“How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” (I Corinthians 15:35). St. Paul’s reaction to these legitimate questions isn’t very diplomatic. “What a stupid question” is the essence of his reply. He goes on to explain to us dummies that the corruptible body is the seed of an incorruptible body, the natural body the seed of a spiritual body. As if that should be obvious. It might have been to Paul, who experienced the third heaven, but for those of us who have not received such lights, the idea of a “spiritual body” is a very nebulous and enigmatic concept.
How, then, should we envisage resurrection? Scripture and tradition affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus as the model and prototype of ours. I don’t think that there is any getting around the fact that, notwithstanding all our postmodern deconstructionism, this is a core belief of Christianity. Our points of reference should be the post-paschal accounts of the risen Jesus and his preliminary glorification on Mount Tabor.
In the gospel accounts of the manifestations of the risen Christ, there are consistencies and inconsistencies. He is not immediately recognized in certain of these narratives—on the road to Emmaus, on the shore of Lake Tiberias, in the garden of the tomb. He invites Thomas to feel his wounds, yet forbids Mary Magdalene to touch him. Many of the meetings between the Resurrection and the Ascension include a shared meal. If the angelic witnesses of the Resurrection appear in their glory and inspire fear, the risen Jesus does not. He exudes a sense of peace, fulfillment, and total domination, yet he is discreet and fraternal. He bears the marks of his Passion. He passes through closed doors.
It is the same Jesus, the King of the Jews who hung on the cross. Yet he is also somehow different. Something has changed. He is still in this world but no longer subject to its laws. There is also something incomplete about him during the forty pascal days. He has not yet returned to his Father. He has not yet manifested the fullness of his victory over death, which will be revealed only “when he comes again in glory,” and this will be accompanied by the resurrection of all and the glorification of the Mystical Body of Christ. The evangelists’ descriptions of the resurrected Christ give us a glimpse at a new dimension of existence, but they also give the impression that much more remains concealed than has been revealed.
So should we just let it go at that, and stop asking what Paul called stupid questions? I don’t think so. The apparent contradiction between the divine promise and what we know about the body needs to be addressed.
Much can be learned, I believe, from the epiphany on Mount Tabor. Jesus is with Moses and Elias in the splendor of his glorified humanity, and they converse about his approaching passion and death. This is not the resurrected Christ of the forty days whose glory still isn’t manifested because he has not yet returned to the Father. This is Jesus in his triumphal resplendence. Here time touches eternity. They who had experienced the divine glory on Sinai (Moses) and Horeb (Elias), are both visibly present on the holy mountain along with Jesus and are recognized by Peter, James, and John. Their physical presence is so real that Peter suggests erecting tents for them. They appear in the midst of a cloud that the Fathers of the Church identified as the Holy Spirit. All this is before Christ “comes again in glory,” before his ascension and resurrection, his passion and death. And yet to the chosen disciples who saw him on Mount Tabor, his visible glory that day was as much as they could bear. The Transfiguration prefigured all that the general resurrection will finally reveal.
Tabor reveals Christ as a mediator between time and eternity. The very structure of the Incarnation implies the entrance of eternity into time and time into eternity. The Incarnation refers temporal realities to a dimension beyond themselves where they acquire their full meaning. To enter into eternity is to enter into one’s true identity, and the body is essential to our identity—so much so that, for St. Thomas, a disembodied soul would not really be a person: the very nature of the soul is to be the form of the body.
There must be a continuity between the bodies we have now and the spiritual body to which Paul refers. The spiritual body is our present body fulfilled according to the will of Christ. Despite its infirmities and imperfections, our present body is destined to become the body of a child of God. This does not necessarily imply that all the elements of that body will be identical with the elements of the bodies we have now. But then, the bodies we have now are not identical with the bodies we had a few years ago. We know from modern biology that our physical components are constantly changing, our cells constantly being replaced, yet the soul remains the same and makes these elements ours.
Finally, it is worth noting that on Mount Tabor, it is not only the visage of Christ that becomes brighter than the sun; his clothes, too, shine forth in dazzling splendor and the mountain is covered with a luminous cloud like that of the Exodus. The glory of Christ extends to the material world around him. So, in some mysterious way, will the glory of the spiritual body radiate and transform the new heavens and the new earth. Indeed, the whole created universe will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
The Father without beginning and the consubstantial Spirit are present on Tabor, as they were in the waters of the Jordan when Jesus was baptized. In both instances, the voice of the Father confirms his love for his Son. On Tabor the Spirit manifests itself not in the form of a dove, but as a luminous and transforming cloud. It is the Spirit who fills all things with life, gently and forcefully, as the Advent antiphon sings. It is the Spirit who glorifies the humanity of Christ and, through him, all of creation.
So my friend Denis was wrong. Strange as it sounds—and impossible as it may be for us to imagine now—at the end of time it’s all coming back up. Until then, all Creation groans.