Before Easter, the daily readings are mostly about the empty tomb. After Easter, nearly every day brings another of Christ’s resurrection appearances. This makes sense chronologically. But we still might be left wondering why Jesus chose to make these few extra little “pit stops” on his way to the right hand of the Father. Just to prove that He was still alive and kicking? To show up the Roman and Jewish authorities? “You thought you beat me but you didn’t.” This doesn’t make a lot of sense, since He didn’t show Himself to them. He left it to the apostles to tell a story the authorities wouldn’t have been predisposed to believe. Who would?
Biblical scholars are wont to say that the “empty tomb” narratives are not meant to “prove” the resurrection of Christ. This is no big insight, of course, since the Gospel writers themselves note that it was possible to offer alternative explanations for why the tomb was empty. “His disciples came in the night and stole the body.”
I’ve always thought that if Jesus wanted to prove He was God in the sense modern people seem to want, He should have come off the cross, shot fifty feet into the air, spun around, and shot laser beams out of His eyes. Something like this seems to be what the members of the Sanhedrin had in mind. “You who were going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” “He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
One of the strangest passages in the Gospels is in Mark 15:39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” One would have thought that, at the moment of His death, the question of His divinity would have been decisively resolved in the negative. The one thing gods don’t do is die. At the moment of His death, one would have expected the centurion to say: “Well, I guess this guy was definitely not the son of God.”
And yet the early Church saw in the centurion’s comment the paradox of their own message. They proclaimed Jesus the Son of God not in spite of His death on the cross, but precisely because of it. Thinking back on the Last Supper, they came to realize His was not merely a death, as though He had gotten caught up in political events beyond His control; it was a sacrifice, understood on the model of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb whose blood preserved the Hebrew people from death and was the first stage in their passage to freedom.
This message about God’s incarnation and sacrificial death has never been one that can be forced on people by devastating arguments or undeniable historical evidence. Like all acts of love, it must be accepted in faith. You can’t prove you love someone or that someone loves you by scientific experiments or demonstrative arguments. The attempt to force the conclusion in this way is usually taken as the opposite of love. “You love me! I can prove it.” Try that the next time your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to break up with you and see how far it gets you.
So if Jesus is not trying to prove His divinity by showing the disciples His resurrected body, what is He doing? Reassuring them, certainly, although that’s what sending the Holy Spirit is for. After He ascends to His Father, they will still likely wonder: “Did we see what we thought we saw?” We encounter the Risen Christ every time we take the Eucharist, and yet we still wonder: “Was it really Him?”
Let me suggest a slightly different approach to the question. What a good biblical scholar would tell you is that the resurrection appearances should be understood as an “eschatological event” (something that should not be mistaken for “scatological language”). Jesus’s resurrection tells us about the “final times.” Or to put this another way: it gives us the clearest revelation we have of what heaven is. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, Christ raised from the dead is the “firstfruits” of what we too will enjoy if we remain united to His Body.
What do the resurrection appearances tell us about the afterlife? Let me suggest two things in particular—insights I borrow in deep gratitude from my former professor, Fr. Roch Kereszty, and his superb book Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology. The first message is that, like Christ, we will enjoy a true union with God the Father, Son, and Spirit; and second, like Christ, in that union, we will not lose our bodily identity.
The resurrection appearances show the apostles that the Risen Christ is the same person as the man they knew as Jesus of Nazareth. He has in His risen body preserved the marks of the nails and the lance. The disciples recognize Him by means of familiar gestures: He calls Mary Magdalene by name; He breaks bread with them; He sends the disciples out for a catch of fish.
Think about how the story could have been told. An angelic figure appears to the disciples and says, “I am the Christ who existed within the man Jesus. With His death, I am set free, like a phoenix rising from his ashes. He is gone, but I now live truly as you will soon be set free from your bodies to live.” This is the way many gnostic cults tell the story.
If this was the truth about the resurrection, what would it reveal to us about our lives? Would it not tell us that our current life, our experiences and relationships, our loves and concerns for people, were something to be shed, like a useless worn out coat? Wouldn’t this suggest this life is empty and meaningless, something we should “get beyond”?
And what might it suggest about the afterlife? A common image portrays our destiny as a “drop of water returning to the ocean.” It’s a lovely image, but the problem with it is, when the drop returns to the ocean, it’s “identity” is lost in the mass.
What might give Christians hope that this will not be their fate? First, the Trinity: three persons in one Being: a perfect unity which does not destroy the diversity of Persons, and a diversity of Persons which does not destroy their perfect unity. So too the promise is that we can be united to God and not lose our “personhood.” Like the Risen Christ, we will still be the person we have been, still united with those we have loved.
What many people fear about death is the loss of the intimate connection with their loved ones. They think of it as “going away,” as though going to heaven were like leaving Cleveland and moving to Miami Beach.
I once had a student say to me, “Prof. Smith, what if we are souls trapped in a prison which is our body and the whole point of human life is to find the key?” I told him that if he believed that, he should be about his business because there would be nothing more tragic than finding himself on his deathbed saying to himself: “I didn’t find the key.” But since I didn’t think of the body as a “prison,” I wasn’t looking for this kind of key. I quite like having a body, I said. I like hugs and warmth and smells and tastes and cold air in the fall—all functions of a body. I would prefer to preserve those things. The bodily resurrection suggests we will.
The problem with our earthly bodies, however, is that when we are with the people we love in New York, we can’t be with the people we love in Seattle, and vice versa. What does Christ’s glorified body tell us? It tells us that the promise of eternal life which Jesus’s death and resurrection has opened up for us results not in obliteration or negation, but transformation and glorification. All that is sinful in us and keeps us from loving God and loving others fully the way the Son loves the Father must “die.” But what is left as “wheat separated from the chaff” is the true us. We do not lose those connections with our loved ones, even with the places we love. Those connections are deepened. Like Christ, who can be with his disciples in a new and powerful way, with those He loves in New York, Paris, London, and Bombay at any time of the day or night, so too, St. Francis can be present in a special way to those in his beloved Assisi, but also to us. The Risen Christ prepares us for the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the world. But it also prepares us for the communion of the saints whereby, like Christ, we can be present with a new intimacy and transforming power in the world.
The challenge of any view of the afterlife is that, if it is so glorious, it can make this life seem meaningless. If the afterlife is so great, why not cut to the chase and just get there? The stories about Christ’s resurrection and ascension send a different message. “Men of Galilee,” the angels tell them, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” They are supposed to go out, spread the Good News, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit, make present Christ’s Risen Body in the world.
“The resurrection appearances convince the disciples not only of the reality of the resurrection,” says Fr. Roch, “but also of Christ’s new permanent presence in them and among them, especially in and through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Thus the other purpose of the appearances is to send the disciples into mission to establish the Kingdom of God—a mission begun before the foundation of the world, to be carried on now, and “into the ages of ages.”
“The deepest desires of the human person for the totality of truth, goodness, and life are not destined to ultimate frustration, but to be transformed and fulfilled in eternal life. And yet, our hope for salvation will, then, appear not as an escape from our bodily condition and from the material universe. On the contrary, our bodies will be redeemed and will find a home.”
He is risen! The Good News, as Paul tells us, is that He is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”—fruits which nourish us and the world even now.