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John J. StrynkowskiApril 01, 2024
The risen Christ is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The two men sat on the rock overlooking the sea. One was around 30 years old, the other a couple of years older. They were resting after a long swim in the chill water. The road they traveled had been hot and dusty.

Now, in the early evening, the rock was warm and welcome after the bracing cool of the sea. In the water, the older man had plunged deep to the bottom and the younger man grew anxious. But suddenly, the older man, with what the younger man imagined to have been a workman’s powerful thrust of arms and legs, broke the surface, his body arching like a leaping fish. He rolled over onto his back and floated with arms stretched out.

Now the two men sat on the rock overlooking the sea. They talked, but mostly the older man spoke. “Sometimes I feel so close to God I want to break through the sky and the stars to be with him, and I feel that’s where I have always belonged.”

The young man said, “Not yet, my friend. And I want to be there too.”

“Not yet. But you will be. But I also want to stay with everyone I have met—the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, the blind and the deaf, everyone who accepted my words. I want to leave them something that will stop time so that they know I haven’t left them.”

“You will. You will find a way.”

The older man leaned back on the rock, folded his arms behind his head and fell asleep. It was getting darker and a breeze was coming off the sea, gently lifting the edges of their folded clothes on the pebbled beach. The older man always liked to fold his clothes. It was getting cooler and so the younger man tugged at the shoulder of the older. He awoke. “Thank you. I was having a bad dream. I was deep in the water and I felt an evil menace ready to consume me.”

“No, it’s your passion that will consume you. You know the Psalm: ‘Zeal for my Father’s house has consumed me.’”

“I’m not sure I like the play of your words. They scare me. Let’s get dressed and go.”

The key to understanding

From the First Letter of Saint John (1:1-2):

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it.

Salvation comes from and through the body—not the body in itself, but the body as integral to the human being, as the body reveals the thoughts, feelings, passions, affections, joys, sorrows, directions—all that constitutes the movements of a person in the unending flow of life. It is the body as understood in the anthropology of the Scriptures: not a duality of body and soul, but one single entity melding the physical and the spiritual so that one cannot be imagined without the other. We are our bodies and our bodies are ourselves.

We live in a culture that has extreme interest in our bodies. We are preoccupied with bodily health, we cultivate the beauty of the body, we exercise the body. But this interest does not translate into matters of religion, even though Christianity is a religion of the body.

The lesson from history

We learn from the Incarnation that the gift of the body is the perfect and fullest expression of love. The Son of God, taken with love for humanity, chooses to embody that love in the highest form by dwelling among us, as one of us, for us. From the beginning, his existence among us as a human is the gift of his love for us, which would show itself in his ministry of healing souls and bodies. Because of the melded unity of body and soul, Jesus cared for people in the entirety of their being. This is salvation as the restoration of wholeness. The word salvation has as its root the Latin word “salus,” which means health.

The fullest gift of Jesus’ body was on the cross, sacrificed for our salvation. But that gift did not end on the cross. His resurrection ensures that his body, revelatory of infinite divine love, revelatory of a human heart drawing from that divine love, continues throughout human history. The first community of his disciples quickly recognizes itself as an extension of Jesus’ body, enlivened and empowered by his Spirit. They continue his ministry of healing souls and bodies. They also fulfill his command from the Last Supper to remember what he did then, so they gather together to be restored, made whole and more deeply united by his bodily presence, a presence flowing from the gift of his body on the cross and made lasting by his resurrection.

Many of the first Christians put their bodies on the line for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. Think of St. Paul—his journeys, persecutions and ultimately his martyrdom, by which he not only showed his fidelity to Christ but also courageously opposed the idolatry of the empire. The subsequent history of martyrs is a litany of women and men who offered a perfect gift of love in their bodies, emboldened by the example and power of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Their sacrifices were also rejections of the totalitarian pretensions of societies and states.

From the beginning, some Christians, among them the Apostle Paul, embraced a life of celibacy in imitation of Christ. Their bodies, too, were gifts of love, flowing out of a deep attachment to Christ and leading to frequently intense service of the Christian community. That service included attending to the healing of the bodies of others and restoring wholeness.

Fully human, fully divine

The body of the Christian community was built by the body of Christ in the Eucharist and by the bodies of all the members of the community. This flowed from the Incarnation. But from the beginning, there were some Christians who could not accept that divine perfection would choose to dwell in the contingencies, limitations and imperfections of human nature.

John’s letters at the end of the first century witness to these controversies, which in one form or another continued for centuries. But what perdured always was the conviction that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. A fundamental principle was that if some aspect of human nature (for instance, the soul) was not assumed by the Word in becoming incarnate, then it was not redeemed, not made whole.

