We know directly from St. Paul that Greek philosophers thought the resurrection was a curious absurdity. Politicians more pragmatically feared that it would upset the whole social order. One of the earliest Christian “apologists,” or explainers, was St. Justin Martyr, who tried to persuade the emperor Antoninus Pius that Christianity is the fulfillment of the best intuitions of classical philosophers like Socrates and Plato.
Justin was reared in an erudite pagan family in Samaria, in the land of Israel just about one lifetime from the resurrection. Justin studied hard and accepted Christ as his Savior, probably in Ephesus, and then set up his own philosophical school in Rome to explain the sound logic of the Divine Logos. Refusing to worship the Roman gods, and threatened with torture by the Prefect Rusticus, he said, “You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.”
Then he was beheaded.
Fast-forward almost exactly 1,000 years, and another philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, also admired the best of the Greek philosophers and coined the phrase “We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” There had been long centuries without much effort to explain the mystery of the resurrection with luminous intelligence.
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton would describe himself the same way.
Being intellectual dwarfs may sound pessimistic, but there was also optimism in the fact that, lifted on the shoulders of giants, they could see even farther than the giants themselves. In witness to that, less than 50 years after Bernard died, building began on the great cathedral of Chartres.
The magnificent rose window in the south transept depicts the evangelists as small men on the shoulders of the tall prophets.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are closer to Christ in the center of the window than Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, who lift them up, seeing in fact what the prophets had longed for in hope.
The risen Christ is neither a ghost nor a mere mortal. Ancient philosophies could be vague about things supernatural, and ancient cults could be distant from personal conduct. The resurrection unites ethics and worship. The famous letter of an anonymous contemporary of Justin Martyr, meant to be read by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, said that the way Christians live “has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.”
Indifference to the resurrection is not an option.
The resurrection was the greatest event in history, and unlike other events that affect life in subsequent generations in different degrees by sequential cause and effect, the resurrection is a living force for all time, making Christ present both objectively in the sacraments, and personally in those who accept Him.
Indifference to the resurrection is not an option. The future life of each one of us depends on a willingness to be saved from eternal death.
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.