and resurrection of Jesus central to contemporary Catholic theology?
To appreciate the significance of the paschal mystery in contemporary Catholic theology, one should not only learn about the history of crucifixion, and what Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection represents for mankind, but also Vatican II’s impact on contemporary Catholic theology. This essay will explore the practical relevance of Christ’s death and resurrection for Christians today by drawing on the New Testament and scholarly texts.
Christ’s death and resurrection are the culmination of the message of the First Testament, that God loves us and wants a relationship with us. Jesus Christ was God’s love personified. He was sent to our world, in human form, to preach a message of love, hope, and salvation; The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14 p 805, NIV). His death and resurrection are symbolic of this message, and therefore are central to contemporary Catholic theology. The Easter narrative is a perpetual reminder that God is ever-present in our world and that sin cannot separate us from God due to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As John 3:16 states: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (p 807, NIV).
Love and forgiveness were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry as is evident throughout the New Testament. Jesus preached that love is the greatest commandment (Mark 12: 28 – 34, p 771, NIV) and he taught his followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:27- 36, p 783, NIV). Such virtues are a challenge for many therefore they are significant to contemporary Catholic theology.
The theological viewpoint of the scriptures sheds more light on Jesus’ message for salvation than the historical perspectives regarding Jesus’ death as a prophet-martyr. Crucifixion was a brutal punishment delivered by Roman colonial administration; it was the worst punishment a criminal could receive. Jesus’ death was violent, and humiliating. He was nailed to a cross, naked, and suffered for hours in agony and eventually died (Loewe 1996, p 86). For many Christians, Jesus’ death is seen as a sacrifice through which he died in our stead. One popular view is that God sent Jesus to die as a substitute for our sins. William P. Loewe discusses Jesus’ execution and explores scriptural metaphors based on three views of Jesus’ death (Loewe 1996, p 87). Among these views, the role of a redeemer appealed to Israel in light of the Hebrew Scriptures and Exodus. The notion that Jesus had died to redeem them from their sins was relatable to first century Jews because debt-paying was custom for the eldest son in a family, and sacrificial offerings by blood were common. By that death, they could say, he [Jesus] had redeemed them. He had offered his life as a ransom (Loewe 1996, p 88). Richard Leonard challenges this theology in his book Where the hell is God? Leonard’s view is that God did not send Jesus to die because, if that were the case, why would God spare Jesus from the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:13-23? Christ did not want to die but was prepared to do so in order to carry out his ministry. His views were very controversial in the eyes of the leadership of his time, particularly because he chose to take his ministry to Jerusalem during the Passover. The Passover was the Jewish feast for liberation from slavery and Jesus intended to bring his ministry to his people whilst they celebrated the saving love of God (Loewe 1996, p 93). At the time, Jerusalem was under Roman occupation. For threatening the religious order, and showing no allegiance to Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, he was crucified (Leonard 2010, p 39). Leonard proceeds to explain that Jesus’ blood was not a sacrifice in the way a slaughtered lamb would have been for the First Testament Jews, rather, God used the death of Jesus to end all death (Leonard 2010, p 35).
Jesus’ resurrection represents how God conquered death and restored the covenant with humanity. The gospel authors documented Jesus appearing, as the risen Lord, to his followers’ astonishment. In his book, Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives, Brennan Hill emphasised that the risen Lord could only be experienced by the faithful (Hill 2004, p136). Hill claims that the resurrection gave courage to the disciples to continue to spread the good news even after his death. Jesus’ message is inclusive as is evident in the gospel of Matthew; Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19-20 p 758, NIV). The unanimous conviction of his disciples that Jesus is alive and that God has raised him signified the salvation central to Catholic theology: God saved Jesus from death. First generation Christians in 35 – 40 A.D. proclaimed Christ’s resurrection to reaffirm loyalty and to proclaim joy in times of persecution (Pagola 2011, p 388). The salvation of Jesus Christ, through his resurrection, is a message of hope for all Christians.
Furthermore, Jesus’ ministry was for all of humanity. This is in line with Pope John XXIII’s ecumenical council in Vatican II (1962-1965). It was a council of inclusivity, a church in the service of all humankind. St Paul’s letter to the city of Corinth lends further credence to God’s inclusive love. The new covenant in the New Testament speaks of salvation, not only for the people of Israel, but for all of humankind, particularly in Corinth, a cosmopolitan city where different Hellenist and Oriental religions lived together in a strange mix (Pagola 2011, p 389). Jesus’ resurrection inspired the gospel writers to preach the message of love and mercy to all nations. Among St Paul’s literature is this inspiring and theological passage; Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, p 873).
