The Reality of the Resurrection (homily)
April 15, 2007
Second Sunday of Easter
Today’s gospel makes it clear again how mysterious the resurrection is, how hard to pin down. It’s real, it’s absolutely real, but its reality is of a kind entirely beyond us.
Jesus has a body in all these post-resurrection stories, a body that people like Thomas can touch, a body that eats. He’s not a ghost or a vision and he’s not just an idea in the minds of the disciples. The gospel writers know the difference between dreams and reality, and they’re telling us, this was real.
But the resurrected body that Jesus has can walk through walls. He comes and he goes. He appears and vanishes. And often when he appears, people don’t recognize him at first. This is said over and over again, in Luke, for example, how Jesus falls in walking with some of his own disciples and they don’t know who he is, not for hours. Later in John they see him on the shore and talk to him at a distance, but it’s only after hauling up a big catch of fish that one of them figures it out. It’s the Lord.
Whatever else the resurrection is, it must have something to do with our own perceptions, with our own openness. It must have something to do with faith.
And it’s clear from the post-resurrection accounts, in all the gospels, that the resurrection extends outward in time, happening again and again, that it’s not an isolated event and not a single event and that it has to do with storytelling and community and the celebration of the Eucharist--the disciples know him in the breaking of the bread, Luke says, in the Emmaus story. While the resurrection is not just an interior experience, it’s also that. The resurrection is what we experience when we experience joy and hope and the feeling that we’re loved beyond all expectation, which we all do, now and then. That’s the resurrection, too, not just some weird thing that happened 2000 years ago.
Jesus will come down to the level of Thomas, out of compassion, to the level of the scientific, the merely physical. He will allow Thomas to feel his wounds. But Jesus makes it absolutely clear that the reality and hope of the resurrection extends far beyond this. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” he says, and that’s us, that’s here, that’s now. We all live in the space of this not-seeing, at least of this not- seeing-directly, and we are blessed, too. The resurrection is real for us, too, every bit as real as it is for Thomas.
The Catechism puts it very powerfully and beautifully, and what it says is worth quoting at length:
“No one was an eyewitness to Christ’s Resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.”
Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he couldn’t walk through walls. Everyone knew who he was when they saw him. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he didn’t gather a people unto himself. It’s not him we feel in our hearts.
Or compare how Mel Gibson depicts the resurrection at the end of the Passion of the Christ with how the gospels describe it. In the movie the burial clothes sort of collapse--Gibson actually describes what the gospels won’t--and then there’s Jesus, healthy and strong and completely recognizable. Everyone in the theater knows who he is. But the gospels build in all these levels and layers, in all the post-resurrection accounts, all these different observers and storytellers, and not everyone gets it, not everyone understands.
I’m not saying that the resurrection is ambiguous. I’m saying it’s mysterious. I’m not saying it isn’t real. I’m saying that it’s real beyond all imagining.
And I think that this has real consequences for our everyday lives.
It means, for one thing, that we can stop worrying about all the doubting biblical scholars and all those documentaries on the Discovery channel about the bones of Jesus or the teeth of Jesus or the toe nails of Jesus. It’s all irrelevant. We can have absolute confidence in the fact of the resurrection because the kind of fact that it is is far greater than all these ridiculous things.
But even more than that. Here’s another passage I want to quote, from Pope John Paul, because I think it says exactly what the implications of all this are for us day to day. This matters. It applies. As believers we have absolute faith, the Pope says,
“but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced with the challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you.”
I love this.
Our lives are messy and complicated and whatever truths we experience are fleeting, and it helps just to be told this, to be told that this is the way it is, that we’re not missing anything, that we’re right in the middle of it and that we just have to accept it, with humility. Surrender to it. Jump into it. The nature of the resurrection as the gospels describe it is exactly like our lives: complicated.
And yet at the same time we are given reason for a tremendous hope. The disciples in all these stories may be confused, but they’re filled with peace, too, filled with joy. Their hearts are burning. They don’t understand the resurrection, they don’t really get it, but it doesn’t matter, because the fact is that it transforms them, the fact is it that gives them courage, the fact is that in some way they can’t pin down but just know is true there is a love and a goodness that triumphs over everything in life and triumphs even over death.
Hope. In the midst of heartache, hope. In the midst of struggle, hope. In the midst of illness, loneliness, emptiness, hope. Wait for joy. Because it will come, as it came to the disciples, in the very center and at the very source of their confusion.
That’s exactly how they knew that they weren’t making this up: because they couldn’t explain it, because they couldn’t grasp it, this joy, this love that was stealing into them. It had to come from somewhere else. It had to. And it did.
A God we could understand, Flannery O’Connor said, would be less than ourselves. He wouldn’t be worth understanding.
Believe everything. And most of all, believe in the now, in the burning of your hearts right this moment.
In the midst of all this mystery, in the midst of all that we can’t control and manipulate and understand, hope. Hope because there’s something that we can’t control. Hope because there’s something at work here we don’t understand.
I say it again, hope in him still. Because he lives.