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The Third Day: Just Symbol?

Resurrexit tertia die.” Thus does the Church, year in, year out, century after century, proclaim its ancient faith in Jesus’ Resurrection on “the third day”—the very heart of the “good news” of the gospel.

Some theologians and exegetes have speculated, rather implausibly, that “the third day,” in Old Testament usage, may have a theological rather than a historical significance. They say it may be an attempt to express the mysterious trans-temporal context of an eschatological saving act of God’s power, rather than a literal, chronological third day after some given event or date.

The exegetical arguments for this theory seem weak and tendentious. Whatever may be said about “the third day” in Old Testament passages, there should be no doubt among Christians as to what the phrase means in the creedal and New Testament references to our Lord’s Resurrection. It means the first Easter Sunday morning after he was crucified, the day “after the Sabbath” (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1-2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).

One of the firm principles of Catholicism is that Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of Tradition and the magisterium. The universal and emphatic agreement of all the Fathers, popes, saints, and Doctors—indeed, of the whole People of God for nearly two thousand years—gives us ample certitude that the New Testament Easter accounts are speaking to us historically, not in mere theological symbolism. At Vatican II the phrase “until the day he was taken up (Acts 1:1-2)” was added to an earlier draft of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, 19) precisely to make clear the Church’s conviction that the Easter narratives, just like the earlier parts of the Gospels, “faithfully” record “what Jesus really did and said for our salvation.”

Why stress the historicity of “the third day”? Because there is a hidden agenda on the part of those trying to find exegetical pretexts for mystifying or theologizing this plainly chronological expression.

It is not that they merely wish to suggest that perhaps Jesus rose on the second or fourth day, rather than the third. What they are driving at is more radical: the idea that there was never any moment in time when the corpse of Jesus was miraculously raised to life.

His Resurrection, they maintain, was a purely spiritual, invisible event by which the “person” of Jesus continues to live in glory with God the Father even after his death on the cross. This implies, of course, that if a particular day is to be associated with the Resurrection, it should be the first day, not the third: Jesus “rose” (continued to live spiritually) at the instant of his death on the cross.

Aren’t we splitting hairs? There are those who feel it doesn’t really matter one way or the other how or when Jesus “rose from the dead,” so long as we believe he is now truly alive and reigning in heaven. But it matters immensely.

Quite apart from the fact that the theory of an invisible Resurrection on the first day, instead of a visible one on the third, is incompatible with Vatican II’s reaffirmation of the historical truth of the final chapters of each Gospel, our belief that Jesus is alive and well needs to have some rational foundation. Faith is not blind, wishful thinking. (Fideism–a faith which has no rational support–has been condemned by the Church as unacceptable.)

If our Lord’s bones are still lying somewhere in Palestine to be unearthed eventually by archaeologists, then we have no reason to believe he nonetheless lives on in heavenly glory and that we too have the hope of joining him after this earthly life is over.

If there were such a bombshell archaeological discovery, the Gospel accounts of a physical Resurrection on the third day would turn out to have been myths all along. Why, then, should we place any credence in a “spiritual Resurrection” on the first day, something for which there is no shred of evidence in the New Testament or in the Tradition of the Church?

On the contrary, Catholic Tradition always has insisted that the historical evidence for the physical, third-day Resurrection is one of the rational foundations of our faith in Christian revelation as a whole. Pope St. Pius X, for instance, made a point of rejecting the kind of theology which makes Jesus’ Resurrection into something like the Trinity or the Real Presence, a truth which in itself is completely inaccessible to rational human investigation until after it has been accepted on pure faith.

Two of the opinions which that pope condemned in the decree Lamentabili of 1907 were these:

“(36) The Savior’s Resurrection is not truly a fact of the historical order, but a fact of the purely supernatural order–neither demonstrated nor capable of demonstration–which the Christian consciousness gradually derived from other truths;

“(37) Faith in Christ’s Resurrection was initially not so much concerned with the Resurrection as a fact in itself, but rather with Christ’s immortal life with God.”

Besides these considerations, which apply specifically to the Resurrection, there is another, more general, reason why we can’t “reinterpret” the credal formula “on the third day he rose” so that it comes to mean a non-physical, non-miraculous Resurrection on the first day, at the instant of Christ’s death on the cross.

This more general reason is simply that the meaning of each and every article of Catholic faith is fixed and immutable.

This doesn’t mean there can be no development of doctrine, in the sense of adding various nuances or explanations to clarify the original meaning. It means that the original meaning can’t ever come to be replaced by a contradictory meaning which negates what was previously understood by an article of faith.

