Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Mystery of Resurrection

Easter 2007

Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus”, painted 1601-02. National Gallery, London

Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day he rose from the dead. That is what his followers assumed when they found his tomb empty, and when he began appearing to them and to others.

After their teacher's shameful execution as a criminal, hung on a cross of wood, two of them were walking to the village of Emmaus when they were joined by another man who seemed to be unaware of the recent events. Cleopas, one of the travelers, told him about Jesus and how he was "a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people." They had hoped that he was the one who would set Israel free from the Roman oppression. But then he was condemned by the authorities for blasphemy and treason and killed. Now they had learned that some women in his group had been to the tomb and found it empty, the body removed. Others were declaring that angels had told them he was alive. The stranger helped them to understand, by quoting from Scripture, that all this had been predicted by the Jewish prophets to describe the Messiah.

When their journey ended at Emmaus, they invited the stranger to join them for dinner. And when they had sat down at the table, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it open and began to distribute it to them. As Luke tells the story in his Gospel, at this moment the eyes of the two men were opened and they recognized the stranger as Jesus, "whereupon he vanished from their sight." They said to one another:
Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?
They got up immediately and returned to Jerusalem where they told the disciples about their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and about "how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread."

I love this story about the appearance of the risen Christ to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. Caravaggio's painting captures the moment when they realized the identity of their guest. It helps me to imagine what it would be like to believe in the resurrection.

But I don't. For me, the Bible stories are allegorical; they are not historical. Although some extra-Biblical writings do attest to the crucifixion of a man called Jesus, the historical record is, for the rest of it, silent. These are truths of faith, and my faith is more like that of the doubting Thomas. For my disbelief in the resurrection, celebrated today on Easter, I stand accused by the Apostle Paul:
If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Paul says that all Christianity stands or falls because of the resurrection.

For me this is a problem only if resurrection is assumed to be bodily resurrection, as it is by perhaps most Christians. That has never made sense to me. At what age is our body preserved for heavenly life? For me, 22 was a very good year, when I was youthful but stupid. The story of Christ's resurrection tells me that death is not the final answer, that death has no dominion over life, but is rather a transition leading to a mystery. The tangible harps of heaven have no allure.

During these last few days of Holy Week, I've been perusing Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. These respected theologians have been studying the recently revealed extra-canonical gospel from the 3rd century and their interpretation has been helpful for understanding this most maligned of disciples. It has also helped me to distinguish between the Christ sacrificed by God who died for our sins and the Jesus who brought good news to the poor, sick and oppressed. These are two very different interpretations of Christianity, and, as I'm sure you can tell, I lean toward the second.

Like bodily resurrection, I have never really understood the doctrine of atonement, that the horrible death of Jesus somehow atoned, or paid the debt, for the sins of Adam and reconciled humanity to God. Like Isaac, the son of Abraham, Jesus became a scapegoat, taking on the sins and sufferings of the world. But where God spared Isaac, he allowed Jesus to die. What kind of God is that? This is the God that slaughtered the Canaanite children, the God of wrath that punishes transgressors. This is a God of the Incas and Aztecs who would desire blood sacrifice. This is not the God of love that Jesus proclaims.

Pagels, in her many writings, has shown conclusively that early Christianity was not monolithic and consisted of many sects with different interpretations of the Christ event, competing with each other for authority. But history is always written by the victors, and when the New Testament canon was finally established, writings that presented a different perspective were banished. The Gospel of Judas is one of many non-canonical gospels of Jesus discovered in the last fifty years that tell a different story.

Judas, in this gospel, was the favorite of Jesus, the only discpline who really understood his mission, and who played an important role in the final drama at the request of Jesus himself. The author was opposed to the idea of sacrifice, both to that of Jesus and also, writing at the time, of the martyrs who were willingly being eaten by lions in the 3rd century when being a Christian was considered treason. Jesus died not as a scapegoat, a sacrifice for our sins, but in order to remain true to his teaching that the spirit is preferable to flesh. This of course is a gnostic notion that opposes spirit to body, and I find it rather repugnant. So I do not like this Judas anymore than the old one who sold Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver.

The gnostic Judas is also opposed to the resurrection of the body, since it is flesh that imprisons the spirit. Although I find the Manichaean notion of body bad/spirit good not very helpful, there is a sense in which the purely physical should be enlightened by the spirit, and this requires a spiritual discipline like meditation. In his Easter homily, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio speaks of the "grace of carnality" and the "carnality of grace" as a way to preserve the union of body, soul and spirit that he loves in the spirituality of Fr. Bede Griffiths. As I wrote a few days ago in a blog about the censure of Jon Sobrino, it is very difficult to harmonize Jesus the Christ as both human and divine; one or the other side gets emphasized.

Cyprian sees the Transfiguration as taking place in each one of us. But once we have been transformed by grace, then we have to again come down off the mountain and go about the work of our lives, individual flames of the divine, clothed in bodies. Our hearts, like the men on the road to Emmaus, are burning within us. When we break open the bread of life, we are exposed to each other, carriers of hospitality and grace. There is an intimate connection between the incarnation and the resurrection. It is neither historical nor causal, and it happens again and again in each person.

So I can make sense of the resurrection, sort of. In the end, it's a mystery, but a hopeful one.

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