I recently entered an essay contest with the following entry. I didn’t win. But I thought someone might enjoy reading this riff off my Master’s thesis.
At Home in the Body
I have always been fascinated by voices from church history that proclaim the continuity of our earthly and resurrected bodies. Despite their keen awareness of the suffering we bear in the flesh, many of the foremothers and fathers of the church turned us toward making the body our home. They did so at great cost, taking stands against the popularity of Gnosticism and the allure of a body essentially different from the fraying skin and bones we drag across this earth.
The culture of polemic in the second century frequently led these theologians into the absurd. Their resolute conviction was that the body and soul were irreducibly knit together; to be without one is to be bereft of the other. In his treatise On The Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian reasoned that even human bodies eaten by wild animals will be made whole in the resurrection, regurgitated and reunited like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. In another essay he goes as far as to warn ladies about their jewelry and clothing choices, as these will be the fashions worn by their resurrected selves, forever.
While I am grateful for Tertullian’s ferocious yet joyful literalism, my imagination about the resurrection is most indebted to Irenaeus’ writings, a kind of poetry of material renewal. Here he returns us to the biblical narratives of the risen Jesus. From his exegesis on the last Supper and the church’s practice of Eucharist, Irenaeus concludes that the primary, eternal activity for risen humans will be eating together. We are to be gathered around the banquet table where, having abandoned our occupations of fruitless toil, God serves us the feast. We spend the rest of our days cultivating vineyards and building homes, in fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecies
To eat without hunger. To build without labor. To plant and reap without toil. Irenaeus envisions a kind of embodiment that can reverberate into eternity. There are no ethereal spirits here, no translucent ghosts. Here you will find no Edenic perfection, extra-human capability, or meta-rationalism. The body in which Jesus wept, bled, and died is the same body that rose into the presence of the disciples. These are the muscles that even in their resurrected state flexed and strained against the hills of Jerusalem as he climbed his way towards ascension. This is the jaw that chewed the fish, the forearm that wiped its grease, the mouth that laughed as his friends sat beside the Sea of Galilee in wonder and awe.
Irenaeus and Tertullian found a pattern for eternal life in this resurrected Jesus. The picture they painted is of human beings most fully human when they make home in physical bodies – at work, in play, and in giving care to others. These are the activities that intertwine the enfleshed soul.
So it is that when Irenaeus gives us the image of fertile land that forever feeds the resurrected community, he construes resurrection in such a way as to parse out need from suffering. What distinguishes desire in our earthly, temporary home is its unquenchable character – a long road of unmet longing that culminates in our death. In death, the soul is un-homed. That which is put together is unnaturally, diabolically, torn asunder. To reunite the body and soul — to feel our desires satisfied, to have our wants fulfilled, to know that every need will be met with abundance — this is for death to lose its sting.
This kind of wholeness at the same time presents itself to us as irrational. Who of us can comprehend the incongruity of adventure without danger or care that is not a response to harm? As such, Irenaeus’ vision of a land that literally speaks to its workers, of grapes that shout out God’s glory to those who harvest, reminds us that there is something within yet beyond our earthly categories to describe what we will encounter when the body is finally and fully at home. The Jesus who appears as a resurrected body after crucifixion–still bearing the wounds of the cross–reveals the ways in which glorified bodies will be both familiar and strange. For Rowan Williams this means that,
The risen Jesus returns as a loved friend and brother, and at the same time holds us off: he shows the marks of familiar pain, yet refuses to be only a consoling mirror-image of our suffering…. He will not be either friend or foe as we understand those words; and it is not being controllable by our wishes and fantasies that he appears akin to God, a true son of the Father who is both unimaginably close and unimaginably strange.
At the heart of this strange familiarity is the resurrected Jesus who shows us “a place where the meaning of ‘God’ and the meaning of ‘humanity’ overlapped.” This confluence may be unsettling because, as Williams reminds us, seeing “the exalted Jesus, the Jesus who belongs with God, is disturbingly like meeting any human being – disturbingly, because the shift of perspective which recognition and confession involve is that much more dramatic.” Categories are blurred, or more accurately, what we have imagined to be divinization is actually the making-holy of ordinary life.
And so it is that there is a holiness, and eternality to our day-to-day. Without this recognition how strange it is that Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years on this earth doing no miracles, healing no sick, toppling no government, and gathering no followers. For three decades he was a worker, a friend, a brother, and a son. The resounding absence of the miraculous in the Gospels over the course of these many years tells us that central to God’s plan of salvation was cultivating a life very much like our own.
I am reminded of this whenever we eat around the communion table. At the church where I worship with my family we share a ritual Lord’s Supper several times a year, but occasionally the Eucharist is followed by a potluck. I have always appreciated how the two meals blend into one. There we are gathered – a prison inmate out on a day pass, college students helping mothers’ juggling plates and babies, children patiently waiting as an older member moves through the line with his cane. Just for now there is enough of everything.
Like the original Passover meal Jesus shared with the disciples our Communion is just that, a meal made by human hands. Yet, something as necessary as eating, something we do day after day to keep us alive also makes us one in Christ’s body. In taking the bread and the wine, as much as the corn casserole and the buttered rolls I reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins insight on work: “To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should.”
These things begin in the pattern of Jesus who we celebrate each Christmastide. This is the God who is with us and for us, the one who made the tent of his body here among us. In him we once again come up against the profound mystery of our faith – that God entered into life, every day life, and told us it is holy. Though these bodies fray and wither, we are even now, here in ordinary time, about the eternal work of making home in the body.
 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapidss: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
 Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapidss: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), chs 32-33.
 Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1982), 84.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 91.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins. Address based on the opening of “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola” (1963), p. 144.