There has been a great deal of discussion about a provocative Easter Sunday column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, in which he interviewed my friend, Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary and a distinguished professor of theology.
At the start of the interview, Mr. Kristof asks Professor Jones several questions about the resurrection. Is it necessary to believe in a “literal flesh-and-blood resurrection”? In response, she focuses on the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb. But Mr. Kristof pushes her on the question: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome?”
Her answer, which raised a few hackles online, should be quoted in full:
For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.
Let me offer my own perspective on this.
I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. And I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor. This is, frankly, the very heart of my faith. Also, I do not believe that we can or should reduce the great mystery of the resurrection to an experience that occurred within the community. This is what some contemporary theologians have posited: that Christ “rose” within the community. Theological approaches differ, but, in essence, some theologians offer the story of how, as the disciples came to reflect on the life and death of Jesus Christ, he became “present” to them in a new way, through the Spirit. This, in turn, empowered them to proclaim the good news of his Gospel. Some theologians offer this as a more credible or contemporary way of understanding the “resurrection.”
I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. And I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor.
But there is a problem with this idea of the resurrection as the after-effects of a “shared memory.” Certainly, after the resurrection and the ascension the disciples would have “remembered” Jesus, and certainly they may have had powerful Spirit-filled experiences as they did so, often as they gathered in community. But, to my mind, only something as vivid, dramatic and, in a word, real as the multiple appearances by the risen Christ could have moved the disciples from abject fear (cowering behind closed doors) to being willing to give their lives for Jesus. Nothing else can credibly account for the transformation of terrified disciples into willing martyrs.
Moreover, for the disciples to have somehow found a body in the tomb would indeed mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead, which would negate the message of Easter. The tomb, as the Easter narratives recount, was empty—something that initially filled the disciples with fear and confusion.
But what did Jesus’ “glorified body” (the term many theologians use today) look like?
The glorified body is something no one had encountered before—or has since.
That is much harder to explain, and perhaps this is some of what Professor Jones was driving at. In some Gospel accounts, the physicality of the risen Christ is emphasized (“I am not a ghost,” he says in one passage). In others, he seems ghostly (for example, his sudden appearance in a room where the doors are locked). Likewise, in some Gospel narratives, the risen Christ is recognizable (e.g., the Breakfast by the Sea and the appearances in the Upper Room). In others, the disciples find it hard, almost impossible, to recognize him (e.g., Emmaus).
To me, this indicates the radical newness, the complete novelty, the unrepeatable quality, of what the disciples were experiencing. The glorified body is something no one had encountered before—or has since. (To anticipate the obvious objection: Lazarus was raised from the dead but would later die. He was raised by Jesus in his still all-too-mortal body.)
So it is not surprising that the disciples could not comprehend the experience of the Risen One. Likewise, decades later, the Gospel writers naturally struggle to describe it. It looked like a ghost, but it didn’t. It was easy to recognize him, but it wasn’t. But all the post-resurrection appearances agree on one thing: It was Jesus.
In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus calling her name because she knew who it was already. The risen Christ is identifiable with Jesus of Nazareth. “He is risen,” they say— not “A new person is risen.” He is Jesus.
For me, the best summary of this idea comes from Stanley Marrow, S.J. In his commentary on the Gospel of John (Paulist Press), he links Jesus of Nazareth with the risen Christ. I return to this passage often:
The Risen Lord had to be recognizably and identifiably Jesus of Nazareth, the man whom the disciples knew and followed, whom they saw and heard, with whom they ate and because of whom they now cowered behind closed doors. For him to have risen as any other than the Jesus of Nazareth that they knew would void the resurrection of all its meaning. The one they had confessed as their risen Lord is the same Jesus of Nazareth that they had known and followed. Showing them ‘his hands and his side,’ which bore the marks of the crucifixion and the pierce of the lance, was not a theatrical gesture, but the necessary credentials of the identity of the risen Lord, who stood before them, with the crucified Jesus of Nazareth whom they knew.
He is, in a word, risen.