Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” —Luke 24:38-39
What is this mysterious body that bears the reality of the risen Christ? As the stories tell it, Jesus appears but is not recognized until their “eyes are opened.” He is suddenly “in their midst” even though the doors are bolted. He can disappear in the blink of an eye, but is real enough to be touched and even make a fire and prepare breakfast. Most importantly, his presence seems at once as real as flesh while being “living breath:” The first man Adam became a living being, but last Adam became life-giving breath (1 Corinthians 15:45)
The stories bear witness to something beyond ordinary human experience, but perhaps our own experience of the body can give us some clues to the mystery of the resurrection. On the simplest physical level, bodies display astonishing abilities we take for granted: self-repair, transformation of food into vitalizing energy, complex and fine-tuned physical performance, and the bio-electrical generation of a measurable energy field.
More than just flesh....
But human beings, throughout the ages, have experienced their bodies not just as flesh and bone, but also “temples of spirit.” Bodies shine with the ineffable but unmistakable reality of presence. There are persons whose presence fills the room when their body enters, radiating joy or enthusiasm, anger or depression. And everyone knows what it feels like when someone “turns you off”, even if the body is right there in front of you. Something subtle is withdrawn.
Certain people seem filled with such bountiful energy that they lift your spirits without touching you, or can send a veritable flow of warmth like a current through your body through their hands. Others are such a deep hole of neediness they can drain you of energy just by being nearby. And most of us know what it's like to feel someone’s eyes on us, even if we have to turn around to find out who is staring at us.
We hardly have a vocabulary for these unmistakable, but subtle realities, and fall back on “as if” language: “it was as if she lit up the whole room.” Perhaps we ought to risk dropping the “as if.”
After all there are hundreds and thousands (most likely tens of thousands and more) who will swear to you they can, on occasion, see bodies shining with light, just like the holy pictures of saints with halos in many traditions. Not only that, you can attend any number of workshops around the nation that will teach you how to see these “auras” (in spite of the skepticism of the majority of folks who have never investigated the phenomenon).
Then there are the stories of the liminal dimensions of flesh from all around the world: the bodies of Hindu holy men and Christian saints which do not decay after death, emitting the faint odor of roses; the rare Tibetan Buddhist lamas (in our own times) who, when dying, seem transformed into a rainbow of light; the Indian avatars, like the 19th century saint Sri Ramakrishna, who are literally transfigured before the astonished eyes of thousands of people and shine “with the light of the noonday sun” (as we are told Jesus did on a certain mountain top).
I know a priest who saw a radiantly shining monk in Massachusetts back in the 60s. And consider the eyewitness testimony of Motovilov, a disciple of the 19th century staretz Seraphim of Sarov. "It was as if my eyes had been opened, for I saw that the face of the elder was brighter than the sun. In my heart I felt joy and peace, in my body a warmth as if it were summer, and a fragrance began to spread around us." When the disciple confessed his astonished reaction, the saint responded, "Do not fear, dear fellow. You would not even be able to see me if you yourself were not in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for His mercy toward us." (See St. Seraphim of Sarov by Valentine Zander)
Stretching our experiential boundaries
Why then (bodies being so mysterious) should we find the stories of Jesus’ transfigured and transformed Presence—so real it could be touched—incredible, as so many modern Christians do? I remember well my seminary New Testament professor making fun of St. Paul’s “baffling attempt” to explain “spiritual bodies” in 1 Corinthians 15. It was all based on “strange ancient beliefs” he found “unintelligible.” He preferred, as do most modernists, some sort of “spiritual illumination” to the vivid realism of the gospel narratives.
Having already been introduced to some of the world-wide lore about the spiritual dimensions of the flesh, I was uncomfortable with his modernist scorn 47 years ago. Today I’d suggest he follow a reading program in comparative mysticism and find a real Hindu yoga teacher who could explain to him the yoga tradition’s actual experience of the multi-layered “subtle bodies” that make up the human reality.
I had my own surprised experience of these subtle dimensions once during a three-year series of Polarity Therapy treatments—a combination of acupressure and “energy balancing.” The gentle acupressure touches set of a palpable flow of energy along the “energy meridians” described by Chinese medicine. All of a sudden I “saw” very clearly a column of intense white light running from head to foot through the center of my flesh. The experience lasted for ten minutes or more, filling my body with a sweet warmth and a kind of cleansing “breath.” "What is this?" I asked the therapist. “Oh,” she said off-handedly (using the language of her tradition's energy map) “that’s just your etheric body.”
Call it my imagination if you will. I’ll be more inclined to take you seriously after you’ve had three years of these treatments yourself, or really studied the world testimony to the higher capacities of the body.
The challenge of the stories
My faith doesn’t stand or fall on such experiences, nor on the every literal detail of the biblical Resurrection stories. I doubt they are exact videotape versions of what happened. But I do think they seek faithfully to put into narrative form an Encounter that contains, but far transcends, what we experience at the luminous edges of our fleshly existence. Jesus, whose body had already shown many subtle powers in his lifetime, had crossed a threshold into the spiritual dimensions of human existence and appeared to his beloved community in what Christians have called his "glorified body".
And the stories challenge us to wake up to the miracle of our own embodied existence, where flesh and bone already shine, at times, with the light that will be our sum and substance after we are "changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another." (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Maybe it's something like that column of white light I saw, and believe is still there in the deeper dimensions of my own flesh—and yours.
I am a Christian in New Jersey with deep roots in and respect for the "generous orthodoxy" tradition of spiritual wisdom and for the insights of other spiritual pathways. Increasingly concerned about what this world-wide wisdom, particulary the Abrahamic prophetic message, should be saying about current affairs, both religious and secular, I finally decided to do this blog. Beside this, I love science fiction/fantasy, great mystery novels, world history, political history, poetry, music of most any kind, tennis, and art.
All these blogs are copyright by Robert C. Morris, all rights reserved.