Thought for the Month

From the Parish Priest, Fr Nicholas Clews

‘THEN WE SHALL ALL HAVE EATEN THEE’ is not a quotation from the Gospels, nor even from St Paul, but from a rather grisly folk song that may have originated in mid-nineteenth century Halifax.

The consequences of courting Mary Jane without a hat on need not concern us here, except for the rather interesting analysis contained in the last few verses. There the song asserts that that dead bodies are eaten by worms, that ducks eat worms and that we eat ducks.  Hence the gruesome but rather triumphant conclusion, ‘Then we shall all have eaten thee’. Where does the resurrection fit into this?

For much of its history the Christian Church has taken a fairly literal view of the resurrection.  This was one of the reasons for a general ban on cremation until the twentieth century.

But cremation is now quite normal for Christians.  So clearly we no longer expect the resurrection to be about a literal reassembling of the molecules of our earthly bodies.  It means something else.

St Paul’s tells us that the body we have after death is in many ways quite different from the body we had on earth: ‘imperishable rather than perishable; glorious rather than contemptible; powerful rather than weak; spiritual rather than natural.’  (1 Corinthians 15:42f)

A ‘spiritual body’ is a fascinating concept.  Paul does not say we live on as spirit. We are raised from the dead and given a ‘spiritual’ body.  This is important.  It reminds us that an essential part of being human is to have a body –  that being human requires us to have a body.  In writing this, Paul was putting a distance between orthodox Judaism and Eastern religions. The Jewish faith had always been clear that the created world was made by God and was to be enjoyed and celebrated: the body was made by God.  There were, and still are other religions, and even unorthodox Christian sects which believe that the material world was second-rate or even evil.  Some sects even believed that the material world was made by Satan and the spiritual world by God.

Paul is having none of this!  We need a body because it is impossible to be human without one.  The body is not evil, not to be despised – it is made by God. The resurrection is an affirmation of the goodness of the body.

Jesus clearly taught the same. He was once approached by some religious leaders, Sadducees, who did not believe in the hope of the resurrection.  They put before him a rather improbable scenario of a woman who married seven brothers in turn.  This was based on the Jewish custom that if a man died childless his widow would marry the next unmarried brother in order to have the first brother’s children,  through the second brother as it were. They concluded this scenario with a triumphant question

At the resurrection whose wife will she be? (Matthew 22:27)

We’ve got you now, they thought!  They’d trumped him!  Checkmate! And if Jesus had taken a literal view of the resurrection he would have been in trouble.  But he didn’t. And what he replied was

You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:29)

This idea of the resurrection body matters not only for our own resurrection but also for that of Jesus.  It helps make sense of some of the oddities of the meetings between the risen Jesus and his disciples:

  • Mary meets him in the garden and assumes he’s the gardener (John 20:15)
  • Two of them walk to Emmaus with him, hold deep conversations, but do not recognize him until he breaks bread with them (Luke 24:13 ff)
  • Thomas meets him face to face but will not believe it is Jesus until he puts his hands in his wounds (John 20:25)
  • Jesus walks through locked doors (John 20:19)
  • He eats with them on the beach, the disciples know it is him but do not dare ask him (John 21:12)

When I was about seven I used to worry that if I met Jesus I would not recognize him.  I can still see the vision I had then of him walking down the road where I lived. He had a beard and a long flowing robe of the kind that is still seen in the Middle East.

I still worry that I might not recognize Jesus.  It is a genuine concern.  But the Jesus in my vision is no longer dressed in first century Middle Eastern clothes.  The Jesus I may not recognize looks like a beggar sat outside the Alhambra in Bradford on a Friday night; the Jesus I may not recognize looks like a North Korean child; or a Syrian refugee trying to cross Europe with her family; the Jesus I may not recognize looks like Vladimir Putin or Theresa May.  The Jesus I may not recognize looks like you.

What those first disciples discovered on that first Easter Sunday was not that Jesus had simply been restored to what he had been on Maundy Thursday.  What they discovered was that Jesus was now among them, with them, in them.  And Jesus had told them that before he died, when he told them the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)

Jesus was now among them, with them, in them. And he still is.