Why we say ‘Christ IS risen’ – Brad Jersak

Thomas Mpira, tangatanga wood Paschal Candlestand, 1990. Mua Parish Church, Malawi. Photo via Fr. Brendan O’Shea. 

“Christ is Risen!” 

In the aftermath of Easter celebrations across the globe, the phrase “Christ is risen!” has been expressed with enthusiasm, perhaps 100s of millions of times by Jesus’ followers of innumerable languages, nations and cultures.

I was particularly struck by an image I saw here on Instagram… the wooden candlestand to the right, carved by an artisan in Malawi, Africa.

The main figure is the risen Christ, and his body is comprised of people (“the Body of Christ”) united with Christ in his death and raised with him in his resurrection. Above them, Christ holds up the “celestial village” (the kingdom of God).

From Jesus’ heart, we see the river of life flowing down, watering the Chewa village and its newborn children. The arches are rainbows, symbols of the divine promise of redemption.

“He is risen indeed!”

Whether you live in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, or Down Under, we answer the familiar Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” with “He is risen indeed!” or “Truly, he is risen!” Two questions come to my mind during that interaction.

First, why the present tense verb IS”?

We say “Christ IS risen” rather than was or has risen because although we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ in history 2000 years ago, our emphasis is not on an empty tomb in the distant past, but on the living Lord who IS with us in the here and now.

The resurrection of Jesus is an event that happened at a particular moment, long ago… but the declaration, “Christ is risen,” focuses on the glorious truth that “Christ is alive, to this day, right now” and he promised, “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Easter celebrates that promise, wherever we are, without reference to the traditional religious sites in Jerusalem.

The angels continue to speak from the tomb, “Why are you looking for Jesus in an empty tomb? He is not here. He is risen. He is with you. He is in you.”

Risen How?

My second question asks, “What do we mean by risen?” 

We hear a surprising range of responses even inside the Christian faith. For example:

  • At PTM, we believe that Jesus Christ was actually raised bodily. That is, we would emphasize the continuity of the body of Christ that hung on the Cross and appeared in the upper room after his resurrection. He bears (present tense!) the scars of his crucifixion in a body that Jesus invited Thomas to touch after he rose. He insists that he has not a ghost, but a risen and glorified human being.
  • That said, we also recognize the discontinuity of Jesus’ pre- and post-resurrection body, which speaks of a radical transformation. His disciples didn’t always immediately recognize him. More alarming still, Jesus could appear and disappear before their eyes behind locked doors. C.S. Lewis once surmised that it’s not that Jesus became less substantial than the door of the upper room as if he became a ghostly mist. Just the opposite: Christ is now more substantial than the matter of any locked door (most of all, the gates of hades!), through which he passes as if through fog.
  • Still within the range of historic orthodox faith, other teachers and theologians (e.g., the late Robert Jenson) taught that Christ’s body was also radically transformed in his ascension (Acts 1) so that the word “body” is not so much a description of Jesus’ limitations (body mass, gravity, height, weight) but says something important about God’s availability. They would say that the invisible God made himself available through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in his human body. So too, Christ continues to make himself available… in every way we need him to be. First, he rose bodily in his tangible resurrection appearances, then also in the bread and wine of communion and in the Body of Christ which is his church. He appeared as a blinding light to Paul and in vision to John on the Isle of Patmos. Jesus said we would meet him in the marginalized people we serve (Matthew 25), and also in our hearts through prayer. Thus, yes, the actual bodily resurrection occurred but this also means Christ is not constrained. He is available in every way that we need him to be.

In my interactions, the three previous points of view may co-exist simultaneously even as their proponents argue details, such as, “Is Jesus still a male? Or has he transcended biological sex?” All I’m certain of is that such mysteries are surely beyond our paygrade, particularly when the Scriptures are silent.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, we know Christ-followers for whom the word “risen” is spiritual, metaphorical, or symbolic. They believe Jesus is alive “in the spirit,” and even experience him as “real to them” and some even describe an active relationship where they encounter him (mystically). Yet, they are skeptical about the reality or necessity of Jesus’ historical resurrection. At least they believe Jesus is alive in some sense, but to my mind, the dismissal of the eyewitness testimonies of resurrection feels like modernist incredulity in the face of the miracle of all miracles upon which the gospel hinges.
  • But beyond that, some who say, “He is risen, indeed” and that “Jesus is alive in my heart,” mean little more than “his memory is with me” just as they might think of a grandparent who has passed away. The idea here is that the memory of “Jesus’ life and teaching continues to influence me. But he is not actually and literally alive.” The fact that Jesus’ life and teaching direct their lives is truly excellent. Let’s take heed. But that is not the apostolic claim. It begs the question: If Jesus is alive only as a memory, how would he hear our prayers and continue as the divine-human mediator of God’s love for us? This stream of faith would not claim he does.

I have friends in all these camps, whose perspectives I can both respect and disagree with, so long as we are all operating in good faith. But on the cheeky side, the conversation does tease a third line out of my imagination. I leave it with you:

“Christ is risen!”

“He is risen, indeed!” 

“Yes, actually and factually, risen and alive, here with us right now!

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