Readings: Acts of the Apostles 10:34, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Back in 2007, a documentary titled The Lost Tomb of Jesus presented archeological evidence in support of a claim to have discovered the real tomb of Jesus containing his mortal remains, and thus casting serious doubt on his physical resurrection as well as the Christian proclamation of the empty tomb. The emphasis here, though, should be on the physical resurrection; for, as some scholars have argued, the empty tomb and the belief that Christ’s body did not experience corruption are not absolutely essential to the reality of his resurrection. But if the physical resurrection was not essential, why do we believe that his body rose from the grave? To help answer that question we might pause to ask ourselves what it would mean if Peter and John had, upon coming to the tomb, actually located the dead and decomposing body of Jesus.
Now, apart from suggesting that the disciples’ later encounters with the Risen Christ were merely wish-fulfilling hallucinations and the resurrection little more than a foolish fantasy, finding the decomposing body of Jesus would have had significant implications for our Christian faith and belief. For even though it is conceivable–as Raymond Brown has pointed out–that the resurrection of Christ’s body was not essential to his resurrection as a person (and might be thought of as actually freeing Christ’s soul from its bondage to the body), nevertheless, the decay and dissolution of his body would require some serious rethinking and reformulating of some of the central tenants of Christian faith.
Chief among these would be the serious diminishment and limiting of the extent and reach of Christ’s saving death. As we know from Genesis, death and decay were inaugurated by the disobedience of our first parents–a death and decay that touched not only Adam and Eve, but permeated all of creation which, according to Paul awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. Accordingly, the corruption and dissolution of Christ’s body would suggest that, where sin increaded grace did not abound all the more, and thus that sin and physical corruption being more powerful remain entrenched and unconquered.
But perhaps even more fundamentally, if Christ’s body had not been raised from the grave the old dichotomies between body and soul, body and spirit, would seem to be true and Platonic notions of the body as a prison of the soul, confirmed. This, in turn, would suggest that the created universe that surrounds us is not fundamentally good but ultimately inimical to the life of the spirit. Our bodies would then be understood as being incidental and not integral to our individual identities and could thus readily be used as a means towards higher ends and be summarily discarded when those ends had been attained. The material universe itself then would cease to be something honored and cherished as the glorious work of God’s creative and sustaining love, and could be indiscriminately used and abused to further our own selfish purposes.
And as we look around us and consider the sad state of our contemporary world, is it not precisely a failure to believe in and keep before us full reality of the resurrection that contributes so much of the misery and pain gripping our planet and threatening our destruction? The unfolding beauty of another spring belies the violence that we continue to perpetrate on the gift of God’s bountiful creation as we selfishly exploit its precious resources. And then there are the various expressions of our disregard for the sanctity of human bodily life as witnessed by the horrors of war, terrorism, abortion, violence, bloodshed and the millions who die of starvation and the cruel effects of abject poverty.
And while all these physical and moral evils cannot be attributed solely to the failure to believe in and hold before us the bodily resurrection of Christ, nevertheless it does suggest that the resurrection of Christ’s body serves more than a simple outward witness to Christ’s victory over the grave. As such, it is not incidental or dispensable, but, instead, affirms that, as we heard in the vigil last night, God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. And this, in turn, affirms that our eternal destiny is inseparably bound up both with our bodies and the material universe that surrounds us. The inauguration of the kingdom that Christ brought about is one that set in motion that mysterious redemptive process that will culminate in the restoration of all things in Christ. In the meantime we know with Saint Paul that all creation is groaning in labor pains; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
And so the message of this Holy Day is that we do not wait in vain because our victorious Savior will, in the words of Revelation, wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. And the one who sat on the throne said: Behold, I make all things new.