Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM
The 2016 Montalbano Lecture
Oblate School of Theology
Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to offer this year’s Montalbano Lecture in honor of a distinguished biblical scholar of Oblate School of Theology, and in this holy season as we prepare to celebrate the central mystery of our faith: the Resurrection of Jesus. It is specifically on the relationship between Scripture as revelatory text and the saving event of the Resurrection that I propose to reflect with you this evening. The issue can be stated quite simply: What do we really mean when we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in…Jesus Christ who…was crucified…died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead”? But it is much more challenging to try to fit that confession of faith into the experiential world of a twenty-first century person who encounters this mystery through a text that was written thousands of years ago in a world vastly different, culturally, religiously, and intellectually from our own.
The question in the title of this lecture derives from my experience in ministry, namely, that many believing and practicing Christians who sincerely profess their faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus draw an imaginative blank when they try to put modern, scientifically credible flesh on these theological bones. In other words, they live in the tension of realizing that what they can imagine cannot possibly be true (namely, millions of resuscitated corpses dwelling somewhere outside our experience), and what they believe is true cannot be imagined (namely, that Jesus is bodily risen from the dead). In what follows, I hope to offer some resources for reflecting on this problem for Christian faith, namely, the imaginative plausibility of bodily resurrection.
Our first question is about what we really believe; that is, what our faith in the Resurrection really means. Are we claiming that something really happened on Easter that is absolutely unique in human history and which is the key to our salvation, and, if so, what? On the one hand, if nothing happened on Easter, that is the end of the story, no matter how many times we sing “Alleluia.” But if, on the other hand, what we confess is something that did happen, our very lives pivot around that happening and we must deal with a second, much more difficult question: How do we access this mystery? What justifies that faith? I am going to answer the first question in the affirmative: yes, something happened on Easter in which we are participating, and I hope to offer a way of thinking about the second question, how we access and participate in that event, which does not involve “blind faith” on the one hand, nor make-believe or wishful thinking on the other. It is the second part, the “how,” that will take up most of our time and will require some rather vigorous intellectual work.
THE MEANING AND UNIQUENESS OF THE RESURRECTION
The question of what happened on Easter is really a way of asking, “What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is risen?” Does it mean that he, like other good people who have died, is immortal, alive with God somewhere outside earthly time and space? Or did something unique, namely, bodily resurrection from the dead, happen to Jesus on the first Easter?
I am going to invite you to go beyond the way some catechetical, homiletic, or even theological presentations of the Resurrection invite us to think. The problems most modern people encounter in regard to the Resurrection arise from the way we moderns, especially since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that is, since the mid-seventeenth century, have learned to think about reality and our knowledge of it. We have been taught that truth consists in the correspondence of our mind to a freestanding, factual – that is, objective – reality, like a traffic accident, that is outside of us and independent of our opinions about it. Truth is recognition that something really exists, like a car, or really happened, like an accident. We are not, we say, just “imagining it.” It is “objectively” true.
But certain kinds of truth, indeed the most important kinds, actually are products of our imagination, which constructs the truth-world in which we live and participate. For example, we do know what it means to be in love in a different way than we know that a traffic accident occurred on the corner of Elm and Main. But being in love is every bit as real as an event, like a traffic accident. In other words, not all truth is “objectively” verifiable the way an external physical event is. Some very real reality, such as beauty, what it means to be a family, our self-image, or a friendship, is available only to the holistic operations of the imagination. The Resurrection is this kind of reality.
Approaching the Resurrection imaginatively is, on the one hand, not about fantasizing about the imaginary, nor, on the other hand, about establishing objective facts, like the details of a car crash. It is a way of entering a new world, one that really exists and that we have excellent reason to believe in and live in, but not the kinds of reasons we have learned to trust in thinking about what we tend to call “objective” reality or something that “really happened.” In other words, there are many ways in which things “happen” or are “real.” Falling in love is just as real as a traffic accident.
So, to our first set of questions: What do we really believe about the Resurrection, and why does Paul say that if the Resurrection did not happen, then Christianity is empty and we are still in our sins (cf. 1Cor. 15:17)?
First, as we all know, being a Christian is not primarily about morality, obedience to Church authority, acceptance of dogmas, or even our role in the transformation of the world. All these things are important, but they derive from something more important. When a Scribe asked Jesus what was really basic, primary, nonnegotiable – the most important commandment – Jesus replied, “The first is, …you shall love the Lord your God with [your whole being]….and, [equally important] you must love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mk. 12:28-34 NRSV).
But the connection between love of God and love of neighbor, for the Christian, is Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son….who has made God known” (see Jn. 1:18). In other words, it is Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, who reveals the true God to us by pointing to himself: “I and the Father are one” (see Jn. 10:30), he says, and “whoever sees me sees the One who sent me” (see Jn. 12:45; 14:9). And, when the Risen Jesus personally encountered Paul on the road to Damascus, he answered Paul’s question, “Who are you, Lord?” with “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).
In this brief synopsis of the heart of Christian faith, love of God, who is manifested in Jesus, and love of neighbor, who is Jesus present to us, you note that the verbs are in the present tense: Whoever sees me, sees God, and I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. So we are not talking about a past historical event, a theological theory, or some kind of pious make-believe to motivate charity. The Christian is one who here and now sees Jesus, and relates to God and to his or her neighbor in Jesus. This Jesus is not a remembered person of the past but a real person living today.