Jesus’ death and resurrection is central to contemporary Catholic theology because it is indiscriminate. It unites all people under one body of Christ through the virtues of love and mercy.
How do the death and resurrection of Jesus shape and challenge the mission of contemporary Catholic schools?
The challenge for contemporary Catholic schools is to act, as well as, to teach the inclusive message of the gospel. Catholic schools teach the good news, honour the liturgical calendar and have a mission statement that emphasises their Catholic ethos, academic priorities, and a capacity to be of service to the community in which they are based. The mission of Catholic schools should be an extension of the church’s mission: that all humankind should know the good news, that God’s love is for all people and that God’s grace is evident in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This mystery of the resurrection should be a renewal of faith for all who follow Christ, their own personal resurrection, and an awakened consciousness that lives out the Christian values. The reality for Catholic educators should be similar to the experience of Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle, moved to faith and awareness that the mystery of Jesus was being revealed to him (Pagola 2011, p 398). One should be compelled to create works that bring people closer to God in the way that St Paul’s literature in the New Testament preached to the people of Corinth.
In the twenty-first century, humanity faces more challenges than its ancestors did. Extensive knowledge about the planet and technological advancements surpass any previous generation. To our detriment as a species, this has contributed to the destruction of our planet, and affected our spiritual connection with the universe. Thomas Berry states in his book, The Christian future and the fate of Earth: We have made prodigious discoveries altering forever our relation both to Earth and to the universe…and we have, as a result, become lost and the world about us desolate (Berry 2009, p 52). Berry makes a strong argument that the Church could be powerful in calling humanity to be accountable to the Earth. Catholic schools have a mission to promote environmental sustainability, as we are custodians of the land. Berry criticises humanity’s distorted perspective that we are above all other forms of life on this planet (2009, p 47- 48). The death and resurrection of Jesus can be a remarkable metaphor for humanity’s relationship with the Earth. It is in humanity’s best interest to want to see Earth restored, and to respect all forms of life. The natural world is a spiritual conduit between humanity and the divine. Catholic educators should prioritise this connection in order to renew faith. In First Testament scripture, David writes about the majesty of God’s earthly creations: When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:30 p 464 NIV). Scripture can guide Christians in promoting the restoration of the planet.
The greatest challenge is for humanity to unite in faith so that we serve a common purpose. Pope John XXIII espoused such a sentiment in his opening address at St Peter’s Basilica in 1962 on the first day of Council of Vatican II: Christ is ever resplendent as the centre of history and of life. Ecumenical Councils, are a solemn celebration of the union of Christ and His Church, and hence lead to the universal radiation of truth, to the proper guidance of individuals in domestic and social life, to the strengthening of spiritual energies for a perennial uplift toward real and everlasting goodness (Roncalli 1962). Pope Francis echoed this notion in his encyclical Laudato Si: On care for our common home (2015). He wrote: Our dominion over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship (Bergoglia 2015, p 87).
Hence, the challenge for Catholic educators continues: to practise the good news and apply it to an inclusive love for God’s people and God’s planet.
Bergoglio, J M. Laudato si: On care for our common home, Vatican Press, viewed 3 April 2017 <http://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf>
Berry, T. 2009, ‘The role of the church in the twenty-first century’ The Christian future and the fate of earth, Orbis Books, Maryknoll NYC, pp. 46-58
Hill, B R. 2004, ‘Raised from the dead’ Jesus Christ: contemporary perspectives, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, pp.124-139
Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version, 2004, International Bible Society, Great Britain, pp.464-873
Leonard, R. 2010, Where the hell is God? Hidden Spring, New Jersey, pp.15-56
Loewe, W P. 1996, ‘Jesus’ execution’ The college student’s introduction to Christology, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, pp. 86-96
Pagola, J. 2011, ‘Exploring the identity of Jesus’, Jesus an historical approximation, Convivium Press, Miami, pp. 387-412
Roncalli, A. 1962, ‘Opening speech to the council’, transcript, Vatican II – voice of the church, 11 October, viewed 1 April 2017. <http://vatican2voice.org/91docs/opening_speech.htm>