Hope in eternal life is the deepest Christian belief. We believe that we will rise as Jesus rose, and that we will live together forever. Unlike other Christian teachings, however, this one poses special challenges when we try to live it out. How can one’s life give evidence of something nearly impossible to depict or describe?
Michelangelo, for example, had an easy time depicting hell in his famous Last Judgment. He symbolized the torture and despair of eternal damnation with expressions of human misery. He found an abundance of material; his hellscape takes up nearly a quarter of the entire mural and its agonized bodies immediately draw the eye. By contrast, the saved in Heaven are easy to miss. Their scene is much smaller. Michelangelo used facial expressions from everyday life as well, but unlike the damned, he depicted the blessed with great subtlety. One has to look carefully at each character to notice the greetings and embraces, the looks of surprise and relief and quiet joy on every face. Michelangelo’s use of everyday expressions suggests a deeper lesson: our life today bears within it a foretaste of the life to come.
This is why the Easter Sunday readings, in addition to affirming Christ’s resurrection, urge believers to transform their lives. Fear of death can make us do terrible things to ourselves and to others. If we forget the joy awaiting us, we might also lose sight of anything that foreshadows that joy in daily life. Death will represent not a transition but an annihilation, and fear of it can inspire fruitless searches for counterfeits of joy—for pleasure, power, or ego. Striving for these can give rise to ever more self-centered behaviors. These will hinder our own growth and inflict suffering on the people around us.
In the first reading, when Peter urges his hearers to believe in Christ to have their sins forgiven, he is not speaking only of past transgressions. He is promising a new way of being in the world, a life of loving self-sacrifice that fear of death cannot overshadow. When Paul says in the second reading to “seek what is above,” or to “clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,” he too is reminding his fellow Christians that belief in the resurrection ought to change their ways of living.
John’s Gospel says of the beloved disciple: “He saw and believed.” But what did he see? An open and empty tomb, scattered and folded burial cloths. The evidence was elusive, but for a disciple of faith, the meaning was clear. Death had no influence on Christ. The Lord was alive and still at work.
Living out belief in the resurrection means that we must continue to seek signs that Christ is alive and on mission. These will be subtle, and fearful minds may miss them. Christ is alive and at work in any act that challenges our fear of death—when we give and do not expect any return, when we love our enemies, when we share our reasons for hope and sacrifice ourselves for the good of another. Jesus lived fearlessly because fear of death had no influence over his actions. We disciples can learn to live with the same boldness by paying attention to the evidence that Christ is still with us. When we place our faith in that continuing divine presence, we too can live without fear, and will someday discover that the effects of our love will long outlast the death of our mortal bodies.
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