In his account of the first resurrection appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem, St Luke reports: “But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit” (24:37). Jesus calms their fears by showing them his hands and feet and eating a piece of broiled fish. He is not a ghost, he tells them, but a human being of “flesh and bones.” It’s a curious report. Why would Jesus’ appearance to them as a resurrected human being be any less frightening than a ghost? One would think that both would be equally alarming. Dead is dead, right? And yet the disciples are comforted and reassured. They had witnessed the resuscitation of Lazarus, so knew that it was possible for God to restore life to the dead, no matter how improbable. Perhaps they initially assumed that Jesus’s resurrection was something like this. The crucial point is, Jesus is not a spirit. While the movies may occasionally portray ghosts as benign beings, trapped between earth and heaven because of further work that needs to be done or because of the trauma of a violent death (“Hearts and Souls,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “Ghost” immediately come to mind), few of us find the prospect of meeting an actual ghost anything less than creepy and unsettling. Ghosts are unnatural. They no longer belong to the world of the living. They shouldn’t be here. The chasm between the living and the dead is absolute. Their presence reminds us of the fearsome destiny that awaits us—or at least awaited us until Easter. As Herbert McCabe puts it: “[Ghosts] are manifestations of the grave—not of what has survived the grave, but of the grave itself” (God, Christ and Us, p. 100). The disciples are frightened because “they saw Jesus as a manifestation of death. They have to learn that he is a manifestation of life” (p. 100).
Jesus demonstrates to his disciples that he is an embodied being, and the disciples are cheered. But what kind of body? Disputes can get pretty heated (needlessly heated, I might add). The question typically circles around the notion of physicality. A genuine resurrection, some believe, entails an honest-to-goodness physical body, just like the ones we have—arms, feet, torsos, heads, mouths, hair, teeth, and so forth. Human bodies occupy space. They move objects and can themselves be moved. Human bodies are also organic. They are alive and need nutrition to remain alive, and so we eat and drink. Our bodies need oxygen, and so we breathe. Jesus’ resurrection body seems to fulfill these criteria, though clearly Jesus does not need to eat, drink, or breathe—nourishment and oxygen are irrelevant to his aliveness. Other Christians, on the other hand, note that Jesus’ body also has capacities that our present bodies lack, like the ability to appear and disappear at will. His body is mysterious. It does not conform to the natural laws with which we are acquainted. Perhaps most importantly, the risen Jesus is immortal. He exists beyond death. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, which means that the poor man had to endure dying and death yet again; but the New Testament testifies that Jesus has conquered death. He is Life itself. Death has no power over him. These facts have led others to claim that Jesus possesses a pneumatic, or spiritual, mode of corporeality. But as David Bentley Hart notes, this way of phrasing the matter wrongly intimates that the Lord’s resurrected embodiment is less substantial than material embodiment, as if his body is of a wispy and ephemeral nature, more like a soul than a real body. Regardless how the biblical scholars finally resolve the challenges posed by the New Testament testimonies to the corporeality of the glorified Christ, one point is certain: the disciples did not see a ghost; they saw Jesus, now enjoying triumphant life in the Holy Trinity:
Luke has already told us that the grave of Jesus was empty, that Jesus’ corpse was unburied. You might expect death to come as a ghost seeking his spoils. But this is not what happened at all. By his death on the cross, because it was an act of love, Jesus was not conquered by death. On the contrary, he conquered death. Death has no right to his body. The underworld is not the rightful place for the body of Jesus. And that is why the tomb was empty. There is no corpse in the grave. There is the living Jesus, who now asks his disciples to handle and touch him and even to eat with him. The implication is that those in contact with the body of Jesus, especially those who eat with him (those who belong to his body), there is the same freedom from death. Just as at Emmaus (Luke 24:24-35) it is through eating, through the eucharist, that we share in the resurrection. (pp. 100-101)
But the question remains: What do we mean when we speak of the risen Christ’s body? Everyone agrees that the resurrection does not involve a resuscitation of Jesus’s crucified corpse, a return to the physical conditions of the fallen cosmos. Hence the physicality of Jesus’ body cannot mean that he is now physical in the same way that we are physical. As McCabe writes: “The resurrection-and-ascension was all into heaven. Christ’s resurrection was not just a return to life in this world; it was into heaven, but that does not mean it was life in some kind of ‘spirit world’; it was the beginning of a new world, a human bodily life in the Kingdom” (p. 90). Something transcendently new has happened. Death has been conquered by Life; flesh has been transfigured; the eschaton has been inaugurated. “The resurrection of Jesus,” McCabe continues, “was the creation of the new bodily world, the new way of being human, the new way of being bodily. The risen Jesus did not enter paradise. He is paradise. Heaven is not a place beyond the sky. It is the risen Christ, the body of Christ living by love, the beginning of risen humankind, the ultimate future of humanity” (pp. 90-91). The debate about the physicality of the risen Lord therefore misses the point. Our language fails before the mystery of Pascha. The Scriptures direct us to eschatological reality that cannot be captured by our notions of physical and spiritual. What we can say is that Jesus is not less than physical and not less than spiritual. “So it has also been written, ‘The first man Adam came to be a living soul,’ and the last Adam a life-making spirit” (1 Cor 15:45 [DBH]).