In other words, Christian faith is centered in Jesus who is here and now alive and who is a very specific human being. He is not reducible to his role as “the Christ” in salvation history; he was not transformed at death into some kind of cosmic energy or abstract “omega point of history”; he is not simply a disembodied immortal spirit, much less a resuscitated corpse. However, because we know that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate in Palestine sometime around 30 CE and was buried in a tomb that was securely sealed, we can only talk about him as personally present to us and in us and among us here and now if he has overcome death and is now alive and present to us. In short, the first thing we mean by our faith confession in the Resurrection is that, here and now, Jesus is personally alive.
But the second thing concerns what we are not saying. The focus of our faith is not simply the ongoing influence or example, through memory, of someone who once lived, like Paul or Teresa of Avila. Nor is our faith commitment simply to a great project initiated by Jesus in the past which continues today, like the Civil Rights Movement initiated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Nor is our faith simply membership in a community which gathers around the memory of Jesus, the way fans of Elvis Presley gather at Graceland. Although an ongoing historical influence, a great world-transforming project, and a faith community – that is, Christianity – is indeed rooted in the memory of Jesus, what we confess by Resurrection is not simply about the past that we remember and perpetuate in the present, but about the rootedness of this present reality in the Risen Jesus himself in his specific and personal identity who is now alive and now enlivening his community and its mission. And that means we are necessarily talking about Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, because a real human being does not just have a body, but is their body. It is not enough that Jesus once lived. The question is whether he is, himself, alive now.
There are at least three reasons why this fact that Jesus is bodily risen from the dead is significant. First, it means that a real, mortal human being, Jesus, passed through human death and emerged into new indestructible life as himself and now lives in the fullness of his humanity. We have no historical or theological analogues, that is, no similar or comparable events or realities that we can use to help us imagine or understand it. That is the reason Paul met with such incredulity among his Corinthian (see 1 Cor. 15) and later his Athenian (see Acts 17:1-34) hearers. The Resurrection of Jesus inserted something absolutely new, unprecedented, and unique into human history. That is why it is both so important and so difficult to grasp.
Second, not only did Jesus personally overcome death, but he assures us that we, who will all pass, as he did, through the portal of human mortality, will share in that victory. As Jesus said to Martha about her dead and buried brother, Lazarus, whose mortal body had already begun to decay – in other words, who was irrevocably physically dead – “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” because, “I am the resurrection and the life” (see Jn. 11:25-26). And lest anyone think he was talking simply of the immortality of Lazarus’ soul, he called Lazarus, bodily, out of the tomb. This story in John’s Gospel intends to make the point that in the bodily Risen Jesus, humanity itself has entered into the infinite and indestructible life of God, and thus we, after our own real and personal death, will share bodily in that victory, not as ghosts or disembodied immortal souls or cosmic energy, but, like the risen Jesus, as our own personal embodied human selves. So, the second point is that the Resurrection of Jesus is the assurance and basis of our own bodily resurrection. In other words, our resurrection, like that of Jesus, is not the conclusion of an investigation or a reasoning process. It is, strictly speaking, revelation.
Third, the living Jesus is not only present and living in God, but he is present in his individual followers who are still living in time and space, in history. Jesus said to his disciples, even as he was about to depart from them in death, “My going away is my coming to you” (Jn. 14:28).  “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn. 15:4). This mutual indwelling of the risen Jesus and the believer, which is a present reality, is the source of the disciple’s life and fruitfulness, the basis of a personal, experiential union with Jesus in this life.
But Jesus is not only living in his individual disciples but among his followers, his community, now making them his real corporate presence in the world. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” (Mt. 18:20). As Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). The community of believers is the presence of Jesus acting in the world, doing, as John’s Gospel says, “even greater things” than the pre-Easter Jesus himself did (see Jn. 14:12). We are now participating in his ongoing salvific work, not just by imitating him the way we might imitate St. Francis of Assisi, but, because we are his real bodily presence in the world.
In summary, Resurrection faith is the conviction THAT Jesus is bodily risen from death and now lives in the full integrity of his humanity in God, in the world through his body which his disciples corporately are, and in each believer who, therefore, is and acts in persona Christi. This is what Paul wanted his converts to realize, that the Resurrection of Jesus was the key to everything Christianity had to offer them.
HOW DO WE ACCESS THIS MYSTERY OF THE RESURRECTION?
If this is what Christians believe about the Resurrection and it is of ultimate significance for their identity as Christians, then we have to ask the question that challenges many modern people, namely, “If there are no analogues for this faith, how do we know that what we believe is true?” In other words, how do we access this mystery? Of course, one perfectly reasonable answer is that we know it because the Church teaches it. But that is not our problem. I believe – that is, give credence to – many things I cannot understand or even imagine and which have no real meaning or significance in my life – like that there are such things as “black holes” in outer space.
The real question is not about whether it makes sense to accept what we are told by trustworthy authority, but how our faith, which claims that someone who was dead rose to new life and is now central to my life, can become experientially real to me and existentially meaningful. In other words, we’re raising the perfectly legitimate question: “If this is what we believe, how do I know, and what does it mean for me here and now? This is the legitimate question of honest people who want their faith to be, not necessarily apodictically proven, but to be, as John Henry Newman said, imaginatively plausible. That is, they do not want to draw an imaginative blank when they think about the central reality of their faith. Hence such questions as: Was the tomb of Jesus really empty on Easter morning, and if so, does that prove anything about what happened to Jesus? What, if anything, did the first witnesses really see or hear or touch? Might they have been hallucinating or deceived by wishful thinking?
