Against the Efforts of an Ever Reviving Gnosis

Author: Ignace de la Potterie


Ignace de la Potterie

This was what Paul VI advised the 1970 International Symposium in Rome on "resurrexit", to re-affirm that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was, primarily, a fact.

The liturgy is the great treasure that safeguards our faith. The words of the hymn, <Victimae paschal>), which the Church has its faithful read and sing at Easter, provide an admirable description of what happened on the morning of that first day after the

Sabbath: Death and Life confronted each other in a prodigious duel: the Lord of life was dead; but now, alive, he triumphs. In that hymn, it is Mary Magdalene who explains how this victory has come about: "Tell us Mary: what <saw> you on the road? The tomb of the living Christ, the <glory> of the <risen> Christ and the angels his witnesses, the shroud and His robes". These are just a few simple words in which is condensed all of Easter faith in the reality of the resurrection and in the experiencable effectiveness of salvation which, on the basis of this fact, reaches throughout history all those who bear the name of Christ. In fact, what this brief phrase of the Magdalene's does for us is reiterate the beginning and endurance in faith and this is inseparably linked with and entrusted to two words, to two verbs: see and <bear witness> to what has been seen so that the glory of Christ shines forth in history.

In chapter 20 of the Gospel of John on the apparitions of Jesus, who has come forth from the tomb, we can perceive—also from the use of words—that faith in the Risen One is born of seeing, of noting with the eyes the tangible signs of His Resurrection as an historical fact. The verb "to see" in its various connotations expressed by the different Greek forms, appears all of 13 times in just 25 verses. The experience of seeing progressively engages four subjects (first the beloved disciple who has gone to the tomb with Peter, then Mary Magdalene, then the whole group of apostles except for Thomas and then Thomas together with all the apostles). In the various passages, we perceive a progressive purification of outlook which begins with wonder at the physical sight of Jesus risen again (though at first the Magdalene thinks he is a gardener) and it reaches the point of contemplation, with that same wonder, of the mystery of the Lord who reveals himself. And, in fact, we go from the verb <Blepein>, meaning to see, take in, to look attentively and observe (verb <Aeorein>), and arrive at conscious recognition, clear vision, contemplation of the mystery manifest (the perfect <Eoraka>).

After the Magdalene announces that she has found the stone of the tomb rolled away and the tomb empty, John runs to the site with Peter. When Peter and John arrive, it is enough for the beloved disciple, even before he sees the Risen One, to sight a few signs (the empty tomb, the bands in which Christ's body was wrapped are an empty shell and have not unravelled) in order to start "to believe" (20,8). But it was intuition, a stirring of the hope that John conserved in his heart, the calm, serene acceptance of a mystery still in part inexplicable. For, in fact, it has still not exploded in the announcement made to the other disciples: he and Peter go back home, because, the Gospel tells us, "they had still not understood the scripture, that he must rise from the dead" (20, 9). This initial lack of preparation on the disciples' part is fundamental. It shows that the resurrection was for them a totally unexpected event and not an <a priori,> something that could be taken for granted and that the disciples were bound to believe and divulge. And this renders their testimony credible, when the experiencable signs become more evident and when the transition is made from John's timid initial intuition to indisputable certainty. As Father Donatien Mollat wrote: "This stage of total lack of preparation, a sort of blindness on the part of the witnesses when faced with the resurrection, is fundamental: this radical lack of preparation only highlights more the reality of divine intervention and its aspect as an act of creation. The Easter faith was a reawakening for Jesus' disciples".

In the second episode, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who is weeping and stands near the tomb, in contrast to the two disciples. Progress has been made here with respect to the first episode when there were only signs and a few clues. Now there has been the transition to the physical presence of Jesus in person, before whom the Magdalene's gaze is transformed. At first in observing him (the verb <Aeorein>) she does not recognize him and mistakes him for the gardener. Then, when she has recognized him, she still calls him "Master" as she had done in the past. Finally, Jesus announces to her his ascension: "I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God". This is the true Easter message, given by Jesus himself. And so Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples with the message: "I have seen the Lord" (<Eoraka>, the perfect tense of <orao>)—no longer "the Master" but "the Lord".

In the third episode, Christ appears for the first time to the disciples who are behind closed doors in a house for fear of the Jews. Jesus comes into the room—the aspect of the closed doors is stressed twice. As Fr. Mollat again writes, this apparition is true Christophany in which, to those who see him, Jesus Christ proves the transcendency of his being Son of God, the Lord, who can enter anywhere.

In the last episode, Jesus again appears to the disciples a week later. The novelty here is that the apostle Thomas is present. He had been absent from the first encounter and had refused to believe what the Magdalene and his friends said. Jesus responds to his wish for verification and shows him the wounds of his passion. The incredulous Thomas yields in the face of this evidence ("My Lord and my God!"). But this act of recognition is followed by Jesus' rebuke ("You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe"). Much confusion has been generated around this aspect. For Bultmann, that great exegete and detractor from the historical value of the Gospels, the rebuke of Thomas is a warning to the Church, an <apologia> of faith alone, understood not as the recognition of facts that really happened but as totally interior awareness of personal communion with God. Blessedness, according to Bultmann, is proclaimed for those who believe without claiming to "see"; nor can the reader, he claims, interpret the events related in this chapter of the fourth Gospel (the empty tomb, the Easter apparitions) as real facts but as a symbolic representation that serves for understanding the effectiveness of the cross.

On the contrary, wrote Fr. Mollat again, the closing lines of John's Gospel prove that faith in the Risen Christ "is essentially based on the <witness> of those who <saw> the empty tomb and <saw> the Lord alive". The historical reality of these facts, verified by witnesses, is the sole foundation of their testimony. The rebuke of Thomas only came because the apostle had refused to believe either in the credible <testimony> of his friends or in the <event> itself of which they were witnesses.

The Church's faith rests forever on the account of the eyewitnesses. It is not a question, as Jean Guitton said, of witnesses in the sense of modern juridical language: for, they did not stop at describing the exterior aspects of what they saw but also taught understanding of the meaning of them—the mystery that had been manifest in those facts. This is true Christian testimony, and John describes it at the beginning of his first letter: "Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have <heard>, which we have <seen> with our own eyes, which we have <watched> and <touched> with our hands, the Word of life—this is our theme. That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our <testimony>, declaring to you the eternal life, which was present to the Father and has been revealed to us. We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life. Our life is shared with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ".

That the mystery chose this way to reveal itself, has always been a thing of scandal and provokes objection to the Christian message even within the Church today. In 1970, Rome was the venue for a great international symposium on the theme of the resurrection and I was fortunate enough to participate in it. In his address to the audience for delegates, Paul VI abandoned his prepared text at a certain point and, speaking off the cuff, said: "It is very important, gentlemen, to stress the empirical and sensible fact of the Easter apparitions. If we do not do so, we Christians will run the great risk of changing Christianity into a form of gnosis". In the wake of this address (the prepared text was later published), Paul VI continued along these lines speaking of "attempts by an ever reviving gnosis, whose fearsome inclination is to empty insensibly all the richness and portent of what is, essentially, a fact, the Resurrection of the Savior"; and he cited as the practical consequences the negation of the historical value of the Gospels and an interpretation "of the physical Resurrection of Jesus in a purely mythical or moral sense".

This article was taken from the No. 5, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.