On the Resurrection of Christ and the Social Context

The Resurrection appearances of Jesus were personal. There was not simply an empty tomb followed by an angelic revelation or a different version of the burning bush. There was the bodily, personal appearance of Jesus to his followers. He is not a ghost, but has flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). A person is a soul, is spirit, yes, but a person is, as the Incarnation teaches us, a body. And Jesus’ personal appearances were appearances of his whole person, body and soul, to his followers. His death, from the vantage point of his disciples, had irrevocably sundered their personal relationship. His Resurrection restored forever those connections.

We have pre-Resurrection examples of what this victory over death entails. In two instances, recorded in Luke, in which Jesus raised the dead, the dead were returned to their families: Of the widow of Nain’s son “And Jesus gave him to his mother”; of Jairus’ daughter, after dismissing everyone except her parents and three of his disciples, he raises her and then tells her parents, “Give her something to eat.” And when he healed the demonized boy after coming down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “gave him back to his father.” Raising from the dead, healing, were intended to restore the social and familial connections that sickness and death harm and destroy. And in the final resurrection, St Paul writes, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The next verse, in the wonderful KJV phrasing, exhorts: “Wherefore comfort one another with these words. ”

Mortality: The Destruction of the Social Bond

Since the fall of man, mortality, or death, has infected all of human existence. It has distorted our ability to perceive clearly the good that God is and the goods which he eternally creates. It has also distorted our reason, our choice, our willing and our emotions and desires. We are, by God’s mercy, still free beings–our distorted natures do not result in the necessity of sinful choices and actions. But nonetheless, we labor and struggle against this distortion which goes to the depths of who we are. We are, as it were, bent creatures laboring to walk straight.

We are also radically social beings. The cruelest punishments we inflict on others as well as ourselves are those solitary confinements which cut us off from our fellow beings, and, more particularly, from our personal relationships. Made as we are in the image of the Trinitarian God, we cannot help but need and exist within specific social contexts. We have parents and extended families, friends, spouses, our own children and their friends. The chain of social connections trail out behind us, and descend from us in living springs of love.

Our mortal infections, however, harm these chains. Certainly our own personal sins can radically destroy these connections. The unfaithful spouse breaks not only the marital bond, but the connections to children, parents and all the relations of all the persons connected to the affair. The abusive parent forever mars not simply their own relation to their child, but all that child’s future relations, including those of his children. Sin is inherently social, no matter how secret.

But our mortality is of course a bodily mortality, and sickness impacts these social contexts as well. Even the minor sickness of the common cold will remove the person from his work, limit the contact with his family, and isolate him, for a time, in a lonely confinement. If the sickness is catastrophic and chronic, these social ties will be permanently altered, and some of them may die altogether. Death, of course, is the final destruction of these social bonds. This is why Christians, who believe in the Resurrection of Christ and of all persons, still grieve. They grieve even in the face of the hope they have, because that social bond is now broken, the social context is now permanently altered. There is a vacant space where once a vibrant love lived.

This destruction of personal relationships by death is not limited to singular persons of course. Death is the destruction of society itself. Kingdoms and cultures die, often in violent episodes. Those cultures which celebrate sterility and death (such as those who advocate the culture of abortion, as well as those which decry the values of tradition and history) are curious in that they actively (if perhaps unwittingly) seek their own hastened destruction.

We must not, however, think that a rejection of a culture of sterility and death is going to change the simple fact that societies die because people die. No nation, government or human institution can reverse this process. Chiliastic efforts to effect the Kingdom of God on earth (with attempts to eradicate poverty, say) are necessarily doomed to fail. (These efforts also fail to account for the fact that merciful acts are necessarily personal, and even efforts by churches to institutionalize such acts have about them an aura of futility. But there is more to say on this matter.)

Until death is abolished, the social context will always be itself mortal and distorted. In the Resurrection of Christ, however, we have the abolition of death.

The Resurrection as Compassion

The icon most associated with the Resurrection of Christ is the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ stands in glory over the demolished gates of Hades and in either hand is pulling up, respectively, Adam and Eve, while prophets and holy men of Scripture look on. Ephesians 1:19-20 speaks of the Father’s immeasurably great power toward us who believe, working a mighty work in the raising of Jesus from the dead and the seating of Christ at the right hand of the Father. That the body and soul of a Man, the God-Man, sits eternally on the throne of God is an amazing display of power.

This is as it should be. But we are not without another layer of truth in the Resurrection appearances of Christ, specifically the great compassion he shows to his followers. The thrice-denier Peter is, in Mark’s Gospel, given specific mention by Christ’s angelic messenger, “Go and tell his disciples, and Peter . . .” There is then the following marvelous account of the Lord gently healing Peter from his triple-denial through his triple-affirmation, however painful such a healing was as Christ brought him through it. But this healing came about precisely because the personal and social bonds dependent upon the bodily and personal presence of Jesus were restored and renewed in his rising from the dead once and for all.

