Easter Sunday

-The Meaning of the Resurrection

By Right Rev. John S. Vaughan


When the incredulous Jews demanded from Jesus Christ some proof of His divine mission, saying, “Master, we would see a sign from thee,” our Lord answered: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign; and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the Prophet.  For, as Jonas as in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Mat. xii, 38, 39).

The Old Testament, my dear brethren, is full of figures, and types, and shadows of the New.  Again, and again, we find some great event concerning our Lord’s life illustrated and portrayed centuries before it occurred, in the history of the chosen people of God, the Jews.  The instance before us to-day is from the prophecy of Jonas.  In those inspired pages we are told how Jonas went down to Joppa and embarked for Tarsus.  Having paid his fare, we went below to take his rest.  “But the Lord sent a great wind into the sea,” and raised a terrific tempest, so that the ship was in danger of being dashed to pieces.  So great was the fear of all on board, that at last they sought to lighten the ship by casting the cargo it was carrying into the water.  Since the danger, however, seemed only to increase, they said, “Every one to his fellow: Come, let us cast lots, that we may discover why this evil is upon us.  And they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonas.”   . . . “And they said to Jonas: ‘What shall we do to thee, that the sea may grow calm, and that we may be secure?’  And he replied: ‘Take me up and cast me into the sea, and the sea shall grow calm.’” . . . “And they took Jonas and cast him into the sea, and at once the sea ceased from raging” (Jonas, i).

“Now the Lord (the prophet goes on to say) prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonas, and Jonas was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”  . . . Then “the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonas upon the dry land” (Jonas, ii).

This was indeed a great miracle, yet it was but a type of a far more stupendous miracle which was to come, viz., the dwelling of our Divine Lord for three days and nights in the bowels of the earth.  For as Jonas was buried for three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so Christ was buried for three days and nights in the belly of the earth.  And as Jonas was “vomited forth” by the fish, on the third day, so, too, Jesus Christ sprang forth by His own power from the sepulcher on the third day.  Further, as Jonas, by consenting to be thrown into the raging sea, saved the rest of the passengers and crew from the jaws of death, so our Lord by consenting to be cast into a veritable sea of pain, and suffering, and humiliation during His passion, rescued all of us from the far more terrible jaws of hell.

But for the sacrifice of Jonas the entire ship would have foundered with all hands.  Similarly, but for the sacrifice of Christ, the entire world would have sunk into eternal perdition.  For St. Paul assures us that “It is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away” (Heb. x, 4).  So, again, as Jonas offered himself a willing victim, saying to the terrified mariners, “Take me, and cast me into the sea,” so Christ offered Himself a willing victim for the sins of the world.  “At the head of the book it is written . . . behold, I come to do Thy will” (Heb. 7 and 8).  Lastly, as we are told that: ”the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow Jonas,” so the same almighty Lord prepared a special new sepulcher to receive the body of Christ, His eternal Son.

The importance of this glorious miracle is seen, not only from the fact that Christ gave it as a sign of his authority, but because of the consequences which would follow, were it not true.  On this point, nothing can be clearer than the words of St. Paul himself: “If Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, and our preaching is vain, and we are still in our sins.”  Indeed, among the many proofs of Christ’s divinity, His glorious Resurrection from the dead is the foremost and the chief.  St. Ambrose calls it primum et maximum fidei fundamentum, the foremost and the grandest basis of our faith.

In order to satisfy even the most critical and unbelieving of the truth of the Resurrection, it is enough to prove two great facts.  The first is, (a) that Christ really and truly died.  The second is, (b) that after death He really and truly lived again.

Let us begin by establishing without doubt His death.  Then we will prove His return to life.  In the first place, then, call to mind that He was solemnly condemned in the public halls of justice, in presence of an immense concourse of people, who were thirsting for His Blood, and who would never have rested till they had satisfied themselves that the sentence had been carried out.

