A Reflection on the Gifts of the Glorified Body

Schrader art 4-11-16

Doubting Thomas, by Guercino (first half of 17th c.).

From the turmoil over sexual orientation and gender identity, to the questions of abortion and euthanasia, the significance of the body for human identity and well-being is before our eyes as much as it ever was. In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II identified the resurgence of “certain ancient errors” that minimize the personal and moral significance of the body.1 Indeed, the old Manichaean paradox seems quite widespread. On the one hand, we reduce the body to a mere biological datum, not to be reckoned as an essential part of our personal identity. On the other, we obsess over bodily perfection and pleasure. We never seem to be quite at home with our physicality, at least not in a lasting way, yet we also recognize the body as a foundational good.

Christianity explains this existential sense of disorder by the doctrine of original sin, the idea that we are good, but fallen by nature, and that this hereditary fallenness extends to both soul and body. Chesterton calls original sin the “only part of Christian theology which can be really proved.”2 To this well-known experience of disintegration, and the suffering and death it inevitably entails, the news of Christ’s Resurrection arrives with unanticipated force. Jesus promises us and shows us in himself freedom from both sin and death.

Christ is alive! For Christianity, this great message bears with it the hope of our own resurrection. Paul stakes the whole faith on it: If Christ is risen, we all rise; if we do not, then neither has Christ risen (1 Cor 15:15–17). Divine love made flesh, who loved us “to the end” (Jn 13:1), has loved us beyond that end. The sorrowful eventide of his life has given way to a clear, rising dawn that knows no setting. And this heralds for us a new age. We can go through death, and come out alive, on the other side. Jesus has done it. We won’t survive just in memories. We neither become angels, nor suffer the fate of beasts. On that day, everyone who is in Christ will be his own, living self.

But what will our bodies be like after the Resurrection? Medieval theologians assigned four gifts in particular to the glorified bodies of the righteous: impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity. We are unaccustomed today to such precision, often avoiding exact assertions about the physical aspects of the Resurrection. After all, when was the last time you heard a homily on the gift of subtlety, or the crowns of virginity and martyrdom? But, as quaint as such discussions may sound, they are, in reality, a development of the Patristic reflection on sacred Scripture.

The Bible, after all, presents Christ’s risen body as the pattern for what our own glorified bodies will be like (Phil 3:21). It is wonder at those mysterious post-Resurrection encounters with Jesus, which the liturgy proposes to us during the Easter Season, that yields these traditional four gifts. Jesus appears and disappears suddenly. He enters through locked doors. He bears his wounds but suffers no more. These events, like the mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration, are also a pledge of future glory. Even a brief reflection on the gifts of impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity can be a fruitful part of entering into the Easter Season.

Impassibility
Impassibility is surely the most longed-for gift that the Resurrection promises. Rising from the dead would not be nearly so great, would be even a sort of curse, without the assurance that our new life lasts forever, that suffering and death will really be no more. Impassibility results from the newfound perfect harmony of soul and body. No longer will the spirit be willing but the flesh weak. Eternal life, the vision of God, has bodily consequences. We pass through death into a new kind of life, not merely an everlasting prolongation of our current status.3

Indeed, Christians are commanded to take up their crosses daily—but not indefinitely. And those crosses are embraced precisely because they lead to the Resurrection. Death is accepted because it gives way to life, penance, and fasting because the Bridegroom will come again. The cross is a kind of preparatory school for the Resurrection since it is the way that we live out divine love in a fallen world. The consummation of that love heals the suffering we must endure to learn it. And so, even when the crosses we have borne in this life are only a memory, we may bear in our bodies, like the Lord himself, the marks they have left on us: no longer wounds of pain or shame, but badges of God’s transfiguring love.

Subtlety
John’s Gospel makes it a point to emphasize that Jesus reached the disciples through locked doors, that he brought peace to them in the place where they had shut themselves up in fear and doubt. But what of the physical aspect of this occurrence? Theologians call this the gift of subtlety, the endowment of the glorified body by which it has a certain power to penetrate what, to a mortal body, is impenetrable, and this in a precise manner, and without violence.

Our first thoughts on hearing of such things easily turn to illusions or ghosts. Such were the disciples’ thoughts until Jesus convinced them otherwise by such basic acts as showing his wounds and eating (Lk 24:39–43; Jn 20:20 and 27; Acts 10:41). If the Resurrection is scandalous, it is only because it continues forever the scandal of the incarnation. God lives a human life in all its animal reality. C. S. Lewis thus presents the glorified body, not as ghostly, but as more material, more solid, than what lies within our present experience.4 Christ passed through the locked door, not like a wisp of smoke, but as a man wades through a stream.

If our body no longer puts up any resistance to our soul—undoubtedly the greater thing—ought we to be surprised that lesser bodies, too, should become docile to us? Indeed, Christians profess that humanity is the summit of visible creation, and its steward. Thus, when we are wholly ourselves and wholly reconciled to God, it is fitting that lower beings should regain their place as aids to us, not obstacles.

Agility
If there is one thing that being busy teaches us, it is how great the gift of agility would be. We have all wished that we could get from one place to another effortlessly and rapidly. It feels at times as if our bodies cannot keep up with our minds. While Heaven surely will not allow for the kind of frantic activism that we get ourselves into in this world—Heaven is, after all, God’s rest—that doesn’t mean there won’t be anything to do.