The Problem of the Historical Critical Approach to the Resurrection
I want to begin by subverting some assumptions that set us up for thinking in ways that necessarily rule out the kind of understanding of the Resurrection that I have just claimed is central to our faith. Because the Church preaches that “Jesus rose from the dead,” in the same kind of sentence we use to say that “There was a car accident on the corner of Elm and Main,” it is easy to assume that a similar claim is being made in both cases, namely, that we are talking about an historical, publicly available event, caused by observable or ascertainable factors, like someone running a red light or the brakes failing. There are several reasons to call into question this assumption about what it means to say that something really “happened.”
At this point we are going to appeal to our text, the New Testament, as mediator of life-giving truth, but not in the way that a newspaper article accompanied by photos mediates the facts about a car crash. A great poem or a love letter can tell us more about the reality of love than any psychological treatise on the subject of emotions or printout of emotional responses to a love letter. Different kinds of texts work differently in our experience. In Scripture we are dealing with a “revelatory” text, one more like a poem or a love letter than a newspaper account of a traffic accident.
Our textual sources of knowledge about the Resurrection are of two kinds. The oldest are proclamations of the fact and meaning of the Resurrection, like Paul’s account in 1 Cor. 15: 3ff: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins….and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day….and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then…to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time….Then he appeared to James and all the apostles….and last of all…he appeared also to me,” followed by his conclusion: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Similar proclamations are made in the apostolic sermons in the Acts of the Apostles. For example, Peter’s proclamation immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost: “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:23-24 ff). In both cases, note the historical statement: Jesus was put to death, followed immediately by something that cannot be known historically: God raised him up. The sentences sound like the same kind of language, namely, factual statements about publicly available events. But they are not the same kind of language. The first is an historical statement of fact; the second is what we call “witness,” testifying not to what everyone can see (because in such a case no testimony is really necessary), but the declaration of what one knows by one’s own experience to be absolutely true even though it is not publicly available (which is what makes testimony necessary). When someone says, “I am in love,” it makes little sense to say, “Prove it;” but also it makes no sense to say, “I don’t believe you unless you can prove it.” The only meaningful question is whether I find the witness credible, and that might involve some investigation of pertinent facts.
Besides the proclamations of the Resurrection, we also have, at the end of each Gospel, narratives of the Easter events, such as the stories of the empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, in the upper room, and so on. These are not like the narratives of the Crucifixion, a public event that was observable by anyone, believer or not, who was on Calvary on Good Friday. Most people think the proclamations of the Resurrection were short forms or summaries of the narratives which are supposed to be factual accounts of the Resurrection event itself. But actually, this is not the case. The Resurrection Narratives are another form, a narrative form that is complementary to the witness of the proclamations. These narratives involve us in the implications of what had been proclaimed or witnessed to, namely, “He is risen.” However, the narratives are not objective historical accounts, like the accounts of the Crucifixion. Whatever they are, the appearance narratives are not like traffic reports or even like history books. The narratives witness or testify in their own way to the reality, the meaning, the effects that the proclamations announce. We need to attend to how they can, should, and do function in our faith in the Resurrection; but, to begin with, they are not news reports of publicly observable events. Like the proclamations, but in a different literary form, they are witness to revelation.
Because the Resurrection Narratives are stories and they follow the stories which recount the public life of Jesus, we naturally tend to read them as the “final chapter” in Jesus’ historical life, which seems to have five chapters: the Infancy Narratives, the public life, the passion and death of Jesus, his burial, and his Resurrection.
Actually, neither the Infancy Narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth, which open the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, nor the Resurrection Narratives in each of the four Gospels, are part of an historical account. They are not “Chapter One” and “Chapter Five” at all. The Resurrection Narratives, like the Infancy Narratives, are a completely different kind of literature, or a different genre of text, from the accounts of the public life, passion and death, and burial, which are intended to recount the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth as it could have been and was observed by anyone, believer or not, who was present in Palestine at the time. The Gospels are, of course, suffused with profound theological reflection on and interpretation of the significance of these events, but the events themselves are basically historical. However we explain or interpret the miracles, for example, everyone who was present saw something happen, like a lame man beginning to walk. Some thought the miracles were fakery, others that they were the work of the devil, but everyone saw what happened. They took place in time and space and according to the laws of cause and effect. This is not true of the Incarnation or the Resurrection. These are “transhistorical events”.
Both the beginning and end of Jesus’ life make mysterious connections between Jesus and God that are recounted as if they were historical in the normal sense of the word when, in fact, they are not. The Infancy Narratives (which we have only in Matthew and Luke) are not our concern here, but I mention them for purposes of comparison.
We might say that the Infancy Narratives, which are history-like stories about the birth of Jesus, are to the mystery of the Incarnation, or the becoming human of the Son of God, what the history-like Easter Narratives are to the mystery of the Resurrection, or the Glorification of the Son of God. Neither the Incarnation nor the Resurrection is a historical event like a car crash. They are absolutely real, just as my becoming a child of God by baptism is real. But, while my baptism is an observable historical event that took place in a particular place and time and was observed by a number of people, my becoming a child of God, which is what really happened, was not visible.
Underlying the Infancy Narratives is an historical fact: that Jesus was born. Without that historical fact there would be no story to tell. But the tapestry of angelic announcements and prophetic dreams, a star guiding magi from the east bearing symbolic gifts, and so on, may have some actually historical “fringes,” like the census of Caesar Augustus; but the point of the Narratives is not to recount history but to tell the reader, primarily by Old Testament allusions, who Jesus of Nazareth really is, namely, the Son of God incarnate, something available only through revelation perceived in faith. (They are written in a genre somewhat like what scholars call midrash.)
