God raised (Jesus) on the third day, and granted that He be visible to us the witnesses chosen by God in advance who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.
Those words of St. Peter are the culmination of an age-long awareness and expectation in Israel, where the ‘third day’ was of special significance for Jewish piety.
In the book of Genesis we are told that Abraham, in obedience to the voice of God, was taking his only son Isaac to offer him in sacrifice to the Lord on the mount which the Lord would show them. Sorrowing father and innocent, unknowing son, were journeying on together (Genesis 22:4–5) when:
On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar. Then he said to his servants: “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder. We will worship and then come back to you.”
On the third day Abraham had observed Mount Moriah where he believed his son had to be sacrificed to the Lord; in the event, however, it turned out to be the third day when, on Mount Moriah, his son was not only given back unharmed to his father, but restored as the sign of God’s enduring promise of blessing for Abraham and for God’s Chosen People (Genesis 22:16-17):
I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from Me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies,
The ‘third day’ was thus, indeed, of momentous significance at the very beginning of God’s Chosen People; and also subsequently, when -- sinful and suffering – she was in dire need of renewal, the prophet Hosea proffered words of supreme consolation in the name of the Lord:
In their affliction, they shall look for Me: “Come, let us return to the LORD, for it is He who has rent, but He will heal us; He has struck us, but He will bind our wounds. He will revive us after two days; on the third day He will raise us up, to live in His presence. Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD; as certain as the dawn is His coming, and His judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” (Hosea 6:1-3)
Those are but two of the most momentous occasions, two of the most significant texts from Israel’s scriptures, but the ‘third day’ was of such recognized and accepted significance throughout Israel’s history that we are even told of the Chief Priests and Pharisees, being gathered before Pilate in their concern for Body of Jesus crucified, and saying to him:
Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’ Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27:63-64)
You can understand, therefore, what superabundant joy and gratitude the disciples experienced on recalling those ancient and prophetic texts after having found the empty tomb and seen the Risen Lord! The ultimate bearer of God’s promise, Jesus Whom they had known and loved, had been restored to them on the ‘third day’, restored to life because death had not been able to hold Him! That is why Peter could so confidently proclaim to Cornelius and his family whom, under the command of the Holy Spirit, he was about to baptise:
We are witnesses of all that He did both in the country of the Jews and (in) Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree. This man God raised (on) the third day and granted that He be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that He is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name.”
Now let us turn to our reading from St. Paul and allow him to guide our thoughts:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
As you heard, Paul extends this wondrous event of Jesus’ rising from the dead to include us also. But how can he say that we died with Christ?
Because Christ died as Lord and Saviour of all mankind; though sinless, He died a sinner’s death on our behalf. When He died on Good Friday the hopes of all mankind seemed to die with Him; and on Holy Saturday we could only experience the hopelessness, helplessness, and indeed the emptiness, of our native, sinful condition.
But now, Peter and Paul, together with all the apostles, bear witness that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and, since He is risen in the glory of the Father and the Holy Spirit, Paul says, you who believe in Him -- being called to that by the Father and empowered by the Spirit – are truly risen with Him and share in His new, risen Life, and as such you are no longer subject to the frustrations of your native pride and self-solicitude, no longer bound by sin to the finality of earthly death:
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
We can understand to a certain extent how the gift of faith in the risen Jesus raises us up with Him, but there seems to be something more ‘substantial’ about our ‘being seated with Him’ at the right hand of God, of which we are explicitly told in the letter to the Ephesians (2:4-6):
God, Who is rich in mercy, because of the great love He had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavens in Christ Jesus.
In what sense are we seated in the heavens (at the right hand of God) in Christ Jesus?
The answer is that we are not, of course, physically seated with Him now in heaven; nevertheless, that is where the vital powers of our spiritual life originate and whither they are leading us. For Jesus is physically, in His glorious humanity, in heaven at the right hand of the Father; but He is also, in a sacramental manner, physically with us in the Eucharist, whereby He draws us up, into, Himself through the Spirit. Our heavenly food – the driving force of supernatural life within us – is the living Body of the One seated at the right hand of the Father in glory; and the more we live by that food, in the power of His Spirit, the more He draws us closer and more intimately into Himself; for the Spirit, God’s Gift to us in the Eucharist, is ever at work forming us in Jesus’ likeness so that we might be able to share – as living members – in the eternal glory of His Body.
For your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory.
Such was the prayer of Jesus for us to His Father shortly before His death on the Cross, a prayer that overshadows us with the assurance of protection and for the hope of glory throughout the course of our lives:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)
We who entertain such hopes and trust in such protection cannot surely, allow ourselves to live a life of overriding attentiveness to an endless search for personal success and worldly fulfilment, while largely forgetting our heavenly vocation and inheritance. Even Jesus’ prayer can only be effective in the lives of those who are open to and in tune with His prayer, in the lives of those who seek communion with, and fulfilment in, Him more seriously and lovingly than they search for earthly appreciation and satisfaction. And so we must never forget St. Paul’s admonition in today’s reading:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of (and aspire to) what is above not what is on earth.
But let us follow such advice in the spirit of today’s celebration, by taking to heart, first of all, the words of the prophet Nehemiah (8:10):
Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength;
and then, recognizing with the Apostles of old and with Mother Church of today the surpassing wonder of Jesus’ Resurrection, let us appreciate that it offers us not merely a sufficient basis for joy on just one ‘day holy to the Lord’, but can, indeed, inspire and sustain a whole lifetime of grateful and enduring Christian joy dedicated to praising the goodness and beauty of God and serving the true well-being of our neighbour.