In the episode of the encounter of Christ with the disciples on their way to Emmaus we find a very enlightening lesson regarding the saving power of the Resurrection. Christ appears to them because they have lost hope in his message, since the events have destroyed, according to them, their expectations. That is why after giving an account of the death of Jesus, his “unfulfilled promises,” they say: “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” (Lk 24:21)
That is exactly why Jesus encounters them. He wants to help them see that his Resurrection implies the coming about of something that is not only going to meet their expectations, but to surpass them.
Jesus was not seeking a partial and external redemption of Israel, but a total redemption of the whole human person. This was way beyond the worthy but narrow expectations of the disciples.
In order to change their perspective, he reminds them of a wider context: “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and thus enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25)
The death of Christ was necessary for him, not because death itself wins for Jesus the glorification of his human nature, but rather because his death on the cross heightens the meaning of his fidelity to his Father and to the mission his Father sent him to carry out. This is the meaning of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians when he says that Jesus was “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:8)
But the death of Jesus is not the sole contributor to the redemption of humankind as D. Helminiak states it eloquently in his book, The Same Jesus: A Contemporary Christology:
“However, these considerations alone do not account for the redemption. They deal only with the subjective aspects of the issue, with the change in relationship between humans and God. But Jesus did more than reorient our race to God. He also effected an objective change in his humanity, and that change in him entails a change in the concrete reality of all humanity. His resurrection introduced a new reality into human history. Never before was there a divinized human being. Now there is. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, the concrete possibility for human fulfillment is different. Because of Jesus, human divinization is now possible. This change affects every human being ever to live. It is a change not just in attitude or understanding or relationship; it is a change in the reality of things. It represents a quantum leap in human achievement. This change in the goal of human becoming, effected by Jesus, is also part of his contribution to our salvation.”
Human freedom reflects the inner and existential desire to “be like God.” Pope Benedict expressed it in these words in a conference back in 1981:
“If man is to be free, he must be “like God”. Wanting to be like God is the inner motive of all mankind’s programs of liberation. Since the yearning for freedom is rooted in man’s being, right from the outset he is trying to become “like God”. Indeed, anything less is ultimately too little for him. We see this very clearly in our own time, with its passionate and strident demands for anarchic, total freedom, dissatisfied as it is with all the bourgeois freedoms and libertinisms, be they ever so great. If it is to do justice to its own aims, therefore, an anthropology of liberation will have to face the question: what is meant by “becoming like God”, “becoming God”? (Behold The Pierced One, pp.33-34)
The devil took advantage of this strong desire to be like God in order to make it impossible for us to achieve it. That is why he tempted Adam and Eve with the words: “God knows well that the moment you eat of it [the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” (Gen 3:5)
Thanks to the devil’s distortion, through the sin of our first parents, we lost the awareness of the fact that we are called to be like God, not by disobeying him, but rather by freely obeying him. This is what Christ taught us by his death and resurrection. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches when answering the question why did the Word become flesh, by quoting St. Athanasius: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”; and St. Thomas Aquinas: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (n.460)
The Catechism also says that “Christ’s Resurrection is closely linked to the Incarnation of God’s Son and is its fulfillment in accordance with God’s eternal plan” (n. 643). This means that it is thanks to the resurrection that we become like God.
This is way beyond the expectations of the disciples and of ours. Let us not follow our narrow expectations, but delve into the meaning of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation.
Helminiak sums it up this way:
“So there are two aspects to Jesus’ saving work: reconciliation and divinization. On the one hand, through his fidelity at the cost of suffering and death, Jesus reversed the themes of the human story. The effects of sin became the occasion for virtue. Death became the entrance into divine life. The creature that was sinful now proved fully faithful. Jesus reconciled us with the Father. On the other hand, through his resurrection, Jesus achieved the divine fulfillment God intended for humankind. He became the first human to be divinized, and as a result divinization became a concrete possibility for humankind. These two, reconciliation and divinization, are essentially complementary aspects of one mystery. The cross and the resurrection comprise the one redemptive work of Jesus Christ.”