And like the Incarnation, the Resurrection is a transhistorical reality. At its heart is the event that Jesus, who really died on the cross, was experienced as alive in and among his disciples in an entirely new way. Without this real experience of the disciples there would be no story to tell once Jesus was dead and buried. But the Resurrection Narratives in which this reality is carried are not stories like those of Jesus’ public life and passion. The Resurrection is a transhistorical event, something that can only be revealed, not the object of physical observation. The Resurrection story is woven into history in such a way that there are historical “fringes,” like the conversations among the disciples on the return of the women from the tomb. The transformation of the disciples by their experience of the risen Jesus is observable. But the Resurrection itself is not an historical event like a car crash.
This question of literary form or genre is so important because we read a text in terms of what kind of text we think it is. If we are reading a novel, we do not expect the story to be historically factual, even if the story is set in a real historical context, as War and Peace is set in the historical context of the French invasion of Russia in 1812, and even if it is profoundly true in its presentation of the dynamics of the conflict. But if we think a text is meant to be history, we expect something different from what we expect of a novel. Both the history and the novel are true, but in very different ways. So, if we think the Resurrection Narratives are “Chapter Five” of a biography of the pre-Easter Jesus, we will expect the Resurrection Narratives to be historical in the same sense as his healing miracles and his execution, observable by anyone present at the site of the occurrence, the way our traffic accident, no matter how it is interpreted, could be observed by anyone who was on the corner of Elm and Main when it happened.
Beginning nearly 600 years ago with the Renaissance the study of texts that were presumed to be historical began to be what we now call “historical-critical” investigation, and by the late nineteenth century there was a fairly general consensus that historical-critical methodology was the most appropriate, and many people thought, the only modern and credible way to study the Bible. Historical-critical methodology, until quite recently, presupposed that everything written about the past, unless it was clearly poetry or fiction, was historical in some sense and that sense was its more real and important sense. Now, studying an historical event begins with finding out what really happened by looking at publicly available evidence. Thus, historical-critical scholars have approached the biblical texts with these presuppositions.
Not surprisingly, since we have four sets of history-like narratives about the Resurrection which do not seem to agree very well with one another, there has been an enormous amount of historical critical work, indeed thousands of studies, done in modern times on the Resurrection Narratives. Scholars have tackled questions such as, Did Jesus really die? Was Jesus really buried? Did anyone know where Jesus’ tomb was? Was the tomb empty on Easter? Did Jesus really appear? Did anyone really touch Jesus physically? And so on. 
Historical-critical biblical scholars were convinced that unless we could establish the objective historical facts about the Easter event we had no solid scientific basis for faith in the Resurrection. We might have other bases, for example, Church authority, tradition, or blind faith. But, for the modern scientifically-oriented person, if Jesus rose from the dead, as the texts claim, then the objective facts, or the lack thereof, had to be established so that we could decide, theologically, what we are really justified in believing and on what grounds, and what our options are if some things in the Easter narratives turn out not to be “true” in this factual sense.
After extensive research on every conceivable aspect of the historical data about the Resurrection, we are not much further ahead today in regard to the objective historical facts than the disciples were on Easter Sunday when, in various ways, the first witnesses exclaimed, “He is risen,” and “We have seen the Lord.” In other words, almost no objective, publicly available, historical facts about the central reality of our faith can be scientifically established. So are we back to blind faith or no faith? I think not.
If diligent efforts by highly competent scholars to answer a critical theological question do not produce some credible answers, it may mean not that there are no answers but that we are probably either asking the wrong question or asking the right question wrongly. This suggests, to me and a number of other scholars of the Resurrection, that we need a new approach to the material. Rather than asking, again and again, unanswerable historical-critical questions about “what really happened,” perhaps a literary-theological (or what is sometimes called a “theopoetic”) approach stands a better chance of providing what we are looking for, namely, a well-founded, credible, spiritually motivating approach to the central mystery of our faith that could make the Resurrection “imaginatively plausible” to post-Enlightenment modern Christians. So we come to the heart of our inquiry. This is where it gets a bit challenging.
An Alternate Approach: Theopoetics of the Resurrection
In order to launch this alternate approach I invite you to join me in an imaginative experiment by entertaining a set of questions which will help us understand the imaginative structure of knowledge. Here are the questions:
What do we mean by 9/11? Why do we call it 9/11 instead of giving it a name as we do events like “The Gettysburg Address” or “The Civil War”? What really happened on 9/11? How do we know? Is 9/11 over?
Now, let me suggest some responses. Skipping, for a moment, the first question, what do we mean by 9/11, I would suggest that we call it 9/11 partly because we do not know what it means or what is most significant about it, or even, about some aspects of it, what actually happened. We can all agree that it is the day that two jet planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. But that hardly accounts for the national trauma that is still reverberating through the country more than ten years later. After all, we’ve had plane crashes before, and since. A terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, blew up a government building in Oklahoma City killing and injuring almost 1,000 people less than ten years before 9/11. Fewer than 3,000 people died in the 9/11 event in comparison with more than 16,000 people who were murdered in the United States that same year. In other words, it is not a plane crash, terrorism, the number of violent deaths alone, or even all of them together that accounts for the traumatic effect of 9/11.
Furthermore, there are conflicting stories about what really went on inside the building that morning. Many of the eyewitness or participant stories are incompatible with one another. We do not know, factually, exactly what happened, exactly what is and is not part of the terrorist attack itself or simply collateral damage or even unrelated side events, and we do not know, finally, what it really means. So, we point to it by recalling the date, 9/11. The recall of the naked date marks it as a different kind of event from a plane crash or a mass shooting, and not simply in physical magnitude. It is qualitatively different from anything else in our history, but we are not exactly sure how or why.
