The living Church

When, during the trial of the apostle Paul, Festus, the procurator of Judea, found it necessary to explain to King Agrippa the accusations that the Jews had brought against Paul, he summed them up by saying that the accusers had against him certain questions of their own superstition “and of one Jesus deceased, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.” (Acts 25:19)

With unwitting ignorance, Festus had distilled the essence of the Christian faith, which is based precisely on a Man deceased who is risen and alive: the Man-God, Christ Jesus.

It is around the truth of the crucified Redeemer’s Resurrection that the whole of our faith revolves, as the Apostle himself asserts without hesitation: 

“And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins… If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor 15:17,19)

And St Augustine says:

“It is not a great thing to believe that Christ died; even the pagans, the Jews and all the wicked believe it; everyone believes he died. The faith of Christians lies in the Resurrection of Christ. This we hold to be a great thing: to believe that he is risen.”

The term “Resurrection” does not mean a simple return to life, as happened to Lazarus or to other men and women in the Old and New Testament. Unlike them, by his own virtue and power Christ rose never to die again, which can be said of Him alone. The Resurrection was necessary to bring to fulfilment the work of redemption. With His death He had freed us from sin, but only with His Resurrection did He give us back the goods we had lost through sin, and restore to us eternal life. Christ is therefore alive.

The Resurrection of Christ is a unique and unmistakable event that constitutes the centre and summit of humanity’s history. This is a matter of a historical fact, but also of an event that transcends history to situate itself among the eternal realities. Being therefore a historical and supra-historical fact, it requires both the assent of reason and an act of faith. This is why, with admirable irony, the celestial messengers asked the women who had hastened to the sepulchre on Easter Sunday, who lacked faith in the Resurrection: “Why seek you the living with the dead?” (Lk 24:5)

Although moved by courageous and sincere piety, the women were looking for the Lord in the wrong place, because He was and is alive. This ironic invitation of the angelic creatures is being addressed today to modern Christianity, whose most fatal error is perhaps precisely that of seeking Christ, the Lord of time and of history, Him who is “the living” and who dies no more, among historical figures obscured by the oblivion of time and above all by the inescapability of death. One cannot in any way compare Christ with Buddha or Muhammad, or with other philosophers and thinkers, as illustrious as they may be. Cardinal Biffi ruled that:

“One understands nothing of Christianity if one considers it a religion comparable to the others. Christianity is not, primarily and per se, a religion (that is, a set of rites, precepts, convictions that regulate our relations with the divinity): it is an event that has given a new heart to the universe; none other than the event of Easter, which one can welcome or reject but not reduce to a system of ideas, liturgical acts, norms, and it cannot be likened to other forms of worship.”

This was perfectly clear to the great English convert, G.K. Chesterton, who, after entering the Catholic Church, defended until his death its eternal and unmistakable uniqueness, its perennial vitality, which is based not on ideas, rites or pious thoughts, but on a Person deceased and even now alive. “This is the sort of truth,” he wrote “that is hard to explain because it is a fact; but it is a fact to which we can call witnesses. We are Christians and Catholics not because we worship a key, but because we have passed a door; and felt the wind that is the trumpet of liberty blow over the land of the living.” The Church is therefore alive, because it is the Body of a living Person.

The spiritual and mental bond that one has with the deceased, as honourable as it may be, cannot in any way be confused with communion of life with Him who “rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). Likewise, belonging to the Church can in no way be compared with participation in some religious association, however noble its ends may be. The Church is always enlivened by the dazzling radiance of the risen Lord, and can in no way be numbered among organisations of humanitarianism or charity or dialogue or pacifism.

It is none of these things. Its characteristic is not that of being well-organised in the service of the poor (which was so near at heart to Judas Iscariot), or of being open to a not very well-defined dialogue, or of embracing contemporary man not to open the gates of Heaven to him but to make his earthly exile less painful. The true and unique characteristic of the Church is that of being — unlike all other institutions and religions — alive, and she is alive because her Lord is risen and gives her life constantly, as long as, according to the admonition of the Angels, we do not seek among the dead Him who is alive.

One seeks Him among the dead when, for the sake of a false dialogue with the world, one ignores His admonitions, which are not a summons to dialogue but an order to evangelise; when one presumes to establish a peace based on earthly and humanitarian principles, which unite, and not on the Truth alone, which divides, ignoring the fact that the Son of God came to bring not peace but division (Lk 12:51) and the sword (Mt 10:34); when one equates Him with the founders of other religions, culpably ignoring the fact that He is the only living one among the dead and that “whosoever shall fall on this stone” — which is Himself — “shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder.” (Mt 21:44)

If Easter no longer seems to produce, even in the ecclesial community, the spiritual renewal that is proper to it, it is evidently because the living Christ is being sought among dead men or ideals. So the warning of the angelic creatures to the women who hastened to the sepulchre on the day of the Resurrection remains extraordinarily relevant after 2,000 years, and will not fail to arouse the amazement of the Angels in the face of such human stubbornness. Yet it does not dim the radiant light of the Lord’s Resurrection, which, with its silent and dazzling light, continues to make all things new (cf. Rev 21:5).

“On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.”

G.K. Chesterton