The Risen Christ and the Language of God
(Revised and expanded)
by Fr Alvin Kimel
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.”
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
“Take and eat; this is my body.”
“And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
We know that body is mysteriously at the heart of the gift of salvation. We confess that God the Son took to himself a human body in the Incarnation. We confess that God the Son offered his body in sufferings and death for the sins of the world. We confess that God the Son rose from the dead in a new and glorified body and in this body ascended to the right hand of the Father. And we confess that we share in the salvation and future of God the Son through the communication of his body. But what is body?
Fr Herbert McCabe reflects on the meaning of body—the body of the historical Christ, the body of the risen Christ, the body of the eucharistic Christ—in several of his essays. I cannot pretend that I have yet really grasped his reflections on the body; but I find his thoughts suggestive and stimulating.
Imagine St Peter in Galilee one day pointing to Jesus in the days before his death and saying, “This is the body of Jesus.” While he might mean many things in saying this, one thing he undoubtedly would mean is “This is the way Jesus is present to us.” The body of Jesus is his mode of presence and communication. To touch the body of Jesus is to touch Jesus himself and enter into communion with him. “If I touch even his garments,” the hemorrhaging woman thought to herself, “I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). She yearned to touch our Lord’s body, his clothes being an extension of his bodily presence. Families and friends know the importance of bodily communication. Children need the presence and care of their parents. Parents miss their children when they grow up and move away. Families are renewed when they gather for holidays. Lovers especially know the necessity of physical intimacy. To be separated from one’s lover, from her bodily presence and touch, is agony. Letters, email, telephone conversations—all are insufficient. We must be with the body of the other. Body is the human mode of presence.
It is a characteristic of our historical finitude that our bodies are also modes of absence. If I am presently living in New Jersey, then I cannot be present in Maryland. My bodily communion with others is necessarily limited to those who can come within a certain distance to my body. To overcome these limitations, we thus seek in various ways to extend our bodiliness into the world. We create media of communication—writing, telephones, pens and pencils, fax machines, text-messaging, Christmas gifts, clothes, crafts, paintings and sculpture. But all such media are extensions of the human body; their source is the body itself. The body is not in this sense a means of communication, says McCabe, “because we have to have a body to use such means” (God Matters, p. 121). Human communication is essentially bodily communication. Through our bodies we take our place in the business of life and share with others a common world.
We tend to think of bodies in impersonal terms. Bodies are objects that interact and collide with other objects. Our bodies thus become that objective, impersonal, material part of ourselves, with our true selves located in our souls or spirits. McCabe believes this is the wrong way to think of bodies. Consider a telephone. It sits on a desk. We can see it. We can move it around. It is simply an object. But then it rings. We pick it up and begin a conversation with someone. At this point the telephone disappears as object. It has become a medium of communication, and our attention is now focused on that person at the other end of the line. But with human bodies, McCabe suggests, the reverse is the case:
A telephone is most of the time a thing, an object before you, but just sometimes it becomes a medium of communication with the rest of the world. Your body, on the contrary, is normally experienced as a medium of communication and is just occasionally treated as an object, a part of the world. The ordinary way in which you are conscious of being bodily, conscious of “having a body,” is being conscious of it as your way of being present to the world. Your body is first of all a means of communication. Telephones and books and satellites are only media of communication in so far as they are used by human bodies. Nothing uses the body, except in the sense that we may speak of one part of it being used by the whole—“He used his left hand to twist the knob.” It is because the body is the source of communication that we say it is alive, that it has a soul. The body that communicates by conventional signs, by symbols it has not just inherited but created, by language, is humanly alive, it has a human soul. (p. 111)
Death typically brings the destruction of body and therefore the conclusion of personal communication. Yet not so with Jesus. By his resurrection the bodiliness of Jesus became more intense, more powerful, more available. “The risen Christ,” states McCabe, “has lost many of the characteristics we think of as bodily but in fact is more bodily than ever” (p. 125). Standing on this side of the kingdom, we cannot comprehend this new form of our Lord’s bodiliness, yet we can see that our Lord’s resurrection has made him available not to just a few in Palestine but to all humanity in all places.
Christians have read the stories of the resurrection appearances of Christ for clues as to the nature of glorified bodies, but McCabe cautions we need to be careful, for it is all too easy to reduce the eschatological bodiliness of Christ to the terms of the pre-resurrection world:
I think that in these appearances Christ was more bodily than he allowed himself to appear. In himself he was the risen man, his body was that of the future to which we are summoned, the future beyond the ultimate revolution, but in order to show himself to his followers he appeared more or less as a body of our own time, a body of this world—it is true that he passed through closed doors and appeared and disappeared and so on, but generally speaking he wished to emphasize that he was a body and not a ghost. “‘See my hands and feet that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a ghost has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them: ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.” The emphasis in this as in the other stories of post-resurrection appearances is on the bodily reality of the risen Christ, but we are not to suppose that his bodiliness is restricted to the bodiliness of this era.