More important than the objective facts is the question of the cause. The official interpretation said the pilots of the two planes were Al-Qaeda-connected terrorists motivated by hatred and jealousy of America’s superior cultural and economic strength. They saw themselves as religious warriors, servants of Allah, fighting for the liberation of Islam from an anti-Muslim imperialist power, namely, the United States. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that 9/11 was a “Pearl Harbor” type operation facilitated by the U.S. government to deceive the American people into going to war over Iraqi oil. In other words, causation in this case is not as simple as whether the car crash was caused by someone running a red light or the brakes’ failing.
But things get even more complicated when we look not at what produced the event, but at what the event produced. Almost overnight the freest nation in the world took on many features of a national security state, including the indefinite suspension of many cherished constitutional rights. Behaviors long held by Americans to be utterly morally abhorrent, like torture, were adopted by the U.S. government as necessary anti-terrorist measures. The country became involved in the two longest wars in its history in which tens of thousands of U.S. service personnel died or were maimed in mind and body and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, the vast majority innocent civilians, were killed. And we cannot even begin to count the economic costs of 9/11. But there were also amazing stories of bravery, self-sacrifice, generosity, and devotion. And all of this does not begin to get the whole happening “out there” for objective consideration.
But in any case, it cannot be denied that the country is no longer what it was minutes before those jets hit the towers. And it never will be again. Whatever 9/11 means, it is not over.
Let us return, now, to our original historical critical questions: What do we mean by 9/11? Why do we call it 9/11? What really happened? How do we know? We might not be able to answer with certitude any of those questions, and surely neither Americans nor others agree on the answers we think we do have. No matter how many re-runs of the video footage we play, how many studies are undertaken, reports published, documentaries made, or theories proposed, we probably will never get the whole picture. We cannot stamp “Case closed” on this event like we will eventually be able to do with the car crash, or even with the Boston Marathon bombing. But the one question we all would surely consider absurd is “Did anything really happen?”
Something momentous happened on September 11, 2001, a real event which infinitely overflows the boundaries of that one day. And a great deal of it cannot be seen with our physical eyes, reduced to measurable facts, counted up financially, or ascertained with absolute certitude. But no matter what position one takes on any of the factual questions or subsequent fallout, 9/11 is full of meaning which we will be unpacking, sifting, arguing over, recounting and ordering our lives in terms of, probably for the foreseeable future. We cannot go back, probably will never be able to go “home again,” to pre-9/11 normalcy. In other words, this overwhelming reality has been generating what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called an “effective history,” a progressive expansion and deepening of the event itself by what flows from it and flows back over it.
Phenomenological philosophers talk of such events as “saturated phenomena,” like a flood of water from a burst dam that someone attempts to blot up with a bath towel. Such events or experiences burst their boundaries and our capacity to absorb them. They are so overwhelming that the mind reels and language stumbles. The excess of meaning, positive or negative or both, so overpowers our ability to absorb, sort, or respond, that we use expressions like “mind-boggling.” We speak of being “blown away.” The ordinary rational mind cannot handle the overload of significance that the happening mediates.
With some other scholars currently working on the Resurrection, I would suggest that Easter was, quintessentially, a saturated event. It was so totally unexpected, overpowering, without analogue, that no one knew what to do or say or think. The people confronted by the event were literally “blown away” by what they experienced.
Perhaps our earliest Gospel account of the Resurrection, the stark, enigmatic, original ending of Mark 16:1-8, is closest to the actual event – somewhat like the bare footage of the planes hitting the Trade Towers. Mark says simply that the women who went to the tomb, expecting to find and anoint the corpse of Jesus, were suddenly confronted by a vision of a young man in white garments, sitting inside the previously sealed but now gaping tomb, who announced to them, “You are looking for Jesus….He has been raised; he is not here.” The Gospel ends: the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk. 16:6-7). This sounds exactly like the first reaction to a saturated phenomenon. One simply has no categories with which to interpret it. It overwhelms perception, shutting down our ordinary interpretive capacities. We cannot think of anything to say that will sound rational or that anyone will believe. We doubt our own senses. Others may think we are simply unhinged.
In the other Gospels, we get more circumstantial accounts, identification of the messengers as angels, references to the rolled back stone and an earthquake, a variety of dialogues, references to fear and disbelief and joy, flight from the tomb, even seeing Jesus himself, and reporting to the other disciples who disbelieve the women, whom they think are hysterical. (Remember, there were no cell phones to record events at the tomb!) But essentially, like the basically similar reports from different people who were at Ground Zero on 9/11 – of jets flying way too low, the deafening crash, everything shuddering like an earthquake, blinding light and thick dust, screaming people fleeing in all directions – the basic data of Easter are fairly similar: of women coming to the tomb to anoint the body, the open tomb, the unearthly messengers with the incredible news that the dead and buried Jesus is alive, the flight from the tomb, “encountering” Jesus.
In both cases, Easter and 9/11, there was a lot of inconsequential variation on the facts. But everyone involved knew that something momentous had happened, and there was general agreement on “what” that was. The Trade Center Towers were hit by airplanes, thousands were dead, and America was under attack from within its own borders. Jesus’ body was gone, unearthly beings were in possession of the tomb, he was declared risen from the dead, and he was even seen by some people.
At Easter, as in the aftermath of 9/11, the bare facts never changed much after the first reports. What did begin to develop in both cases were highly circumstantial vignettes of personal experiences: a first responder racing from the scene with a baby in his arms, a tender farewell message discovered on a cell phone, a brave minister plowing through the smoldering wreckage to assist the dying. People wrote stories or poems; others made films or painted pictures, catching, as it were through a crack in the enormity of the event, the immensity of what had happened. Makeshift shrines appeared, and official ceremonies took place while eyewitnesses told their stories again and again, sometimes with fairly obvious self-contradictions and/or embellishments. Art, both popular and professional, verbal and visual, seemed much more able to capture the stupendous reality than newspaper accounts or analytical articles or official government reports.