Before being dragged to Calvary, He was most cruelly scourged and had grown weak and exhausted by loss of blood; further, from the evening of the previous day He had had nothing to eat, and was worn out with want of food.  In the third place, the brutal soldiers had woven together a crown of briars and thorns, strong and sharp and long, as we see in the models kept in divers churches to the present day.  And, having plaited it, they raised it up and forced it upon His head, hammering it down with great violence, until the Blood flowed anew from a hundred fresh wounds.  So weak and ill-treated a body need but little more to deprive it entirely of life, and was in no condition to face the difficult journey up the hill of Calvary, to the place of execution.  Indeed, as it was, our blessed Lord fell several times under the weight of the Cross, which He was forced to carry so long as it was at all possible.  On arriving at the summit, He was thrown upon the wooden beans, and huge nails were driven through His Palms and through His sacred Feet, from which the Blood oozed out and soaked the ground.  Then He was lifted up and hung suspended between heaven and earth, from His Hands and His Feet.  No one could live long in that condition, however strong, and Jesus had lost all His strength by reason of the ill treatment He had already received.  Hence, we are not surprised to read in the inspired narrative that, “Having taken the vinegar, He said: ‘It is consummated’; and bowing His head, He gave up the ghost” (John xix, 30).  Now, the sacred text goes on to say that “The Jews (because it was the Parasceve) besought Pilate that the legs of the three crucified victims might be broken; in short, that they might be put out of their misery, and the bodies taken down.  They represented to Pilate that the Mosaic Law strictly demanded the burial of executed criminals before the night came on, and that it would be unbecoming to have three criminals hanging upon the Cross on the holy Easter Sabbath.  Thereupon the executioners, armed with iron trimmed clubs, broke the bones of the two thieves.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs, but one of the soldiers (named Longinus) with a spear opened His side, and immediately there came forth blood and water? (John xix, 32-34).

The soldiers had already quite satisfied themselves that He was dead, so that Longinus oversteps all bounds of human feeling when, seizing a lance, he deliberately thrusts it through the side and heart of our blessed Savior.  Observe the Evangelist does not say that he “wounded” it, but that he “opened it,” so that there came out blood and water.  Indeed, the fact that later on St. Thomas was able to put his hand into the side of our risen Lord, shows what a wound it must have been.  If not dead before, the, surely, He was dead then!  A still more unequivocal proof was the issue of blood and water.  All medical men agree that if Christ had been alive when the spear “opened His side,” pure blood must have escaped from the wound; whereas it is particularly said that water as well as blood gushed from the opening.  Consequently, He must have been already dead.  But had he been still alive, that spear-thrust would have killed Him.

If we take into consideration the intense enmity and hatred of the Jews and the way in which they thirsted for His life, we may rest assured that they would watch most carefully to see that the sentence of death, for which they clamored, and perjured themselves, and suborned false witnesses, was carried out.  So there is not a shadow of doubt about the fact.  But, just for the sake of the argument, let us suppose that Jesus was only in a swoon or in a faint.  How will that impossible supposition help our opponents?  Not at all.  For, had there been one little flickering spark of sensation left in Him, the only only chance of fanning such a feeble spark into life would have been the most careful nursing in a warm, well ventilated room, and the administration of nourishing food and proper clothing.  But, instead of that, the body was wrapped in nothing but a linen winding sheet, and was laid in a cold stone sepulcher, unattended and uncared for, during the space of three days and nights.  This was enough, and more than enough, to extinguish every trace of vitality, even on the wild supposition that any such traces had existed.

Yet unbelievers have the hardihood to ask us to believe not only that our Lord was still breathing, but that after His scourging, His crowning with thorns, His crucifixion, and His piercing with a spear, and three days and nights without food or clothing in a cold stone tomb, He was strong enough to rise up and roll back the stone from the entrance, and be as well and as strong as ever.

People who believe, in the face of such evidence, that Christ did not really die, will believe anything, and are not worth considering.

But, if Christ died, it is equally clear that He rose again, immortal and impassible.

                                                                                      Proofs of Christ’s Resurrection

We have shown that Christ truly died.  To prove His Resurrection, it is sufficient to show that He lived and moved among men after the period of the Crucifixion.  Let us proceed to the task.

We would first observe here, that almighty God, who rules over all and disposes every event of life so as to secure His divine purposes, evidently made use of the very envy and mistrust and suspicion of the Jews to further the cause of Divine truth. Indeed, if the enemies of Christ had not taken such precautions, the arguments for His Resurrection would have been shorn of much of their value.

In the first place, consider the stratagems to which the Jews had recourse, in order to prevent the disciples of Christ deceiving them in the matter of His predicted rising from the tomb.  So soon as they heard that Joseph of Arimathea had received permission form Pilate to take the Body of Jesus down from the Cross, and that he had wrapped it up in a clean linen cloth, and then had placed it in his own new monument, which he had hewed in a rock (Mat. xxvii, 58-60), they began to take alarm.  So the next day the chief priests and the Pharisees came together, and seeking an interview with Pilate, said: “Sir, we have remembered that that seducer said, while He was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  Command, therefore, that the sepulcher be guarded until the third day, lest perhaps, His disciples come and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He is risen from the dead,’ and the last error shall be worse than the first” (Mat. xxvii, 62-64).  To this deputation Pilate replied: “Very well, you have a guard of your own; go, guard it as you know” (ib, 65), upon which they not only placed a strong guard around the place where our Lord’s sacred Body lay, but they even took the additional precaution to “seal the stone” that closed the mouth of the sepulcher, so that no one without their knowledge could possibly tamper with it, or force it away, and so rob the Body and pretend it had arisen miraculously.

