At Easter, We Can Rise Again
“The tomb is empty because Christ is risen. Without the resurrection, Christianity is a useless religion as a way to salvation,” writes Tshiamo Stephen Takongwa in this Easter reflection.
We are now coming near to that time of the year when people go off in different directions to celebrate Easter.
Some will be going to the cattle post while others will be visiting tourist places. Others will be making pilgrimages while others yet will go to their different churches to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ: the paschal mystery, which is the climax of Christian faith.
This is how people plan their free time.
Holy Week and Easter is an important time in the life of the Church and most people who belong to the Church, or have even a little faith, try to get to the ceremonies.
But beneath all of that, or prior to all of that, there is the question of whether or not it is necessary to belong to the Church in the first place. In other words, can there be salvation outside the Church? Is it true that extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the Church there is no salvation?
This is a doctrinal issue about which a lot of people have raised questions.
The statement that outside the Church there is no salvation is indeed a part of Church teaching—but it has to be understood properly so that people not be misled.
Some people take a very narrow, strict view of this statement and say that if you are not a fully baptised, practising member of the Church, then you are damned.
Others take a completely opposite view and assume that we don’t even need baptism to attain salvation or be members of any church. They assume that everyone will be saved at the end of time, regardless of their baptism or whether they are Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Zion Christians or whatever. All that matters is to have some kind of faith and God will do the rest because he wants all to be saved.
Both extremes are wrong. Jesus is the one mediator between God and humanity. He alone is the way, and the Catholic Church, the only church which he founded, is his body extended in this world.
It is in a pilgrimage on its journey towards the kingdom of God when Christ will come back again and take it to himself as his bride.
So the Church is necessary for the salvation of all mankind. But how is it necessary?
Faith and salvation
Christ sent his apostles forth to preach the Gospel to all nations. The New Testament is very clear that salvation is a gift which is given to all people despite nation, race or tribe.
The Gospel which is being preached is his truth (Mt 28), and the Church is his voice today extending his message with her teaching.
By now that Gospel has been preached to many people in many countries. Those who have heard it and know that it is the truth and that it is necessary to be in the Church to be saved, and still wilfully reject the truth and stay outside the Church, will not be saved but for the grace of God.
Faith and grace are gifts necessary for salvation, but the proper channel of those things is the Church.
So to know that and still to reject the Church is to be lost. Jesus in his teaching makes it clear about the children of the kingdom and the children who do not belong to the kingdom.
But then there are people who have never heard of Christ and his teaching. Surely they cannot be condemned because it is not their fault that they have not heard it? But they still need the grace of Christ to be saved. That is necessary.
So, can they be saved?
We can never say for sure who will or who won’t be saved, but since those people who’ve never heard of the faith have no agency in their salvation, we can only trust that Christ will give his grace to them in some other way.
The Church normally receives that grace through the seven sacraments. But God is not tied to his own sacraments. So he can have his grace reach them by other ways unknown to us and even unknown to them.
The Church Fathers had things to say about those who are outside the Church and how they might be saved.
They said salvation is open to those who are ignorant of the Gospel in a mysterious way. They said that the natural law which enables us all to know right from wrong by following our consciences is written in the hearts of all people.
Conscience is God’s law written in the human heart. So if these people respect this law, they will also be respecting the Lawgiver who is God because he is the one who gave us the law and wants us to abide by it.
People of no faith or faith outside the Church who do this with sincerity are opening themselves to God. So it is quite possible that he gives them his grace also.
Before the coming of Christ the pagan Greeks had only philosophy to guide them and it brought them some of the truth at least. So they were opening themselves to the fulness of the truth by studying it, if they did so with sincerity.
In the third century, St Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Before the coming of the Lord, philosophy was necessary for justification to the Greeks; now it is useful for piety…for it brought the Greeks to Christ as the Law did the Hebrews.”
Empty tomb at the centre
When we talk about the Christian message more particularly, we see that the empty tomb is at the centre of it. But an empty tomb by itself says only that the body is gone. That is not what we mean by the central doctrine of our faith.
What we mean is that the tomb was empty because Christ is risen. Without resurrection, Christianity is a useless religion as a way to salvation. St Paul said that and later so did St Augustine. The resurrection has created hope, the hope of a future existence for humanity. It gives hope to those who believe that “we too will rise again as Jesus rose”.
Through baptism we share in the risen life of Jesus promised by the message of Easter. Our faith has changed the way we live our lives today.
Whenever we are forgiven our sins, we experience the new life of the risen Jesus.
A typical example is Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. Encountering the Risen Christ, he repents and is forgiven (Jn 21: 15-17).
“Everyone who believes in Jesus has forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
In the Gospel of Mark we read that after the resurrection, Christ instructs his disciples to go to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to all nations. At the heart of the Gospel is the teaching that we too must share in the paschal mystery—not only when we are baptised and come to Mass on Sunday but also in our daily lives, so that we can experience the new life of the resurrection.
New life in Christ
We often experience this new life of the resurrection when we are able to pull though our own personal Calvaries, such as relationships problems, unemployment, depression, stress and so on.
Even though we reach the lowest depths, we need to be able to put our trust and faith in Jesus Christ, and then we shall experience an inward peace. That inward peace we experience, that’s the rising of Jesus again in our own lives!
We experience this new life of the resurrection when by sheer persistent endeavour we are able to overcome even permanent physical handicaps and live our lives to the full.
We experience the new life of the risen Christ not only as individuals but also as a community of believers. Whenever the community experiences that brokenness, there is also the possibility of experiencing communal resurrection.
Our communities are experiencing violence, injustice, discrimination, inequality and more. This shows how the world is broken.
But there are people in our communities, full of the power of the Holy Spirit, who have put up a peaceful fight against injustices in our society and who hope in Christ so that he will bring them through those Calvaries to the new life of the resurrection.
God’s will is that “all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2-4). He gave us the Gospel with its truth, the Church with its teaching, the sacraments with their grace, and the pope as his representative on earth as the means to be saved.
The Church, we might say, is like Noah’s ark, a refuge from the waves of sin.
The apostles of Jesus were commissioned to go out and preach this Gospel and baptise those who believe the Good News “in the Name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit”.
Let us respond positively to this call. Let us open our hearts to God because he is the one who will read our hearts at the end of life.
Let us hope that he will find us worthy of the resurrection in his kingdom of glory.
Tshiamo Stephen Takongwa writes from Gaborone, Botswana.