And that is the kind of thing we get in the Easter narratives: vignettes of personal experiences: Peter and the Beloved disciple racing to the tomb, what they found inside, Peter’s befuddlement contrasted with the Disciple’s quietly dawning awe-struck belief; Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in someone she took for the gardener; two disciples meeting a mysterious Stranger on the road who suddenly made himself known as they sat at table and then, just as suddenly, was gone; Thomas getting caught in his stubborn challenge to One he thought he would never see again; a miraculous catch of fish and a mysterious breakfast on the beach; shared meals and conversations with Someone who did not exactly leave but who was suddenly no longer visible and then, elsewhere, was present again.
In other words, if the Easter experience was a prolonged saturated phenomenon rather than a single physical event like a car crash, accounts of it would have the kinds of characteristics in which saturated events come to expression. We would expect them to be not uniform, fact laden, and minimalistic but overflowing, poetic, redundant, reflective of the mind-blowing intensity and richness of the experience itself. It may be only Mark’s original ending that reflects rather directly the tomb event itself like the footage of the actual impact of the planes that was played over and over. Neither really told the readers or viewers much except that something mind-boggling had happened. The other, longer, more circumstantial Resurrection Narratives were surely composed over a period of time and probably reflect not only the immediate experience of the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost but the way the stories were told and used in the years-long interim between Easter and the writing of the Gospels. The Gospel accounts are later, fuller, more variegated, less easily reduced to a single narrative in which all the details fit together without contradiction or confusion, than the bare proclamations of the Resurrection we find in Paul and in Acts.
So, let us move from the saturated event itself (about which we have little incontrovertible factual data) to the texts in which those events are narrated, because that is what later believers, like ourselves, have to work with. Let us ask, finally, not “what really happened?” in the sense we might ask about a traffic accident, but what do these texts – artistic products of an overwhelming experience – intend to communicate to us about the meaning of the Resurrection? Not everything that “really happens” is deeply significant; and much that is deeply significant cannot be recounted in factual terms. Our access to the Resurrection, its reality and its significance, is not through photos or news stories but through poetic revelatory texts which invite us not to “get the facts straight” but to participate in the reality.
THE RESURRECTION IN TEXT AND IN CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
Most believers who raise questions about the Resurrection are really asking how the biblical testimony of the witnesses is related to the Resurrection experience of the earliest communities. Do these Easter stories really tell us anything reliable, that is, really true, about the Resurrection? Or do the stories, by their diversity and lack of agreement, not cause more problems than they solve? For two reasons I would say they do, or at least can, fund our faith. First, the accounts themselves, even in or because of their diversity, are actually a warrant of credibility about the witness. Second, and even more importantly, the Resurrection Narratives are the primary resource for our faith in the bodiliness of the Resurrection which carries the real significance for our faith of this event. We have to be brief on these points, but I hope I can supply enough to lead you back to a deeper, more faith-enlightened reading/hearing of the texts themselves, and a deeper participation in the dramatic presentation of their meaning in the liturgical celebrations.
The Credibility of the Witnesses and the Texts
Without stopping to discuss all the evidence, I can report that there is a fairly wide scholarly consensus about what the Gospel texts affirm regarding the reality of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus.
- The tomb was empty on Easter morning. This does not establish what that meant or how it happened. But if the body of Jesus had been available, both the political and the religious authorities who had colluded in Jesus’ execution and who had a high stake in nipping the Christian movement in the bud, could easily have done so by producing Jesus’ corpse, or at least his remains. We have no record that the authorities ever credibly disputed the disciples’ claim that the tomb was empty. If they could have, they would have. They couldn’t, because the tomb, no matter how that happened or was later explained, was indeed empty.
- In regard to the appearances there are several interesting facts about the narrative witness to the Resurrection which suggest that the witness itself is credible, i.e., trustworthy. There is excellent reason to accept that the appearances were real events.
- None of those to whom Jesus appeared are presented as expecting, hoping for, or seeking an appearance or any kind of “return” of Jesus from the dead, any more than the people going to work on 9/11 expected an attack on the World Trade Center. In each appearance account, the recipient was in deep sorrow and/or despair over Jesus’ obviously irreversible death. All were totally surprised, even terrified, by his appearance. So we are not talking about expectation or wish fulfillment.
- Although all the appearances were to Jesus’ disciples who knew him well, not to strangers, none of the recipients recognized Jesus until he somehow identified himself. So the witnesses were not inventing the appearances nor hallucinating.
- None of the appearances duplicates any other. Although there are similar details that show up in one account or another, such as the wounds in Jesus’ hands, each appearance is unique in time, place, circumstances, content, etc. So these were not “copy-cat” accounts.
- All of the appearances happened in “real time” while the recipient was wide awake and in ordinary circumstances. None are presented as visions, dreams, ecstasies, out-of-body experiences, bereavement encounters, or the like.
- The appearances started on Easter morning and ceased completely at the end of a particular, relatively short, clearly delineated period of time, symbolically referred to as the “Forty days,” concluded by the Ascension. So the appearance stories are not simply dramatizations of ordinary Christian experiences of later times or “repeats” by those who had heard others’ reports. They are presented as accounts of absolutely unique, that is, sui generis events, neither produced by nor reproducible by the disciples.
In short, the appearances are presented as somehow “objective.” They happened to, rather than being produced by, the recipients. No matter how mysterious the mode, something happened which justifies our questions about what it meant.
