The last couple of centuries have witnessed a great push both outside and inside the Church to mythologize Christianity. This is felt most keenly when it comes to the Resurrection of Our Lord. From positing that Our Lord did not actually die on the Cross (called the Swoon Theory), to mass hallucination, to “a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of the followers of Jesus,” each new “theory” offers a natural explanation to the central supernatural event in the history of mankind. Of course, it makes perfect sense. If you want to destroy Christianity, then you should start by destroying belief in the Resurrection itself. No less than St. Paul himself warned that downplaying the Resurrection of the Lord as the pivot of Christianity would lead to its eventual destruction; “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:17).
Given how long ago it occurred, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the Resurrection as a historical fact. I won’t attempt to add to what many other authors have already done in this area. Instead, what I would like to do in this post is to look at how we can avoid another pitfall, namely, over-spiritualizing the Resurrection.
In short, we often read the obviously incredible post-Resurrection appearances in such an ethereal manner that we divorce them from the overall Incarnation. Rather than seeing them as real, historical events, we view them in a spiritual fog. Rather than making the Resurrection more real, it becomes less.
Overcoming the Spiritual Fog
There is only one way around this trap and that is to ask, in faith, concrete questions of those accounts in order to add substance to what would otherwise be too sublime to be believed. Some questions, such as what were the teaching sessions of the Risen Lord and the Apostles like, are left to speculation. But there are others that have more flesh to them and can serve to strengthen both our faith and our hope.
One such question is what was the risen body of Jesus actually like? We know that it was a physical body—it could be touched and he ate, two things ghosts cannot do. We know it was the same body as the one that hung on the Cross; it bore the marks from the nails and the spear. After all, in order for it to be a true resurrection, it must be the same body. If it is not a new body, then it has been transformed in ways we almost certainly could not have anticipated. A true body does not vanish from sight (Lk 24:31).
There is a more personal reason why the question of the qualities of Our Lord’s risen state is important. Those who die in Christ, will have resurrected bodies patterned after His. By assuming human nature to Himself, the Son becomes the form of all human destiny for those who “put on Christ” in Baptism. In other words, by carefully examining Christ’s risen encounters, we can catch of glimpse of the destiny we are promised.
The Resurrected Body of Christ
Once properly motivated, we find that Christ wins for us resurrected bodies that have four qualities in addition to identity (same body) and integrity (complete body) mentioned above. The first is commonly referred to as subtlety. The resurrected body is a “spiritual body.” What this means, is that while a resurrected body is tangible, it is completely under the direction of the spirit. It is able to transcend the physical laws that normally govern us (such as two physical things cannot occupy the same place at the same time in the same way) simply by willing it. It simply takes an act of the will to pass from one side of a locked door or sealed tomb to the other.
Once rendered completely under the control of the soul, the body’s movement is different as well. Agility enables the person to traverse great physical distances with ease and speed simply by willing it. The movement may be very fast but it is still observable. Angels have a similar quality to their movement as far as its rapidity, but their movement is more like a quantum leap and would not be observable as a linear movement from point A to point B.
The other two qualities are somewhat commonsensical and appear within the Book of Revelation. The glorified body is impassible, that is, incapable of suffering. Lazarus’ body was resuscitated, Our Lord’s resurrected. Lazarus could still suffer, Our Lord would suffer no more. Our Lord appears to John as a “lamb as though slain, standing” (Rev 5:6) and “God will wipe away all tears” (Rev 21:4)
It also has the quality of clarity. Because the union of the human nature of Christ was in the Divine Person of the Son itself (we call this the Hypostatic Union), He enjoyed the vision of God from the moment of the creation of that human nature. This means He was always filled with beauty and radiance (what we commonly call the “light of glory”). His soul maintained this, while it miraculously remained hidden in His body except for the Transfiguration where He releases the governor on it. We do not see this quality exhibited during any of the pre-Ascension appearances because of its overwhelming nature. Instead John sees it when he encounters Our Lord in Chapter 1 (verses14-18) of the Book of Revelation.
In a number of the post-Resurrection accounts described in the gospels, Jesus is not recognized by His followers. This does not mean that one of the qualities of the resurrected body is shape-shifting. Instead, St. Thomas articulates an important principle for understanding. He says:
“Divine things are revealed to men in various ways, according as they are variously disposed. For, those who have minds well disposed, perceive Divine things rightly, whereas those not so disposed perceive them with a certain confusion of doubt or error: ‘for, the sensual men perceiveth not those things that are of the Spirit of God,’ as is said in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Consequently, after His Resurrection Christ appeared in His own shape to some who were well disposed to belief, while He appeared in another shape to them who seemed to be already growing tepid in their faith” (ST III, q.55, art.4)
In short, faith adds not just intellectual clarity, but the ability to see divine acts rightly. Christ was clearly manifested to those who believed in the Resurrection. For those who were tepid or doubted, “this hindrance in their eyes was Satan’s doing, lest Jesus might be recognized. Hence Luke says (24:16) that ‘their eyes were held, that they should not know Him.’”(ST III, q.55, art. 4, obj. 2). Seeing was not necessarily believing, but believing was seeing. Our Lord was trying to instill faith and so he was willing to allow these hindrances to remain as long as He could use them to drive them into the hands of true faith. This is the faith of “credible witnesses” that will never be shaken, even to the point of martyrdom. He is building an edifice on these people and so greatly desires to strengthen their faith during the 40 days between Resurrection and Ascension.
Our Lord allows this pretense to happen because it brings the person to faith. Mary Magdalene did not yet believe Our Lord was truly risen when she encountered the Gardener. She simply wanted to know what happened to the body. But her act of love of Christ, allowed her faith to expand so that she saw Him truly when He spoke her name. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus also had very imperfect faith, but once they were instructed in the Messianic texts, that is in a practical Liturgy of the Word, that their faith began to expand. Once Our Lord performed the Liturgy of the Eucharist, they were completely disposed to see Him as Himself.
Even Peter was not immune to this principle as his faith began to waver. We are told that when John saw the burial cloths, “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). It is not surprise then that when Peter begins to lose faith and attempts to return to fishing, that it is John who first recognizes Our Lord on the shore. Once Peter’s eyes are opened, he rushes to have his “come to Jesus meeting” (John 21:1-8).
What follows from this reflection are two things. First, the devil did not give up when Our Lord overcame death. He did not brood, but wasted no time attacking believers. He is still at work, especially on the tepid by using those “scholars” who would discredit the truth of the Resurrection. We must see these attacks for what they really are and be ready to counter them in faith and in fact.
Second, the Liturgical time between Easter and the Ascension of the Lord is a time in which a great many graces are available to deepen our faith in the risen Lord. But the key is we must first believe so that we can understand. Believing is seeing. This only happens when we ask the probing questions, not in a spirit of doubt, but in a spirit of true faith. When we color inside the lines, the true picture emerges.