A mortal world and our mortal living within that mortal world distorts our minds and our emotions. Under the impetus of pain experienced as we suffer under the sins of others, we may experience more and more distortions until our abilities to adequately discern and perceive the reality of our persons and in which we live is greatly reduced and diminished. Sicknesses and disease accomplish this as well, most notably that slow and torturous advance of diseases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Here in a great sorrowful mystery we cannot comprehend we lose the social bonds even if we do not lose the body of the loved one.

In that the Resurrection heals us from death, it heals us from these horrible afflictions of mind and heart. It is perhaps here that we most existentially bathe in the compassion of the Risen Christ who greats us with exclamations of peace and causes our renewed hearts to burn within us. In fact, in that it is the social context which Christ restores to us, it is also most quintessentially true that the Resurrection restores to us our hearts.

The Resurrection as Hope

But if the Resurrection of Christ destroys death by death, then in the Resurrection we have hope. Hope not merely of the continuation of our personal existence but of the continuation of our social existence. No human institution can survive mortality, because all of us die. But in Christ, even social bonds that are, from the vantage point of our temporal existence, destroyed, are held in hope. We will see our brothers and sisters in grace again. In Christ, marriages are eternal, even if death has created an interval of separation. The relations of parents and children go on forever. We sing “memory eternal” in the hope of this renewal of the social context of our lives.

Indeed, upon reflection, we see that all of our deepest hopes are grounded in a social context. Few of us hope merely for more personal material things, the lust of gold simpliciter. No, if we have such distorted longings, it is that we may display such material possessions for others. As we have already said, we are radically social beings, and few things of our existence are radically individual. We are connected to and depend upon each other, both prior to our existence and after our death. No one can be born alone. Nor does anyone truly wish to die alone. So in that the Resurrection restores the social bonds, it restores to us also the hopes we have: hopes of love and acceptance, the opportunities to serve and leave legacies, and the hope that sundered social ties will be eternally renewed once past the gates of death.

Such hopes are, indeed, future hopes. After all, our mortal world always leaves us ever unfulfilled. In this we experience a sort of deadly futility apart from the Resurrection. Even if we presently experience blessing, we inherently intuit that such blessings are temporal. Or we grasp that such blessings are inherently partial, and we long for something more. More and deeper love with our spouse and children, more and deeper capacities to serve others and establish peaceful interactions with one another. We have these things, if we have them at all, only partially today. So we look to tomorrow for greater fulfillment. The Resurrection gives us that tomorrow, provides us with a living hope. Such a hope is not futile for it is real. But such a hope is inescapably for us now a future reality.

Well, perhaps not entirely future.

The Kingdom Is at Hand

Christ came to announce that “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” and “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.” Theologians have invented terminologies and explanations to provide a rational framework to help us grasp that somehow the Kingdom is both now and not yet. We are not very interested in these explanations. We want healing for our hearts. When Christ invited Martha to believe in the present inbreaking of the Kingdom to her world, she found it rather easier to assign such a reality to the future. It does not appear that a theologian’s explanation of various eschatologies would have been at all helpful. Rather, Christ’s own compassionate weeping and his almighty act restoring Lazarus to his family answered their hearts’ cries.

Christ’s Kingdom is truly not of this world, but he has come to announce its advent and to teach us to pray for its consummation. In that we have been incorporated into Christ, via the mystical and social connection of the Church, Christ’s Body, we have now the experience of healing from our mortality. We know now the transfiguration in grace toward virtue that the Resurrection accomplishes. We have the experience of the healing from disease, emotional wounds, and hearts that have been lost to us. That which the locust has eaten has been restored to us (Joel 2:25). Yes, it is true we live in a great overlap, in which the realms of heaven and earth co-exist in the same space, divided only by a translucent veil through which shines the glory of God. Still hell has been harrowed, the dead have come forth from the tombs, and we are more than conquerors in Him who rose from the dead on the third day.

In that the Resurrection restores our persons, it restores our social contexts. These social contexts, restored and renewed, heal our hearts and our desires. We experience both the power and the compassion of our Lord.

There is a marvelous scene in Genesis 22. The story is familiar. Abraham has been promised a son, an heir, someone who will continue his family, and to whom he can leave the legacy of God’s blessings and promises. Inexplicably God asks him to sacrifice his only son. Remarkably, Abraham obeys. Or at least starts to. God interrupts the downward thrust of the fatal knife, and, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Abraham’s obedience was framed by the thought that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19). And then, we would not be wrong to imagine father and son descending to their companions. Together.

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