Bodiliness of the Risen Jesus as Key to the Meaning of the Resurrection
Once we realize that there is no possibility of, nor point in, nor necessity for, trying to establish the objective “facts,” as if the Resurrection were a car accident, we can begin to read these narratives on their own merits as witness to overwhelming experiences of a saturated phenomenon in which the first disciples participated intensely during a limited, privileged period called the “forty days.” This period of privileged, direct revelation of the reality and the meaning of the Paschal Mystery came to a close with the withdrawal of Jesus’ sensible presence from them in what was described as the Ascension and his definitive interior return to them in the Spirit on Pentecost. The episodes are recorded, not as quasi-police reports, but as mini-dramas, short stories, poetic discourses, or verbal paintings; that is, in theopoetic creations reflective of the overwhelming reality of what happened to the participants during this relatively short period which empowered them to make available to the “whole world” the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus through their life in community, their preaching, their writing, and their liturgical ritual.
During this foundational period of the Paschal Event, Jesus was vividly present to his disciples, teaching them; opening their spiritual eyes to really “see” the meaning of his pre-Easter life with them; opening their ears to “hear” what Jesus had said to them in light of the Scriptures; supporting them in their fears; feeding them; correcting them; forgiving them; empowering them; sending them. He was there day after day. He came to them in Jerusalem and in Galilee, in closed rooms and on the open road and at the seashore, to individuals and to groups, in familiar ways and new ways (see Acts 1:3-4). He flooded them with his nearness, his presence, his intimacy. They could not mistake Who it was they were encountering. John says, “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.” (Jn. 21:12). He came to them and came again, but he never left. They saw and heard and touched and knew that it was Jesus himself, alive, returned to them, but not under their control. They needed to learn by experience what his new mode of presence – his presence in each other, in the community, in Scriptural word, in sacramental celebration – felt like, how to recognize it, what it meant for them, how to communicate it.
And once the Spirit, whom Jesus had promised, had come upon them, they immediately began to share their experience and to invite others to enter into it. Their witness was contagious. Immediately, according to Acts, thousands heard, mysteriously understanding the meaning, even when the language was not their own, and they asked, “What should we do? How can we participate in this new life that is pouring out of you the way exuberance pours out of someone drunk on new wine?” (Cf. Acts 2:4-18.)
So, the disciples not only preached but began to develop rituals by which others could become participants in the reality of the Resurrected Life. They invited their hearers to participate in a mystical plunging into the death of Jesus from which they would emerge with spiritual eyes “enlightened” to perceive God’s work in Jesus, and ears “opened” to understand Jesus’ word, and tongues “loosed” for praise and proclamation. The disciples invited these newly baptized to share table fellowship with them, to do with them what Jesus had commanded: to wash one another’s feet (Jn. 13:1-15), to share bread and wine in memory of him (see Lk. 22:19-20), to re-tell the story of his life, death, resurrection, and to form community. The New Testament Resurrection Narratives and the Easter sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are the witness in word and ritual to the overwhelming Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit – not as an event of the past but as reality in the present.
A striking feature of the Paschal Mystery was its totally egalitarian inclusivity. The Easter appearances were to women and men, members of the Twelve and crowds of hundreds; to ordinary disciples like the two (probably an ordinary married couple) on their way to Emmaus, and those, members of the Twelve and others without names (see Jn. 21:2), who were with Simon in the boat on the Sea of Tiberias. The Spirit was poured out equally, in identical individual tongues of fire, without distinction or rank or human mediation, on the whole gathered community of 120, who were together in prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost. The Paschal Event was an ecclesial foundation, the rising to life of the mystical Body of Christ, not the establishment of a hierarchical ecclesiastical institution. All that came later. And as the disciples began to welcome others into this experience, they realized that, in a way that transcended the First Covenant, it was intended for all: women as well as men, Jews of the Diaspora as well as of Palestine, proselytes as well as Israelites, Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, young and old, poor and rich, sinners and saints.
Underlying, central to, and making possible, the absolute conviction of the disciples about the reality of the Risen Jesus and his presence among and in them, was the most striking feature of the narratives themselves which grounded the continuity between the earthly, pre-Easter Jesus and the Risen Jesus in his Paschal community. Herein lies the ultimate significance, the real meaning, of the Easter experience. All the Easter narratives are stories about Jesus himself present bodily. In this respect, the Resurrection Narratives are not just artistic or imaginative re-productions reflecting a saturated phenomenon nor an assurance of a spiritual presence of a remembered loved one. They have a very particular content that is central to the revelation of the Resurrection.
The first witnesses, in their Easter experiences, knew that they were encountering the Jesus they knew prior to his death not simply as a vivid memory, a figment of the imagination, an hallucination, a spirit or ghost or immortal soul, or even a kind of “apparition” [like the spectre of Samuel conjured up for Saul by the Witch of Endor (I Sam. 28:3–25)]. Jesus himself, in the appearance to the disciples in Luke 24:37-43, forecloses that sort of interpretation by saying, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost [which is what they thought they were seeing] does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And as they remained uncertain he asked, “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” In other words, Christian faith does not merely affirm that Jesus is alive with God, nor simply that in some sense he is still spiritually with us. It claims that Jesus is bodily risen, or that the Risen Jesus is bodily. We believe in the resurrection of the body.
But would it not be much easier to present the challenge of Christian faith if we could finesse that insistence on the body, proclaim that Jesus is alive, immortal, with God, influencing us, and so on but agree that after his death his body went the way of all flesh, namely, that it returned to the earth and was reabsorbed into the cosmic process. Does it really make any difference whether the Resurrection of Jesus was bodily or not and, if so, what does bodily mean?
