This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was Casper, the Friendly Ghost. Casper was the soul of a dead child who frolics with the ghosts of his relatives and friends, zooming around midair with delicious freedom. I loved him. I loved the idea of that freedom. For a little girl who was clumsy and bad at sports, whose body simply couldn’t do what those of other children could do with apparent ease, the idea that I was not my body, that I could be freed from its limitations, was milk and honey. And yet, that is not the Christian idea of death.
From its earliest days, the church has clung stubbornly to the idea of bodily resurrection. We believe that to be human is to be incarnate, in this life or the next. For many of us today, that is a hard idea to swallow. Our culture gives us a great ambivalence about our bodies; even our words reveal it. We speak of “having” a body, but of “being” a self. What we have, we can discard, but what we are, we are forever.
It is so hard to come to terms with being incarnate. Our culture seems to go to extremes: if we identify with our bodies, we run marathons or get tattoos or practice yoga obsessively; if we do not, we become morbidly obese or starve ourselves to fit some ideal of beauty. There are few who do some exercise and eat a mostly-healthy diet and accept the way they look. Even in our policy choices, we struggle with feeding, housing, and healing people: debating not only how to do these things, but whether to do them at all. It’s as if to be poor is to suffer in your flesh, not only the suffering of economic deprivation but the marked-on-your-body suffering of others’ indifference.
And then there is the whole issue of aging. We are the first generation to experience extreme longevity on a wide scale. Fifty years ago, those who retired retired for four or five years. Now, our increased life expectancy gives us twenty or thirty years — and allows us to see not only healthy and happy nonagenarians, but the prolonged suffering of unhealthy people who live a long time. By the time people die, our bodies often seem like the enemy: they drool; they leak; they bloat; they fail. If that is our image, who would want to envision a continuation of bodily existence into eternity?
And yet, we were created body and soul, and some of our deepest pleasures come from that union. To hold a child, to walk in the woods and hear the birds and see the sunlight dance over the leaves, to plunge into a cool ocean on a hot day, to embrace the person we love — these are gifts we would not readily forego. Our body is part of the goodness of God’s creation; it is who we are.
The Gospels are very clear that when Jesus rises from the dead, he is not a spirit only. He eats fish, tastes bread, allows Thomas to put his fingers into his tattered-but-resurrected flesh. But his body is not like ours anymore, either: he walks through walls, appears out of nowhere, is no longer bound by suffering or pain. St. Paul puts it like this: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (I Cor 15:42-44)
And then he makes an amazing claim, a claim that should take your breath away: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (I Cor 15:49) Think about that; really think about it. That’s the promise, and it’s bigger and more daring than we can begin to imagine.
Like many of our teachings, this one is difficult. It is meant to challenge us, stretch us, expand the capacity of our minds. If we allow it to shape our lives, it teaches us a deeper reverence, a greater compassion, and a greater peace than we have ever known. But it is also dangerous: believe that we are raised in the flesh, and the preventable suffering of others becomes intolerable. If you allow yourself to believe, you will be propelled out your door to do what you can to help them. Allow yourself to believe, and you will find yourself doing the works that Jesus did, because that are the only way of being that will make sense any more: to embody God’s love for God’s creation, one soul, one body, at a time.