The most common image of Jesus depicts Him on a cross. Some portray Him as He was in death, hanging lifeless; others, more iconic, portray Him on the cross, yet risen, eyes open and arms outstretched, inviting all to come to Him. Together these images attempt to capture the two-fold truth that Christ died and is risen. Both affirmations have always been at the heart of the Christian creed.
If, as St. Paul proclaims, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), then we can understand something of what is in store for us by attending closely to what Christ has revealed in His death and resurrection. One thing that should be clear right away is that the Christian promise of eternal life is not the same as the transhumanist goal of immortality. It is not a promise that Christians will never die.
In John’s Gospel, soon after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, he says to them: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” (John 14:2-4)
From this statement alone, we might imagine that Jesus is saying that He is going to a place and will later show the apostle how to get to that place. Thomas, suffering this misunderstanding, says: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) But Thomas has missed Christ’s subtle play on words. Jesus is “the way.” So when he says, “And you know the way,” he means “You know me, and I am the way.” Indeed this is precisely what he says to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
Toward the end of Mark Twain’s comic tale “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” Adam, who had at first been resistant to Eve, this new creature invading his space, laments at Eve’s grave, having realized, “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.” Twain’s “Diary” is a comic love story, not complex theology, but it raises an important question: Is paradise a place, or a person? As Christians, are we also not called upon to recognize that Paradise is not merely a place; it is union with a Person (or Persons) – Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit to “spread charity abroad in our heart” and bring us into union with the Father?
At the Last Supper, Christ tells His disciples that He must go away, but He will send the Holy Spirit to help and guide them after He has gone. And He does “go away” – eventually. But after His death on the cross, He makes a stop on His way back to His Father (so to speak) to spend some extra time with the disciples.
Why? Hasn’t He told them everything they need to know? Hasn’t He shown them “the Way”? They have the evidence of the empty tomb of His resurrection from the dead.
Perhaps one or two resurrection appearances are needed to convince the apostles that He still lives. But He stays with them for a full forty days and comes to them multiple times. Why?
If, as St. Paul claims, Christ is the “first fruits” of what the faithful departed will enjoy in the general resurrection, what do His resurrection appearances reveal to us about our resurrected life?
Two things, I suggest.
First, His death has not, as it might have seemed, cut Him off from the Father; rather He shares fully in the Father’s glory, which is revealed more fully now that He has risen from the dead. But, second, the person before them is still the Jesus they knew and loved. We sometimes say that Christ’s presence among the Eleven in the upper room was a glorified presence, but this does not mean He was any less present to them than He was during life. They were still able to sit, talk, and eat with Him.
What is promised to us, then, by the risen Christ, who is the “first fruits” of what we too will enjoy, is that we can, after death, be united fully with God and share in the eternal communion of love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet, in this union with the Triune God, we will not be lost like the drop of water in the ocean.
What many people fear in death, whether their own or others’, is the loss of connection with their loved ones. If we think of going to heaven as though it were like going to Cleveland (only better), then we are sad that they or we are “going away,” even if we hope it is a “better place.” But if heaven is union with the Father in Christ through the Spirit, and if Christ lives and is in each of us, then we too remain connected with our loved ones – even more intimately and fully – in Christ’s Body and the communion of saints.
One of the great tragedies, when people lose faith in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, is that they soon lose their hope in the communion of saints – that even in death we remain present to loved ones and they to us. If Christ isn’t risen and present to us, then neither are any of our beloved dead. And that’s just too sad to contemplate.
So rejoice in the Good News. Christ is risen, love is not defeated, the gates of death have been broken open, and the saints stream toward us rejoicing.
*Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1621 [National Gallery, London]