Figures from the transept portal of Reims Cathedral. Photo by David A. Cook

Many years ago I worked for several months as a gravedigger in the Catholic cemetery of Leeds, England. The grounds crew consisted of a man named Denis, his three sons, and myself. Denis resented me. I wasn’t his son. I wasn’t even from Yorkshire. For all he knew, I could be a CIA agent out to get him. The superintendent of the cemetery was, believe it or not, a guy by the name of Ted Graves. He was separated from his wife and lived in a little house in the middle of the cemetery with his teenaged daughter. Mr. Graves was a man of prayer who tried to live the Gospel and who dabbled in philosophy. He was also totally impractical and absent-minded. On several occasions when we’d be sitting around or tinkering with something, a procession would suddenly show up at the gate. Mr. Graves had forgotten another burial. Denis was a master at coping with situations like this. He’d lead the procession in circles around the cemetery for about half an hour while the rest of us would frantically dig. There was a way of hanging the artificial grass carpet over the sides of the grave to make the hole look deeper than it actually was. During my stint we pulled this off more than once and got away with it.

In the family plots in England at that time, you didn’t pour concrete over a buried casket. You just threw dirt on it. So when a grave was reopened to greet another family member, you dug until you reached the first casket—and there was an anxious moment when you would find out whether or not it supported your weight. Some parts of the cemetery were very humid and hilly. Which meant that the coffins in those sectors tended to rot. The worst possible scenario was a “re-opener” on a slope in the humid section. Perfect joy is standing in the rain in a ten-foot hole, your foot having gone through the rotten casket you’re standing on, and watching the caskets in the next grave uphill slowly sliding through the mud above your head.

Denis once summed up the fruits of his experience quite succinctly: “No way these piles of shit are coming back up.” On the face of things, such as we saw them, this was a perfectly obvious conclusion.

A while back I read in a survey of religious beliefs that only a minority of Christians believed in a physical resurrection, be it Christ’s or ours. This is nothing new. The Athenians laughed at St. Paul when he broached the subject (see Acts 17:16–34). His Corinthian converts had trouble accepting the Resurrection in spite of Paul’s personal testimony of his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and the report of other witnesses who were still alive. In our own enlightened age, this core belief of Christianity appears irreconcilable with both rationality and experience.

The idea of a “spiritual body” is a very nebulous and enigmatic concept

“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. 

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: View Contents
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