The full humanity of Jesus was recognized by popular devotions that developed over the centuries, emphasizing one or another aspect of his life (especially his Passion and crucifixion) or his enduring love (for example, his sacred heart). It was also recognized by artistic descriptions that gave “flesh” to the various moments and mysteries of his life. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s encouragement of retreatants to use their imagination in meditating on the Gospels to recreate the scenes and their own place in them is effective in making the human nature of Jesus fully concrete.

The sacraments of the church also have also been a perpetual reminder and celebration of the principal deeds and words of Jesus in his bodily presence on earth; they now make real his perpetual presence as Risen Lord and chief minister of the sacraments. These are communal, bodily events that involve washings with water, anointings, imposition of hands, offering of bread and wine and dialogue—as in confession or the exchange of vows in marriage. And most intimately, the sacrament of marriage is considered indissoluble only at the moment of consummation. In the Latin church, the husband and wife are the ministers of the sacrament and so act “in the person of Christ.”

Christ also exercises his saving ministry in the body of the church beyond the sacraments. Those who, for any number of reasons, cannot avail themselves of the sacraments can experience the healing presence of Christ, the beginning of restoration to wholeness, by participating in the life of local communities that are called to welcome and accompany them. These local communities help to make present the body of Christ, which is the church.

In the beginning

How did the disciples of Jesus get from the experience of his earthly body to the recognition of his risen body and his ongoing presence and activity in that body? We do not know if Jesus did any swimming (quite likely), but certainly, he spent much time eating, drinking, walking and talking in their company. They knew his earthly body very well—its energy, its weariness, its death and burial. Obviously, the resurrection made the difference.

But what precisely was the resurrection? No amount of mystical experience or scholarly investigation has been unable to unpack that moment. That should not surprise us. It is not the only event in this universe that no effort of understanding has been able to unpack.

There was the Big Bang some 13.5 billion years ago that marked the very beginning of the universe. In the 1960s, scientists verified the birth of the universe through, among other data, the discovery of the microwave radiation that is uniform throughout the universe today. But they have not been able to look into the Big Bang itself, and it seems most unlikely that they ever will. They can only know what it was by its effects, which have evolved according to fixed laws of physics, chemistry and biology even while allowing for chance and indeterminacy.

I propose that the Resurrection was also a moment that we will never be able to unpack, but only know through its continuing effects. It was a moment more transformative than the Big Bang. The universe evolved according to determinative laws made known to us by science. But the Risen Lord has transformed human hearts where there are no fixed laws, predetermining them to loving sacrifice in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

The Risen Body of Christ, carrying the wounds of his loving sacrifice, recalled in prayer and active in sacraments and the heart and body of believers, is known through the words and deeds of countless disciples. Even when these followers fail through sin, the resilience of the Risen Body is revealed through heroic efforts of reform. And as we look back to the history of humanity before Christ, we recognize through him how God was already at work to transform hearts in anticipation of the gift of his Son.

There is another shattering effect of the resurrection that gives evidence of its radical impact. It is the swiftness with which the early disciples recognize Jesus at “the right hand of the Father.” The New Testament tracks this exaltation in the evolving early Christian communities which proclaim Jesus to be Lord, Son of God, with a name above every other name, the perfect image of God, endowed with divine authority over sin and creation itself, the very Word of God by whom all things were made, the fullness of divinity in bodily form.

The teaching and deeds of the earthly Jesus were cherished by the communities and distilled into the four Gospels, which were written in the light of the resurrection and gave Christians the continuing guidance and wisdom of Jesus. Thus, the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection was an ongoing gift from the Risen Lord for healing, reconciling, renewing, imitating and restoring wholeness.

In the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate explanation of what cannot be otherwise explained. The transformation of hearts is a more astonishing phenomenon than any natural phenomena; it is due to the surprising intervention of the Spirit of the Risen Lord in the human spirit. The Spirit of God is found wherever the stagnation caused by sin is broken by the emergence of love. But the early Christian communities, gatherings of transformed hearts, also saw themselves as members of his actual Risen Body and indeed his body now on earth, animated by his presence in the Spirit.

In The Mystery of the Church, Yves Congar, O.P., tells of an ancient vase found in North Africa containing the bones of martyrs with the inscription: “In this holy vessel are gathered the members of Christ.” Congar described it as “A vivid expression of the reality of the Mystical Body.”

True religion

To paraphrase an old song, “Every body needs a body.” We cannot survive without mutual bodily presence. The summit of such presence is the divinely-given body of the Risen Lord Jesus and his followers gathered into his body—either individually or as a community. The Risen Body of Jesus, glorious with the wholeness of divinity and humanity, brings healing and wholeness to all who encounter him.

The word “religion” comes from “religare,” a Latin word that means “to bind up.” God has bound himself to us through the body of his Son. This is true religion. We are bound to God through the body of his Son. And perhaps a swim in the Sea of Galilee is a part of it.

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