For Christians, today is Holy Saturday, the day on which the first disciples and closest followers of Jesus Christ were in utter despair, having witnessed the crucifixion and death of the man they had revered as the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel who would save his people.
Today, there are more than a few scholars, cranks and heretics who question whether Jesus really died on the cross on Good Friday. Some claim that while he appeared to die on the cross, he actually only swooned and fainted, regained consciousness after the ordeal, and appeared to the disciples who thought he had risen from the dead.
This fanciful theory and others like it are preposterous. The historical evidence is no less compelling for the crucifixion and death of Jesus on Good Friday than for the stabbing and death of Caesar on the Ides of March.
Granted, after recounting the agony and death of Christ, the Gospels go on to relate that after three days, he rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in a strange, new, spiritual body. What are we to make of these reports?
Many people, including most liberal clergy, maintain that while Jesus no doubt lived on in a very real sense in the imagination and hearts of his loyal disciples, it is ridiculous to suppose that he literally rose from the dead with any kind of body, physical or spiritual. But if that is so, what can account for the rise of Christianity?
N. T. Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar who currently serves as the Anglican Bishop of Durham, has pondered this question in a monumental study entitled, The Resurrection of the Son of God. He notes that around the time of Christ, several would-be Messiahs were executed by the Romans, but none gave rise to any lasting movement.
In the case of Jesus, the Gospels candidly admit that after he was arrested at midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane, his despairing disciples fled in fear. Before daybreak, even Peter, the leader of the disciples, had cursed and denied Christ three times. But that was not the end of the story: the Bible records that within a few weeks, these same once timorous and forlorn men were boldly proclaiming at imminent peril to their lives that Jesus, the Messiah, had actually triumphed over sin and death on the cross.
Having exhaustively examined the historical record and a host of conflicting theories, Wright concludes that the Biblical account is essentially true. There is no other plausible explanation for the astonishing transformation in the beliefs and behaviour of the disciples.
In a popular devotional book entitled, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Wright sums up: “The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost (the stories are very clear about that), but as a living, bodily human being.”
This is the truth that the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has always and everywhere proclaimed: Jesus died on the cross, but rose again on the third day. And in doing so, he atoned for the sins of the whole world.
On Holy Saturday, Christians are summoned to contemplate their complicity by sin in the agony of Christ on the cross. In Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, the chorus laments:
“‘Tis I whose sin now binds Thee,
With anguish deep surrounds Thee,
And nails Thee to the Tree;
The torture Thou are feeling,
Thy patient love revealing,
‘Tis I should bear it. I alone.”
Yet Christians do not ultimately despair. On Easter Sunday, we rejoice in the resurrection of the Messiah, trusting that God truly was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself so that our sins might not be held against us.
As St. Paul attested to Timothy: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Thanks be to God.
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