12 April 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

Delivered at the John Paul II Newman Center
University of Illinois, Chicago

11 April 2011

On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.
 Most of us would find the above statement a bit out of proportion with our experience. Typically, when people find out we're Catholic, there's a list of grievances about as long as my arm, and belief in the resurrection of the body isn't one of them. I can't say I've ever had "bodily resurrection" come up in a conversation in an airport with a stranger about Catholicism. Even though we pray in the Creed "we look for the resurrection of the dead" together every Sunday, growing up I hardly ever thought about it, because really no one ever talked about it. What do we "look forward to" when we believe in the resurrection of the dead?

Let's go back to the beginning.

Interestingly enough, the above quotation came from a quite ancient source: these words were spoken not by the pope during his last Wednesday audience, or a well-known apologist, but by Saint Augustine, a bishop in North Africa 1600 years ago.

When they were spoken, Christianity had finally been legalized as a religion, and then made the official religion of the empire; and this 350 years after Christ. It is no exaggeration to say that our faith grew up in the shadow of the two religious giants of antiquity: paganism and Judaism. 

In some sense it struggled to define itself over and against them; it is necessarily so, because Christianity is neither a more rigorous version of pagan practices nor a relaxation of Jewish monotheism. Even though Christianity shared some common characteristics with them, at the same time it transcended them both, and presented to the world something totally new.

And that “new thing” was really pretty simple: a man who claimed to be the Son of God was rejected by his people, executed by the Romans, only to rise from the dead. This vindicated everything He said and did. God had entered the world as one of us; Jesus really was God’s Son, and He had the power to forgive sins and to restore the world to friendship with God. His power extended even to power over death.

So obviously this concept of “resurrection” was at the core of the clash between Christianity and the world. The fact is, though, there was no shortage of opinions in the ancient world about what happened after death. Thus, the earliest preachers had to be very specific about what they meant by “resurrection,” because that word already had meanings in other contexts. 

Paganism was pretty vague about the afterlife; the Greeks spoke of Hades, the Romans of Elysium, and so on, but this was often something more like a diminished life, a living death that was less alive than earthly existence. 

Judaism had a wide range of opinions about the afterlife; the question of the resurrection was actually a hotly disputed point in the 1st century, and factions arose over the question. Popular Judaism had some grasp of the idea; in today’s Gospel, Martha’s act of faith in the resurrection on the “last day” alludes to this. But the belief was always something national, something specific to the Jews over against the pagans—a fulfillment of the promise we hear about in today’s 1st reading from Ezekiel. Resurrection entailed a return to the promised land, a restoration of Jewish political supremacy, and it almost always had a tone of a return to earthly existence mightily prolonged.

If you caught it, however, Jesus wants to push Martha further with that strange sentence: I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus recognizes that Martha still regards him as a wonder-worker, someone who “has God’s ear.” But Jesus is more than a wonder-worker or a prophet: He is God’s kingdom in person, and this is a kingdom that conquers death and sin. Martha points out that Lazarus has been dead for four days, and will probably already have begun to decay—John includes this to make it clear that Lazarus is really, really dead. No: there is no chance that this is human ingenuity at work here. This is God’s power.

Now, what Jesus performed at the tomb was not, strictly speaking, a resurrection, but what you might call a "resuscitation." Lazarus returned to normal, earthly existence, and eventually died. When Paul speaks in the second reading of the Spirit who “will give life to your mortal bodies,” he is alluding to something much more powerful than resuscitation—he is making a connection between what the apostles and hundreds of others witnessed in Jesus’ resurrected body, and our own afterlife and bodily resurrection.

The question of what our glorified bodies will be like has been around since day one. Paul has to answer this question in his first letter to the Corinthians:
"How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel… What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
The connection between our present bodies and our resurrected bodies is something like the connection between an acorn and an oak—the oak is something much greater than the acorn, but in a way the full-grown oak is already contained within the acorn, and is simply a full development of it.

Of course this answer is less than satisfying. I don’t want to bore you with all the medieval speculation about what the resurrected body will be like, but there are a few basic ideas that we can guess at from what is narrated about Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection.

  • First, our bodies will be incorruptible—no longer subject to suffering, pain, disease, or death.
  • Our bodies will not be limited any more by space and time—think of Jesus’ appearance to the twelve in the upper room, when the doors had been locked. 
  • They will nevertheless be real bodies—think of Thomas placing his hand in Jesus’ side, and Jesus eating fish and bread on the shore of the sea of Galilee.
  • Finally, our bodies will be completely subservient to the soul—a restoration of the original created order in which our not only our appetites and desires will obey reason, but even our organs and muscles and nerves.
Again, this is mostly speculation, and we're not bound to believe it as the teaching of the Church, but it does help to put some flesh on the idea of what “resurrection” means and helps to separate it from what it’s not. We have to remember that biblical language about our final state is symbolic—even John himself admitted that though we are children of God now, we do not know what we shall be.

One thing is certain however—our lives will be taken up into God’s own Trinitarian communion of love and that love will make us more alive, not less. It’s a good reminder to us that every single person we meet, every person on the street, every person who has been or will be born, the person sitting next to you here now, has the potential to become so magnificent, so exalted a creature, that if one of them was to appear to us now, our first instinct would be to fall down and worship it. There is nothing insignificant about our lives together. There is no insignificant person or conversation. All of it will be carried with us into eternity.

So on this 5th Sunday of Lent, looking forward to Easter, it’s good to be reminded of what we are about here—nothing short of resurrection and eternity. Everything about our discipleship—our prayer, our moral choices, why we receive the sacraments, our service to others, and our life together in this community is directed to this. And in closing, I want to put some perspective on that. 

The Church has always read the story of the raising of Lazarus as a real historical event, but it has also understood it in a spiritual way, as a symbolic retelling of the lifting of a person out of sin. Biblically, sin and death are tied together—the one is the result of the other. The death of Lazarus is the death of the soul in sin—serious sin, what has tied us up, and extinguished the fire of life in us, stopped our breath, and stuffed us in the ground, alone, isolated, silent, and stinking.

But into that silence and death comes the Word of life: come out. Those words continue to call sinners from death to life through the ministry of the Church, and through our encouragement of one another. Let’s be attentive to the source of that word of life, calling us out of the tombs we’ve chosen to rot in. Think on a situation where you've been challenged or corrected. How did you respond to those words? Did you receive them as a call from the Lord to new life, or as an insult or an attempt to humiliate you? Even if the intentions of the one through whom those words come are not pure, that need not stop us from receiving them as if it were Christ breaking through our deafness to raise us to life with Him forever.

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