But all their efforts were in vain, and served only to make our Lord’s Resurrection more conspicuous and incontestable.  The very men placed about the sepulcher to prevent any trick being played were the first and certainly the most impartial witnesses of the stupendous even.  They saw with their own eyes the ponderous stone rolled back, and Jesus leaping triumphantly from the dark cavern hewn in the rock, glorious and impassible.  No wonder the Evangelist tells us that “some of the guards hastened into the city and told the chief priests all things that had been done” (Mat. xxviii, II).

The priests and the ancients, and in fact all who heard the startling news, were naturally very much excited, and troubled, and alarmed.  But what could they possibly do?  The miracle was wrought.  The prediction had been fulfilled.  As Jonas was three days in the whale’s belly, so Christ had been three days in the belly of the earth.  And, as the whale had belched forth Jonas on the third day, hale and strong, so the grave gave up the crucified body of Jesus on the third day, full of grace and glory.

The only escape possible from their difficulty was to bribe the guards.  This they immediately proceeded to do in the most barefaced way.  St. Matthew informs us how they met together and discussed the whole situation.  Finally they resolved to distribute hush-money among the witnesses, and to bid them hold their tongues.  “Taking counsel, they gave a great sum of money to the soldiers” (ib. 12).  Further, they even instructed them what to say, and invented a specious story, which they hoped, no doubt, might be accepted by the not too discriminating populace.  They made the soldiers promise to explain how “The disciples of Christ came by night and stole Him away when we were asleep” (ib. 13).  Such a plea evidently did not altogether commend itself to the soldiers.  They scarcely cared to accuse themselves to their chief of sleeping while on duty, and rightly feared the consequences of such pretended neglect.  So the priests and the ancients promised to make it all right with the superior officer, saying: “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and make it all right for you” (ib. 14).  “So, taking the money, the did as they were taught; and this story was spread abroad among the Jews, even unto this day” (ib. 15).  Surely, this account is circumstantial enough. 

But quite a number of other circumstances may be pointed to as additional arguments of Christ’s Resurrection, the accumulative value of which can scarcely be estimated.

In the first place, let us suppose that what the Jews declared was true, and that the disciples had really been able to gather in sufficient force to roll away the enormous stone that closed the entrance to the tomb, and to break the seals, without awakening any single member of the guard of soldiers who were watching over it, a highly incredible theory, the question still remains: What became of the Body?  What did the Apostles do with it?  A human body is not a thing that one can stow away anywhere.  How is it that no one has ever been able to point it out?  Had it not risen, the Jews might easily have discovered it, and then have pointed it out, and exclaimed: “He is not risen; He is still here.  Look, and examine for yourselves.  You are founding your creed upon an imposture,” and so forth.  But this they were never able to do.

So, again, to pass to another argument.  Our Lord actually appeared to His followers and friends for the space of forty days, after He rose from the tomb.  And we can account for the entire change that came over His followers and disciples in no other way except by admitting that He really did move among them and assure them of His actual return to life, by virtue of His own inherent power.

Let us consider the circumstances, and we shall see hat the whole history of the early Christian Church remains wholly inexplicable, unless the Resurrection is accepted.  The Apostles and disciples had forsaken home and friends and occupations, to follow Him, who they believed to be the Messiah.  They regarded Him as the Promised One, who should free Israel from the Roman yoke and make the “chosen people” the rulers of the world.  They were still carnal minded, and had not risen to the conception of a spiritual kingdom, and had no idea of a suffering Redeemer, though Christ had often tried to impress this view upon them.  Even when they followed Him to Jerusalem, just before His passion, they still entertained the hope that He would at last declare Himself, and begin manifesting the glories and the triumph of Shiloh.  But hope told a flattering tale.  Things did not turn out as they expected.  They beheld their Master betrayed, condemned, slain, and apparently unable to help Himself.  Terrified beyond measure at the violence of the multitude, and at the hatred of the Sanhedrin, they fled away and abandoned their Leader to His fate.