Paul, our earliest written witness to the Resurrection, had to deal with this issue head on in relation to his Corinthian converts. They asked, when he preached to them the Resurrection, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). Paul did not brush off their questions as naïve or unimportant. For two simple but extremely important reasons, the bodiliness of the Resurrection makes a huge difference.
First, our bodies are not just houses in which we dwell, or shells, or husks, or even, as Socrates taught, the prison of the soul. No, our body is our self. We do not say, for example, “Do not hit my arm,” but “Do not hit me.” In more technical language, one’s body, and all its extensions in our actions, our words, our creations, and so on are the symbolic way of being oneself in the world.
A symbol is not a sign, that is, something that stands for something other than itself the way an exit sign stands for a door. A real symbol is a way of being present of something that cannot otherwise be present. A symbol is not a stand-in for something that is absent but the bodying-forth of a reality that is present. That is the very reason why, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God who is utterly transcendent could only reveal God-self to the people Israel through creation, history, persons, words, mighty acts; that is, symbolically. The final, greatest, only complete and adequate self-revelation of God is the Word of God become incarnate in Jesus. Jesus, as bodily, that is, as fully human, is the great symbol of God, not a representative of God but God’s very self. If, in death, Jesus had ceased to be his bodily self, he would not simply have laid aside a temporary “vestment” or container of some sort. He would have ceased to be a human being, that is, to be himself, Jesus, the One in whom our humanity participates in Trinitarian life and which makes that Trinitarian life present to us. In other words, if Jesus had ceased to be a bodily human being, what we call the Incarnation, God’s becoming one of us that we might become one with God, would have ceased. Bodiliness is intrinsic to Jesus’ integral humanity. Only as bodily could Jesus rise as himself, and not as a trace or reminder of himself.
The second reason derives from the first. Bodiliness is the mysterious feature of our humanity by which we are always simultaneously both related to all creation and distinct from all else. No one else is me, and I am not anyone or anything else. The symbol which effects and manifests that distinctiveness is my body.
But conversely, it is through our bodiliness that we can enter into relationship with what is other than ourselves. We can form community. We can influence our environment. Our experience of the death of a loved one is precisely the experience that presence is overwhelmed by absence in the moment when the body ceases to mediate the person, ceases to symbolically body-forth the person in this context. We no longer call the fleshly trace in the coffin a “body,” but a “corpse,” which is the symbolic presence of an absence.
Jesus’ body is no less symbolic for him than ours is for us. Jesus was present to his pre-Easter contemporaries as his bodily self, rendering God symbolically present to them. The Church has always claimed that Jesus’ death was not a charade, a piece of theater; He really died. His bodiliness, which had made him, and in him God, symbolically present to his contemporaries, became a corpse which made his absence symbolically, that is, really, present to those who buried him. Jesus was gone, as completely and truly as is any person who dies, and his body, now become a corpse, was the symbolic expression of that transformation from life to death, from presence to absence.
Therefore, if Jesus, after his death, is truly to return alive to his own, to be really humanly present to and in and among them, he can only do this through his bodily Resurrection. But, and this is supremely important, Jesus does not just come “back to life.” He does not re-animate his corpse. He is not resuscitated which would just have made it necessary for him, like Lazarus, to die again. Paul said emphatically, “Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). Rather, as we struggle for words for this transformation, we might say that the finite, mortal character of Jesus’ earthly life (what Scripture tends to call “the flesh”) which limited his divinity by mortality, was swallowed up in his very real death. Now, in his glorified bodily humanity, what was glimpsed for a moment in the Transfiguration is now totally and definitively and absolutely revealed. Resurrection does not obliterate Jesus’ humanity, but it transfigures it, transsymbolizes it, or to use the traditional language, glorifies it. The Jesus who rose from the tomb was not the earthly, physical, fleshly Jesus resuscitated but the incarnate Son of God bodily glorified. We need to learn how to think of bodiliness not as equivalent to physicality (which is our earthly way of being bodily) but as the special way of being present of humans.
The Resurrection appearance narratives and Paul’s experience of the Risen Jesus give us a kind of repertoire of language and images by which to think about what bodily glorification, or Resurrected life, means. The person who lives as bodily glorified, although continuous with himself or herself, is in a different relationship to presence and absence than is the mortal or fleshly human being before death.
The unusual, beyond mortal or earthly, features in the Easter narratives provide a whole collection of seemingly incompatible affirmations. Jesus can be simultaneously present to people in different, even widely separated, geographical places. He can be present to people who knew him well and not be recognizable to them (Jn. 20:14-16), but he can become recognizable when he chooses to be, even to people who had never met him “in the flesh,” like Paul (see Acts 9:4-5). He is not impeded by solid physical barriers (see Jn. 20: 19). He can but does not have to eat (Lk. 24:30-31; 36-43). He knows where people, like Thomas, are and what they are thinking and saying when he is apparently not present (see Jn. 20:24-28).
In other words, a glorified body is not just a mortal body that glows in the dark. Glorification is a condition of bodiliness which renders it not limited by physicality, by space or time or causality. Thus the early Church captured the meaning of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus by saying not only that he was alive, but that “Death no longer has dominion over him.” This is not something we can easily fathom or imagine. Glorification means no longer subject to death nor anything which leads to death, results from death, or expresses death. Glorification is not the eradication of the body which is the way of being of a living human person; it is the end of subjection to death. What the bodily Resurrection means for us is that we will participate in the eternal life of Jesus because he is himself alive, yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Heb. 13:8).