The reason is clear enough. Once we admit the principle of giving to an article of faith a different meaning from that which the Church always intended and understood, all doctrine would be menaced by a chaotic and destructive nominalism. The words by which we express our faith would become empty labels, devoid of clear, stable, and objective meaning.

The Mormons, for instance, firmly profess belief in the “Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” but by these words they mean three separate gods, a radically unchristian idea! It was for this reason that Vatican I condemned with an anathema the view that, “in accordance with scientific progress, the Church’s dogmas can sometimes be given a different meaning from that which the Church has understood and understands” (Denz. 3043).

If we apply Vatican I’s principle to Jesus’ Resurrection, it’s an undeniable fact that when the fourth-century Council of Nicaea formally defined that “on the third day he rose,” it intended to affirm a literal, historical understanding of the Gospel accounts. It follows that any subsequent theology of the Resurrection involving a denial of this fourth-century meaning is excluded for Catholics.

This isn’t just my opinion. When the old liberal Protestant idea of a Resurrection which didn’t involve Jesus’ corpse began to surface in European Catholic thought twenty years ago, the authentic teachers of the faith in that region were quick to exercise their collegiality in pointing out the falsity of this theology.

In a letter directed to teachers of the faith in Germany, the bishops of that country drew attention to the same danger which Vatican I had in mind, the dissolution of all stable, objective meaning in the Church’s formulation of faith. They noted how, once we depart from the accepted literal meaning of the Easter proclamation “Christ is risen!”, we are on our way down a slippery slope consisting of ever more skeptical interpretations of that phrase. There is no logical stopping place short of its reduction to a mere pious metaphor.

This is what the German bishops said:

“If the Easter proclamation represented nothing more than the attempt to manifest an internal experience, it would follow that the original interpretation of the primitive [Christian] community would lack any absolute, normative value.

“The experience of faith, according to which the real fact of Jesus continues, would lend itself to another interpretation—for example, that Jesus’ faith and love have a permanent significance. . .

“The confession of Jesus’ Resurrection as a real event belongs necessarily to the Christian faith: It cannot be understood as the product of a historically-conditioned interpretation—one capable of alternative formulations—of an internal experience within history, the world, and man” (L’Osservatore Romano, December 16, 1967).

Three years later, when addressing the theologians and exegetes participating in a congress on Jesus’ Resurrection, Pope Paul VI issued a grave warning to those “who call themselves Christians” while “denying the historical value of the inspired testimonies” to the Resurrection.

The Pontiff insisted that Jesus’ existence now is “not merely a glorious survival of his ‘ego’” and rebuked those authors who “interpret Jesus’ physical Resurrection in a merely mythical, spiritual, or moral way” (AAS 62 [1970], 221- 223).

Then, when Fr. Xavier Leon-Dufour published a work suggesting that the emptiness of the tomb might have been due to some other cause than the restoration of life to Jesus’ mortal remains, the French episcopate–by no means one of the more conservative—did not hesitate to speak out clearly against the deviant view of this internationally renowned French scholar (who, to his credit, revised this opinion in the next edition of his book).

The bishops of France declared:

“The Resurrection cannot be considered as a mere subjective experience, nor simply as the living Christ’s ‘invasion’ of the private lives of the apostles. . . .

“It is really the self-same body which the Word of God took from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Spirit, which was crucified and buried, and which was transfigured by the power of the Spirit. Such an affirmation has always scandalized those who claim to determine limits to the power of God and to the freedom of his love….The texts of the Gospels, demonstrating for us the continuity between the burial and the Resurrection, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the sense-perceptible quality of the apparitions, intend to bear witness to the continuity of the buried body and the risen body, `to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:11)” (L’Osservatore Romano, March 26, 1972).

John Paul II has stressed the physical reality of the risen Christ. In a catechetical address the Pope reaffirmed the immutable meaning of this article of faith:

“To rise again means to return to life in the body. Although transformed, endowed with new qualities and powers,…it is a truly human body. In fact, the risen Christ makes contact with the apostles; they see him, look at him, touch the wounds which remained after the Crucifixion. He not only speaks to them and stays with them, but he also accepts some of their food” (L’Osservatore Romano, February 2, 1988).

As the French bishops pointed out, this unashamedly physical character of Jesus’ Resurrection has scandalized those in whom a worldly spirit of skepticism about miracles has replaced a childlike trust in the power and freedom of God. This simple weakness in faith is the sad reality behind the exegetical sophistries which purport to “reinterpret” our Lord’s Resurrection on the third day.

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