Why the Third Day?

Easter Sunday
By Fr. Victor Feltes

Why did Jesus rise from the dead on Easter? Christ’s resurrection was foretold, for instance in the 16th Psalm: “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.” Furthermore, Jesus rose again because without the Resurrection our Redemption would be incomplete. As St. Paul told the Romans, “[Our Lord] was handed over for our transgressions, and was raised for our justification.” In the words of the Church’s Catechism: “The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life.” Jesus Christ came to redeem and save not only our souls but also our bodies and the rest of creation as well. Easter changes everything. Instead of living in a secular world where nothing really matters because cold death claims all, we now can live forever with God in Christ’s Kingdom.

Jesus rose again on Easter, but why did he resurrect on the third day in particular? Why not choose the first or second day, or the fourth or fortieth day to rise again? I see several reasons why God chose the third day to be Easter.

First of all, this number of days helps to confirm Jesus’ death. If Jesus had resurrected right away, immediately after being taken down from the Cross or sealed in the tomb, some would wonder if he had ever really died. Absent a miracle, no one could survive flagellation, crucifixion, and two nights alone in a cave without medical aid. The three days establish that Jesus was definitely dead.

Another reason for the three days was to fulfill the Scriptures. Post-resurrection, Jesus said, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.” Many Old Testament passages foreshadowed this. For instance, Jesus and St. Paul both liken resurrection to plants sprouting, and it was on the third day of creation that God said, “Let the earth bring forth… every kind of plant.” It was “on the third day” that Abraham obediently offered Isaac in sacrifice, reasoning that God would keep all of his promises by raising his only son from the dead. But Heaven halted Abraham’s hand and he received back his beloved son alive on the third day. Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days… so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth.” Jesus also said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (He said this in reference to the temple of his body.) The Book of Ezra records that the second Jewish Temple was completed on the third day of the month. And there are other Old Testament stories and signs one could cite as well. Jesus rose again on the third day in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

A third reason for the third day is what Jesus was doing on the second day. While his body was in the tomb observing a perfect Sabbath rest, his soul descended to the abode of those who had died before Christ. St. Peter writes in his First Epistle how Jesus “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits;” that “the gospel was preached even to the dead.” Christ declared on earth, “Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus used these three days to open heaven’s gates for all the just who had died before him.

Another reason for the third day is to signify a New Creation. “The third day,” Easter, was a Sunday. In Genesis, God’s work of Creation began on this first day of the week. Likewise, Easter Sunday and the Resurrection mark the beginning of a New Creation with Christ.

Though there may be millions of more reasons in the mind of God, a final, important reason I see for why Jesus rose on the third day is to give his Church a saving lesson in faithful endurance. The apostles had witnessed Jesus work many miracles. For example, they saw him use five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men. Then, the following day, they heard him speak about the Real Presence. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” he said, and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” However, people would not accept this teaching and in his Gospel St. John records, “as a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” Then Jesus asked his apostles, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

They believed in Jesus. His teachings were challenging, but they stayed with him. How shocking then was it for them to witness the torture and death of their Messiah, the Christ. Throughout Holy Saturday, they were full of doubts and fears, yet the disciples remained together in the Upper Room in which they had eaten the first Eucharist. Those apostles might have discreetly fled for home and missed out on Easter entirely, if they had not religiously respected the Sabbath which kept them from traveling far from the gathered Church. Therefore, when Jesus appeared on the third day, none of them had strayed too far away. Except for Judas and Thomas, all of them were there on Sunday to encounter their Risen Lord. They saw Jesus, and touched him, and he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and the deeper meaning of their past and present and future. Then their doubts and fears and desires to be elsewhere, which had felt so very strong before, were now emptied of power, replaced with joy and peace. However, they never forgot what they experienced on that Holy Saturday leading to Easter Sunday, and they present to us a saving lesson for our faithful endurance.

Jesus Christ works miracles. He teaches beautiful, challenging things. And today, he is risen from the dead. The betrayals of Judases and doubts of Thomases do not change the reality of these things. Called here by God, you have gathered in this Upper Room for Easter. You have drawn near to Christ’s Holy Eucharist and his Church. Whatever doubts or fears (or even desires to be elsewhere) you might feel, I pray you will hereafter never stray nor remain far away. To whom else would you go? Only Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life. Remain here for him with his Church so that you may encounter and know the Risen Lord and us more deeply. As I said before, Easter changes everything. Instead of living in a secular world where nothing really matters because cold death claims all, we can now rejoice that we can live forever with God in Christ’s Kingdom.

2 Responses to “Why the Third Day?”

  1. Clandr Says:

    I’ve heard and read commentaries that the only glorified bodies in heaven at this time are Jesus & Mary. How can those who are destined for heaven & the resurrection of our bodies has not happened yet be, in heaven?

    • Fr. Victor Feltes Says:

      We know it is possible to be personally in God’s presence before our bodily resurrection since Jesus visited souls in the abode of the dead even before Easter. The sanctified dead now experience the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven even before their bodily resurrection. In the end, all the blessed will be in God’s presence in both body and soul in a glorified universe.

      “By virtue of our apostolic authority, we define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints…and other faithful who died after receiving Christ’s holy Baptism (provided they were not in need of purification when they died, …or, if they then did need or will need some purification, when they have been purified after death,…) already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment – and this since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven – have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.”

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