Fr. Don MacDonald
When Jesus went to the cross, his disciples lost their faith. "The idea of a messiah that would die on the cross was totally foreign to them," Franciscan Father Don MacDonald said in a lecture on the Nicene-Constantinople Creed Feb. 27.
"These people were Jewish men who did not believe Jesus' prediction of the resurrection. They wouldn't have had a clue as to what he meant."
Jewish people believed all who died ended up in Sheol, a land of shadows beneath the surface of the earth. So when Jesus died on the cross, they believed he went to Sheol. Their hope that he would redeem Israel was gone.
The only concept of resurrection at that time was that, at the end of history, God would raise the just up from Sheol.
This was part II of MacDonald's lectures on God the Son, which focused on what Jesus' did as well as on his death on the cross. The lectures are part of a seven-part series on the Nicene Creed being offered by the Edmonton Archdiocese as part of the Year of Faith.
MacDonald, a professor at Newman Theological College, said the disciples were disappointed at seeing their messiah die on the cross.
Nevertheless, it didn't take long for them to resume preaching their master's message. One strand of their preaching says Jesus died a full human death and that the Father raised him from Sheol. According to the other strand, called exaltation, God lifted up Jesus to himself in the ascension.
"The idea here is that God doesn't just raise Jesus up from Sheol back to an existence like we have here, but he takes him up into the divine life though the Holy Spirit and his humanity is transformed, transfigured - filled with divinity, so to speak."
In both strands, the Father is not only the subject who lifts up Jesus; he is the object. "If we just had the first one - God raises Jesus from the dead - then we probably would have people asking where Jesus is; maybe he is hiding out in Argentina somewhere," MacDonald said.
However, the second stream makes everything clear. "It's the same Jesus as the one they knew but at the same time he is glorified; he is exalted."
What does this mean? It means that death has been conquered, said MacDonald. "If it weren't for the exaltation, if it weren't for Jesus being lifted up into the realm of God, his resurrection would have been the same as that of Lazarus, who died again (after having been resurrected by Jesus)."
The exaltation also shows that Jesus is innocent and that he is now completely in the realm of God. "That was the beginning of Christianity."
After the resurrection and exaltation, the apostles went out and said, "This fellow that we knew is divine and is human as well," MacDonald said.
"The Good News that they preached was that God in Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, had saved the world. And in that drama, which we call the Paschal Mystery, he has overcome all of the obstacles that separate us from each other and separate us from God. That's what they were saying."
What convinced the disciples to start preaching about Jesus' resurrection, first, to the people who had killed Jesus?
It could not have been the empty tomb because Jesus' body could have simply being stolen, although MacDonald says that "without an empty tomb they (the disciples) would not have been able to preach what they did."
The answer, he says, lies in what we call the resurrection encounters or the resurrection appearances in which Jesus showed himself to his disciples.
The appearances recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John have common features. One is that it's always Jesus who takes the initiative. Another characteristic is that Jesus is recognized and yet "he is not recognized."
We see this especially in John's Gospel. "It's the same Jesus that they knew before and yet he is completely different," MacDonald says.
"That's quite natural because when God lifts him up and assumes him into heaven into loving communion with himself and the Holy Spirit and transforms his humanity, then he is going to be different."
For instance, he was no longer bound by space and time. "He goes through walls, he goes through (closed) doors; he is there and then suddenly he is not."
The disciples had doubts. But Jesus convinced them by showing them his wounds.
In chapter 20 of John's Gospel, Thomas says, "I won't believe (that he was resurrected) until I put my fingers in his hands and my hands in his side." When he saw Jesus himself, Thomas said, "My Lord and my God!"
In truth, the disciples didn't have much of a problem with the Risen One. "They had a problem with a crucified risen body," MacDonald said.
"(If Jesus had died of natural causes and then he had been lifted up), there wouldn't have been much of a problem. But for a messiah to be crucified and go through death itself, that's what they had a hard time with."
They came to faith only when they were able to understand that Jesus had lived and died according to Scripture. "That means, it was God's will," MacDonald said.