For our present purposes the interest of this point is that in these appearances Jesus presents an intersection of future and present. He is the future world, the body in whom our bodies are to find unity and final humanity, the medium of communication in which mankind is ultimately to realise itself, he is the future world but he appears as a body of the present world. … Although in fact he has surpassed the present and belongs not to this world but to the world of the future, he is presenting himself amongst men of this world and he can only be recognised by them in terms of a part of his biography that he has surpassed. (pp. 125-126)
The Holy Eucharist also enjoys this conjunction of future and present. The risen Christ manifests and communicates himself within the conditions of the old world. In the Supper the language of meal becomes the language of the kingdom. Food and drink are fundamental to human society. By eating together human beings, perhaps indeed all animals, share a common world. This is not accidental to our humanity but is rooted in our bodies. “Food is a medium in which we communicate, come together,” McCabe elaborates. “It is for this reason that Christ can say that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven; since he is the medium in which we finally meet each other, in which we are finally able to communicate ourselves to each other, he is more intensely food than meat and drink can be. We may say that all eating and drinking is an attempt to reach towards the communication we will only finally find in Christ” (p. 127). Christ has a better right to be our food and drink than bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as interpreted by McCabe, declares that the eucharistic bread and wine have not become something “else”; they have become food and drink in the most radical way conceivable. Perhaps we might even say that they are fulfilled in Christ. As McCabe likes to enigmatically phrase the matter, “our language has become his body” (p. 117).
In the Eucharist, then, we have an intersection of future and present, we have what is ostensibly language of the present, of this world, of this body, but which in fact is language of the future, of the world to come, of the risen body. This does not involve any disguise or deceit for what the bread and wine have become is not something different from food and drink, they have become food and drink in a deeper sense than we can imagine. We cannot say that the body of Christ is disguised as bread and wine any more than we can say that the risen Christ was disguised as a man of six feet high who ate broiled fish. (p. 127)
Our language has become the body of Christ. Christ appears to us, not in his transfigured reality—this side of resurrection, the kingdom cannot be seen within the world as part of the world—but in sign and symbol. Our Lord’s bodily presence amongst us, therefore, is precisely sacramental. As Jesus was the eternal Word in the flesh of this world, so the sacraments are the language of the future in the language of this world. McCabe even coins a word for this—translinguification. I am reminded at this point of the provocative statement of Abbot Vonier: “If the priest at the altar brought down Christ from heaven in His natural state as a full-grown man, this would not be a sacrament at all, for the event would lack the very essence of the sacrament, representative signification” (A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, p. 21). Sacraments work by signifying. In the words of E. L. Mascall: “Sacramental signs do not make present the realities which they signify by spatially enclosing them, in the way in which a gas-cylinder may contain hydrogen, or by being instruments by which they are manufactured, as a sausage machine produces sausages, or by being channels through which they are communicated, as a water-pipe delivers water, but by being divinely-ordained efficacious signs of them” (Corpus Christi, p. 220). Here, suggests McCabe, is the real reason why the risen Christ may be present in many Eucharists celebrated simultaneously around the world: in the Mass his body is present to us in the mode of language, “as meaning is present to a word” (p. 118).
As the Apostle Peter might have pointed to the Galilean Jew and declared, “This is the body of Christ,” so we today may point at the eucharistic bread and cup and make the same declaration. But who is closer to Christ, Peter touching the corporeal body of Jesus before his crucifixion or we ourselves when we take the sacramental body of Christ into our mouths? McCabe offers this answer:
In one way Peter is in closer contact, he actually touches the body of Jesus, they can share a common bodily life—a better example, of course, would be Mary who actually gave birth to Jesus, whose body gave life to his—on the other hand when they were in contact with his body it was not risen and was thus a less total communication of Jesus than is the risen body with whom we make a sacramental contact in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mere foretaste of the world to come when we shall have it both ways, we shall be present to the risen body of Christ as intimately as Mary was present to Jesus in his birth. (p. 118)
During his historical life, Jesus gathered to himself a community of disciples and friends, to which he was so present that they felt utterly loved and forgiven, thus becoming themselves capable of loving and forgiving others. But this bodily presence of Jesus was restricted to the few, to those who were privileged to hear his words and share his fellowship. But after Easter Christ becomes capable of reaching out to all of humanity. Liberated from the bonds of mortality and the limitations of historical existence, the glorified Jesus is more bodily now than when he walked the roads of Galilee and ate and drank with his disciples. He is alive and present, present in his body, present in the life and communion of the Church. Yet this presence remains hidden, sacramental, known and experienced only by faith. The risen Jesus is no longer physically and locally present as he was during his historical life. He manifests himself to us not in glory, not in his accidents, but in the mode of human language. We experience both presence and absence. “Christ is present but ambiguously present,” McCabe remarks; “what we see, the presence we experience, is the presence of each other” (p. 112). Our hearts thus cry out for that perfect realization of bodily communion that two lovers know in the embrace of ecstasy. But one day our future in Christ will be gloriously achieved and we will speak fluently the language of the kingdom. The Church will be gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. There will be no sacraments, no rituals, no faith, “only the immediate presence of our risen bodies to the risen body of Christ. Then it will no longer be a question of media of communication which are separate from ourselves (although extensions of our bodies) becoming the body of Christ, but we ourselves will be taken up into the body of Christ which is the incarnate word of the Father” (p. 129).
Come, Lord Jesus, come!