We may be able to view the gift of agility from this additional perspective, not just as being able to move at once to distant places, but as the bodily consequence of our soul’s entrance into God’s rest. We experience going from one thing to another as burdensome partly because we are too preoccupied with the past or the future. At times, however, we have the welcome experience of a pleasant journey, enjoyed even for its own sake, where, at each moment, we tarry as we please. In such moments, our body moves as quickly as our soul because our soul wishes to be nowhere else.

When there are no deadlines or pressures within or without, when God is all in all, and our only business is to enjoy him, our body will bring us unencumbered to where we wish to be precisely because we will wish to be where we ought. The glorified body’s responsiveness is, after all, a consequence of the soul’s unwavering response to God seen face-to-face. We will lose no time when no time can be lost.

Clarity
The Resurrection entails also the gift of clarity, of a bodily participation in glory, a visible overflowing of the soul’s radiance. “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43). Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of this on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus then admonishes them not to mention this until he rises from the dead, leaving the same Apostles bewildered as to what “rising from the dead” could mean (Mk 9:10).

A curious aspect of the post-Resurrection encounters illustrates the notion that the Resurrection entails a change in appearance. On several occasions after his rising, Jesus’ disciples did not recognize him, at least not at first (Lk 24:16; Jn 20:14 and 21:4). This is puzzling. After all, the whole point of the Resurrection is that the soul receives the self-same body once again, not a foreign one. Moreover, the brightness once revealed in the Transfiguration apparently did not shine through in such a way as to prevent Jesus’ being mistaken for a stranger or a gardener. So why did the disciples not know him at once?

In one instance, Luke explains that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Lk 24:16). The same Jesus who revealed himself in a gradual way before his passion, knowing that the disciples could not bear everything all at once, also accommodates himself to them as risen. They see his true appearance, one familiar to them, yet also new. One thing, at least, is clear: The risen Christ is seen as he wishes to be seen. This led medieval theologians to conclude that the risen body will be so subject to the soul that the perception of its radiance by others is dependent on the will. This involves no deception, no putting up a false appearance, but rather the more or less intense revelation of the body’s true appearance.

Such an occurrence is not as far-fetched as we may, at first, believe. Is there any one of us who has not had the experience of mistaking even a good friend, when seen from a certain angle or in a certain light? Have we never wondered over an old photograph only to be informed that the mysterious figure pictured in it is a dear relative of ours? In such moments, perhaps we realize that we have never really seen our beloved clearly enough, that all along we had perceived much less of them than we thought. Have we never looked at our own reflection in the mirror and thought, “This doesn’t look like me”? Our appearance sometimes obscures more of us than it reveals, and our eyes have grown used to the obscurity.

Accustomed as we are to living in a world where physical appearance both helps and hinders real knowledge of another, it is no wonder that, gazing upon a countenance without veil, we may be taken off guard by what we see. At the Resurrection, when the body reflects the soul perfectly, and the glory imparted to the soul overflows into the body with that brightness that the tradition calls “clarity,” perhaps we will feel that, till that moment, we were ghosts who had never seen a real man.

Conclusion
Christ is risen; he is risen indeed! Though our grasp of the full meaning of this fact is weak, even this little bit is tremendously good news. As Aristotle observed, even slim knowledge of noble things is better than great knowledge of baser things.5 Reflecting on the transfigured physicality of the resurrected body reminds us that the fall is not the norm, that death does not claim forever those who live in Christ. “The night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Rom 13:12). By turning our eyes to the Resurrection we hope for in Christ, may we live, even in this world, as children of that day, whose first rays already light up the horizon.

  1. Veritatis Splendor (August 6, 1993), n. 49.
  2. Orthodoxy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007), 7.
  3. Cf. Benedict XVI, Spe salvi  (November 30, 2007), n. 10.
  4. Lewis illustrates the principle masterfully in The Great Divorce and discusses the relationship of spirit and matter in the Resurrection at greater length in chapter 16 of Miracles.
  5. Parts of Animals I.5 (644b31–34).
Fr. Dylan Schrader About Fr. Dylan Schrader

Fr. Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and a student of theology at Catholic University of America.

Comments

  1. Karen D'Anselmi says:

    I am very pleased to read this article because we do not talk enough about Heaven or about the resurrection of the body; it is almost taboo. That there is much more “material” for our intellects to understand or at least ponder, by analyzing and meditating on Scripture and Tradition, is made evident in this beautiful article. Very much appreciated, Father!

  2. I find this article the most explanatory on the Ressurection of Christ, and our hope in Him, if we are found worthy, and God willing, we hope to be. I would love copies of this brilliant article, but see no printing advice, and through time, it will fade away. I thank you, Father, for explaining all this in everyday language, and would love to pass it on as a great comforter to those greaving in our midst. Thank you again. and may you continue sending out God’s message of hope to our troubled world.
    Dominica Wynne.

    • Elenor K. Schoen Elenor K. Schoen says:

      Dominica: To print this article, look at the top of this page, right above the title of this article. In the right corner, there are four colored icons: the letter “f” , a white bird, and then in grey a small printer, (followed by another icon of a white plus sign on an orange background). If you click on the printer, it will open up a connection with your printer, and you can print this page.
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      Elenor K. Schoen
      HPR Managing Editor