In parishes throughout the world on Sunday, Catholics will proclaim, “He is risen, alleluia!” But what will most have in their minds when they speak those words? Probably something along these lines: “Jesus Christ rose from the dead and now in him we have the forgiveness of sins. Thank you, Lord!” Or maybe, “Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This is a fact of history. Christianity isn’t a cleverly devised story but is really true!”
These are both good responses. But I want to add something here. When we look at the teaching of the New Testament, the Resurrection isn’t only about the forgiveness of sins, or evidence that Jesus was who he claimed to be and who the earliest believers claimed him to be. In the New Testament, the Resurrection is about power to become holy. Let me explain by taking you on:
A brief tour of Scripture
Way, way back in the book of Deuteronomy, before the Israelites had crossed into the Promised Land, speaking to a people who had shown themselves incapable of living in trusting obedience to God, Moses looked to a future day when: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).
One day, Moses said, God will act to change his people so that they will love him and walk in his ways. Some seven or eight centuries later, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah of a future New Covenant he would make with his people. When that time comes, the Lord said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). God’s law will not be something merely etched on stone tablets. Instead it will be etched on human souls.
A little later, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking in God’s name, described this same mysterious, distant event in some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean . . . and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and given you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:25-28).
Scroll forward another 500 years. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and our Lord speaks to him words that seem incomprehensible: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Now, this poor Jewish scholar was bewildered.
But he shouldn’t have been. If only he had read Deuteronomy 30 and Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, he would have understood what the Lord was saying to him. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
The New Covenant and the Last Supper
So when was this New Covenant put into effect? And how does it come to be effective in each of our lives? The New Covenant toward which the prophets were pointing is the covenant Jesus established at the Last Supper, when he broke the bread and shared the cup saying, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28). After this, he died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day. He ascended to sit at the right hand of power, and on the day of Pentecost he poured forth into his Church the promised Holy Spirit.
St. Peter stood and preached the first sermon of the Christian era, and when the crowds were cut to the heart by his words and cried out, “What must we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized . . . and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
What’s Peter saying? He’s saying, “Repent and be baptized and you will receive what Moses talked about, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and our Lord as well! What Ezekiel described in detail will happen to you!” We know this is what Peter had in mind, because in the first letter he wrote to the early Christians, he says in chapter 1, verse 3 that the “new birth” Jesus told Nicodemus about takes place “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (in other words, through the power unleashed by the Resurrection), and in chapter 3, verses 21-22 he intimates that this takes place through our baptism. “And baptism . . . now saves you . . . through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him” (1 Pet. 3:21-22).
New birth through the Resurrection
Notice how Peter repeats those words “through the resurrection” when speaking of both the new birth and baptism. Peter is telling us that it is through the power of the Resurrection that we are born again in our baptism.
One final witness. In Romans 6, St. Paul says that in our baptism we were united with Christ in his death and in his Resurrection in order that we “might walk in newness of life.” He says that, in our baptism, our bondage to sin was broken and that we no longer need to be slaves to sin. He’s saying that something actually happened to us in our baptism. He’s saying that God was acting and that he changed us! Two chapters later Paul says that in Christ the Holy Spirit has been given to us “in order that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-4). Ah, sounds just like Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel! Connect the dots. Do the numbers.
And this coming Sunday, when you say, “He is risen, alleluia!” here’s what I want you to be thinking: “Lord, it is the power of your Resurrection that became active in me through baptism, granting me the new birth you told Nicodemus about, removing my heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, giving me your Holy Spirit in order that I might love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and walk in faithful obedience to your word. To this I commit myself this Easter Sunday. God help me!” Now, there’s a way to celebrate Easter.