They had looked upon Him as the Messiah, yet there He hung, dead and helpless, before their very eyes.  They thought that it was He who was to have redeemed Israel, but now they were persuaded that they had been deceived.  All was now over.  He was not, He could not be the Messiah, for the dead cannot lead a nation to victory.  But, worst of all, He had died upon the tree of shame, the death of a common slave and malefactor.  Why, the curse of Jehovah Himself had fallen upon Him, for is it not written, “Cursed be he that hangs on the tree!”

In short, dejection, disappointment, despair and fear had taken possession of their minds and hearts, and they were ready to abandon all hope, and sorrowfully deemed their mission at an end.

Yet, wonderful to relate, only a few weeks later their whole attitude is changed!  See! These cowards have become utterly fearless; these faithless followers, hiding away for fear of the Jews, now court publicity and openly proclaim the Crucified to be the Master of life and of death, and the Lord of light and glory.  They who but yesterday trembled at the sound of their own voices and who feared to acknowledge the Divine Master; yea, who denied Him, with curses and oaths, at the challenge of even a serving maid, now know no fear.  Neither the hostility of the Sanhedrin, nor the loss of friends, nor social ostracism, nor stripes, nor torture, nor death itself, can silence them, nor restrain their fervor and their zeal for their Divine Master.

With one voice they assert that He whom the Jews had so cruelly murdered is no other than the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the all-powerful Lord of the world.

In a word, some unprecedented thing had taken place.  Some stupendous even had happened, which suddenly transformed them, and turned them into different beings.  Something had, in a moment, banished all their fears, dissipated all their doubts, enlivened their drooping spirits, stiffened their wills, and inflamed their zeal, and made them other men.  Not one, but all were set on fire.  Not one, but all boldly and defiantly “preached Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block and unto the Gentile foolishness” (I. Cor. I, 23).

How do we account for this?  There is just one explanation, but only one.  The simple explanation is that the truth of Christ’s divinity had been made clear, certain, unmistakable and evident.  They were filled with daring and heroism, and laughed at torture and death, so that some exclaimed mockingly, “These men are full of new wine”  (Acts II, i).  And why?  Because they at last “knew in whom they had believed” and were certain that (II. Timothy I, 12), He was, what He had declared, viz., the Son of the living God.  He had truly risen.  He had appeared and conversed with many.  He had entered their council chamber, “the doors being locked,” and showed them His hands and His side, and even allowed Thomas to put his fingers into the wound of His side and to assure himself of His absolute reality and identity.  He presented Himself likewise to the holy women, and to St. Peter, and to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, and “then was He seen by more than five hundred brethren at once,” so that no doubt was left in the minds of any of the Apostles, but that Christ had indeed conquered death.  “O! Grave, where is they victory?  O, death, where is thy sting?”

In due curse every one of the Apostles (save Judas, who had sold his Master for silver), sealed their faith with their life’s blood, and died glorious deaths.  Even St. John is reckoned as a martyr, because he submitted to death, and was actually let down into a cauldron of boiling oil, though he was miraculously preserved.

Now, let me ask: Do men die for a probability?  Are they ready to stake their earthly happiness, their fortune, their character and reputation, and even life itself and all that life holds most dear, for the sake of a mere dream?  Will they die, and submit to horrible torture, like St. Peter, for instance, who was crucified with his head downward, in testimony of a lie?  Perish the thought!  A thousand times, NO!  They endured the worst that human cruelty could devise, simply and solely because they had seen, with their own eyes, their risen Lord, and because they knew they were safe in His Divine keeping.

For not only the attitude of the Apostles proves to us the great and startling reality of Christ’s triumph, but also the whole after-history of His Church.  As it is perfectly well known, the Faith soon spread among all peoples.  In the first place, many thousands of Jews submitted to the true Church, and helped to spread the Gospel in other lands.  Even though wealth, and learning, and position, and power were all ranged against them, the poor despised followers of “the Galilean” conquered all along the line.  Within an incredible short time, the Christian religion extended from one country to another and drew within its fold whole peoples and nations, until at last the Cross (once the sign of disgrace) was found raised on imperial standards and dominating over the palaces of kings.

If such unheard of results could be effected by an imposture, then an effect may truly exist without any adequate cause.  As the great St. Augustine so truly observes: “If the world was converted to Christianity without a miracle, that fact itself would be the greatest miracle of all.”

We need not develop the matter further, though much more might be said if time permitted.  What has been said is enough and more than enough to excite our faith still further, and to fill our hearts with gratitude to God, who, for our sakes, died and rose again, immortal and impossible.  To Him be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.