If Jesus is risen into the final future, we may wonder what the Apostles saw when Jesus appeared to them and persuaded them that he was not a ghost but the Master whom they had known for three years. McCabe suggests that we understand the appearances as sacramental events, akin to the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. To all appearances the bread and wine remain visibly and chemically unchanged, and yet we confess that the bread truly is the Body of Christ and the wine truly is the Blood of Christ. Roman Catholics typically speak here of a substantial change (transubstantiation), yet McCabe believes this is a misleading way of thinking about the transformation of the elements. The change effected by the Spirit is not a substantial change, as this might have been understood by Aristotle: it is not a readjustment of things, like zinc becoming lead. The change occurs in the depths of existence itself, analogous to the “change” effected by divine creation when God brings into being that which was nought. Bread and wine become the food of the Kingdom, the Lord “hidden” under the sacramental signs. Something analogous occurs with the post-resurrection appearances. When Jesus appears to the Apostles, he does not reveal himself in all of his transfigured glory. “The Kingdom,” McCabe explains, “the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world” (“Eucharistic Change,” p. 5). If it could be so apprehended, it would simply be the cosmos and not its redemption and glorification. We must think of the risen Christ, rather, as accommodating himself to the realities and conditions of our existence. He reveals himself to his disciples in an earthly form they would recognize. He shares a meal, he displays the wounds of his crucifixion, he invites St Thomas to thrust his hand into his side. The appearances might be appropriately described as sacramental, the eschaton present in and under an apprehensible form. The Apostles do not see Jesus as he truly is at the right hand of the Father; but they do see, hear, and touch him, just as we see, feel, and taste him in the Eucharist of the Church:
Moreover, just as for the mainstream Catholic tradition the colour and size of the consecrated host are signs, and not the colour, size and location of the body of Christ that is sacramentally present, so we should surely say that the visible and tangible appearances experienced by the disciples after the resurrection are signs, and not the physical appearance of the risen Christ who was really present to them. If we see the post-resurrection appearances in such sacramental terms, we see them to be as real as the Eucharist but no more physical than the Eucharist, and we need no longer seek to make a consistent single physical story of them. (God Matters, p. 110)
The analogy between the Paschal appearances and the eucharistic presence probably should not be pushed too far. There are also differences, the most obvious being that in the appearances the Lord does not transubstantiate a pre-existing object. Rather, he manifests himself to his disciples directly in the form he chooses. Mary Magdalene mistakes him for a gardener. Cleopas and his companion fail to recognize him as they walk together on the way to Emmaus. The Apostles initially think he must be a ghost. It’s all very odd. We do not know what a video camera would have recorded, nor what, if anything, scientific instruments might have measured. Nevertheless it is Jesus whom the Apostles encounter, and if it is Jesus, then it is Jesus in the fullness of corporeality. “The man Jesus Christ only exists by being bodily, by being risen” (GCU, p. 90), Whereas the Holy Gifts can still be mistaken as just inanimate objects, the risen Christ is too personal—too Jesus, if you will—to be anything less than body. He is his corporeality, only more intensely so. Body is not a hunk of matter; body is communication and communion, person and revelation. “I think that in these appearances,” writes McCabe,
Christ was more bodily than he allowed himself to appear. In himself he was the risen man, his body was that of the future to which we are summoned, the future beyond the ultimate revolution, but in order to show himself to his followers he appeared more or less as a body of our own time, a body of this world—it is true that he passed through closed doors and appeared and disappeared and so on, but generally speaking he wishes to emphasize that he was a body and not a ghost … In these appearances Jesus presents an intersection of future and present. He is the future world, the body in whom our bodies are to find unity and final humanity, the medium of communication in which mankind is ultimately to realise itself, he is the future world but he appears as a body of the present world. (GM, p. 125)
The Lord meets his Apostles in the ordinary circumstances of their lives and persuades them that he is bodily alive—indeed Life itself—and not a mere spirit.
The Kingdom has come!
Death is conquered!
Christ is risen!