“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20)
What do we mean when we say the word “Resurrection?”
That’s a very high priority question for us, whatever form our answer takes. The New Testament certainly stakes everything on it. That’s clear in all the main streams of earliest Christian witness contained in the New Testament: Paul, the “Synoptic” Gospels [i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke—including Luke’s sequel, Acts], and John. The remaining books add their weight to this, too, especially Hebrews and Revelation.
The Church’s Creeds pick up and underscore this as well: here, from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” and the Nicene, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
Well, that certainly seems a highest level of emphasis, but, again, what can it mean? A question easier posed than answered, that’s for sure. I actually think that it may be helpful to begin with sorting out what we do NOT mean when we say the word, “Resurrection.”
First, we don’t mean the mere resuscitation of corpses—even very dead ones. Nor do we mean the reconstitution of our present bodies from decomposed remains, some sort of molecular reassembly. That won’t do! Physically speaking, we’re all made from recycled material, used in others before us—and will be in those who come after. (In the life to come, I don’t see us arguing over bits of matter: “That’s mine!” “No; I had it first!”)
No, it’s clear—even from the resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels—that in “bodily resurrection” we must be speaking of a different sort of body, a different order of being. The tomb of Jesus was empty, but his body was not “the same.” So, if there was some form of continuity there was also radical discontinuity. (See especially, 1 Corinthians 15:44.) Yes, it’s a “mystery”—just as Paul said. Perhaps it’s better to capitalize that: Mystery.
So much for woodenly literal misunderstandings.
But neither is it adequate to reduce “Resurrection” to an over-vivid metaphor.
No, I’m afraid that reductions which merely add up to the following sorts of things just won’t do, either: powerful renewing experiences (personal or corporate), making an enduring difference for the betterment of human community, or “living on” in the memories of those who come after us. These are all well and good—of great value, even. But if such things (renewal, making a difference, being remembered in inspirational ways) are all we’re really talking about, then “resurrection” is not an apt word, even metaphorically. It wouldn’t carry enough meaning to justify the weight of its image. In the end, by themselves, the good things I’ve just mentioned leave the actual persons to whom they might refer—still dead.
Resurrection means life raised from death—and that’s a much bigger concept than “immortality of the soul,” by itself. We’re speaking of real life—whole life—raised from real death. And therefore, “Resurrection” (whatever it is), if meaningful, must be an astounding concept—even impossible.
Impossible apart from God, that is.
It is exactly this “impossible” thing upon which we stake everything as the Church: the “impossibility,” accomplished by God, first in Jesus Christ (who died but who indeed lives again), and—through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ—held in trust for us, too.
There is more! Although in our present time we are still waiting for the final defeat of death, through the power and pledge of the Holy Spirit, even in our all-too-mortal, passing life, even in these transient bodies of ours—so liable to brokenness and suffering—we are, also, even now, while we’re waiting, entering into the restored and unending Reality. This is the “Now” of God and with God that never runs out or passes away.
This is so much better than an arbitrary world only temporarily (and inadequately) soothed by the overinflated and the hollowed-out.
I’m reminded here of a very telling passage from Flannery O’Connor. In its original context, it applies to the Eucharist—but I think it naturally and appropriately has something to say to our thinking about Resurrection. It’s from her letter of December 16, 1955, that she wrote to her friend Elizabeth Hester (“A”).
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater….She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say….Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.
Quite a passage, isn’t it?
So, there we are. What do we mean when we say the word “Resurrection”?
Along these lines, I suggest, as a deliberate pondering for these last weeks before Easter, that we as a Parish meditate together on the Fifteenth Chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, specifically, 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 35-58.
The whole chapter would be fine—more than fine, of course—but these selected verses might be a little easier for focus and meditation—and perhaps memorization, as well. Together, let’s hold it in our attention, so that it may be activated in our minds.