UNO SGUARDO MISSIONARIO SUL MONDO E LA CHIESA Missionari Comboniani – Formazione Permanente – Comboni Missionaries – Ongoing Formation
This is part of a beautiful article and inspiring meditation titled “Risen Time: Easter as the Source of History” by Fr. Jose Granados, where he situates the paschal mystery in relation to the historical faith of Israel and in relation to the human experience of time and matter. See the integral essay in http://www.communio-icr.com/files/granados37-1.pdf.
When Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled for the first time, Pope Paul III fell to his knees in an act of reverent adoration, fearful before the figure of Christ in judgment.This impression of a Christ condemning the damned has become a widespread interpretation of the painting. It is not the only possible reading, however; Jesus’ raised hand could indeed signify a rejection of the wicked, but it may equally well be viewed as an invitation to the blessed to advance toward him. In this view, Christ in judgment is the dynamic center of the painting and sets the entire scene in motion.
This interpretation is reinforced if we consider that Michelangelo’s original intention may have been to illustrate not the final judgment but rather the resurrection of the flesh.If this is the case, what the painter intends to focus on is precisely the body of the Redeemer, together with the bodies of all the risen. The center of the picture would then be the powerful strength that radiates from Christ and causes all the figures in the painting to move around him.
In this regard, it is important to note that the body of the risen Christ is not the type we find in Greek sculpture.Michelangelo does not portray the self-contained body depicted in ancient art, a body that expresses the nobility and harmony of the soul. To the contrary, this Christian body is full of energy, it is a body that exerts a magnetic attraction over the other bodies on the Sistine wall, a body endowed with a force that springs out into the rest of the picture.
The dynamism that Christ’s risen body bestows upon the entire scene helps us to see the resurrection not only as the destination point of history, the final moment of a long series, but also as the very source of history’s dynamism. Thus, Easter brings with it a new understanding of time. Is it also a spiritual time, analogous to the spiritual body of the glorious Lord (cf. 1 Cor 15:44)? If so, how can we describe it?
In order to answer these questions we will first present the content of Christian faith in the resurrection (1) and its implications for a correct interpretation of history (2). We will then discuss how this understanding is not alien to the experience of body and time (3), an experience assumed by Christ throughout his earthly life (4). We will then be ready to consider the resurrection as the beginning of a risen, spiritual time (5).
The first confessions of faith in Jesus’ resurrection come to us directly from the liturgy of the first Christians. They attest to joy at the surprising event of Easter and its world-changing character: that very Jesus of Nazareth who preached in Galilee and was crucified under Pontius Pilate has now been raised by the Father to his right hand.
In order to interpret this unique event, the Church had an essential conceptual background at her disposal: the Old Testament scriptures. According to Jewish expectations, the resurrection was not a return to normal life, but the inauguration of the definitive stage of time and of its eschatological fulfillment, which entailed God’s final transformation of the world. Should we deduce from this vision that the resurrection entailed a reviling of history, a sort of spiritual flight into the beyond? To the contrary, this fulfillment was described in continuity with the history of Israel. The God who had made a covenant with his People and had come down to live with them in the Holy Temple, promised to rebuild this Temple with his own hands and to bestow new life on his children in order to make a permanent dwelling with them. Thus, resurrection meant the assumption of this concrete world and history into its ultimate destiny. Ezekiel’s parable of the dry bones that come back to life (Ez 37:1–14) can serve without contradiction as an image both of the People that returns to Jerusalem after the exile, and of the final resurrection of the dead.
Aided by this Jewish backdrop, the disciples formulated how the Easter event was in continuity with the history of the earthly Christ while it also brought a radical transformation. The image of the body of Christ as the new Temple, destroyed and rebuilt, is important in this regard. The sentence “one and the same,” which was to be applied later by the Church Fathers to express the unity of man and God in Christ, finds its roots in the unity between the risen Lord and the crucified Christ. “It is I myself” (Lk 24:39), says Jesus when he appears to his disciples; and he shows them his wounds in his hands and side (cf. Jn 20:20).
While the Old Testament context was necessary for the interpretation of the Easter event, Jesus’ resurrection surpassed the scope of Israel’s expectations. For while the resurrection was conceived in Jewish circles as an event that was to affect the whole of humanity once history had been concluded, in Jesus’ case the unsurpassable eschaton found fulfillment in one concrete individual and within the course of history. Although the event differed from the Old Testament assumptions, it was interpreted within the communitarian categories of Scripture: the disciples understood it not only as the private fulfillment of the individual Jesus, but as the beginning of a new era that had consequences for the whole of world history. The question, then, had to be raised: how is it possible that the definitive time of fulfillment could take place together with the continuation of history and its attendant trials and expectations?
The second essential novelty in the Easter experience, with regard to its Old Testament background, is that Jesus did not attain only a privileged place very close to God, as Israel’s martyrs were expected to enjoy in their resurrection. The exaltation and enthronement of Christ at the Father’s right hand meant that he had been granted the Name that is above every other name, that is, God’s very name (cf. Phil 2:9; Heb 1:4). How was it possible for a human being to reach this height? How could a concrete human history, lived out in the midst of uncertainty and threatened by the continuous presence of death, arrive at the end of its trajectory in the heart of the divine essence?
The Church developed its first Christology by reflecting on Jesus’ earthly path in light of his final glorious destiny. The Easter event, precisely because it extended to the core of the divine essence, could not simply be the continuation of a purely intrahistorical thread. No one could go so high if he did not come from above; no one could ascend into heaven, had he not descended from heaven (cf. Jn 3:13). Faith in the resurrection was the departure point for understanding the eternal preexistence of the Son and his eternal coming-forth from the Father, a belief that led to the confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Thus, Easter is as much a mystery of Jesus’ final destination as it is of his origin; it is as much about his going to the Father as about his coming from him. The risen Christ appears indeed to the disciples as coming from the Father with the Father’s own authority and glory.
The language used in the New Testament to speak of Easter reflects what we have said. Two schemes are used: that of Jesus being raised again to life (resurrection), and that of Jesus’ glorification at the Father’s right hand (exaltation). The first highlights Easter’s continuity with the history of Jesus; the second, its novelty. It is important to note that the emphasis is on the Father’s action, though the Son’s activity is also mentioned. In this way the resurrection is presented as a new birth and prompts the question of Jesus’ origin in the Father. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord is described as the Father’s revelation of his Son in the Apostle (Gal 1:16).
Faith in the resurrection redefines our vision both of God and man. With respect to God: it is at Easter that he is revealed unequivocally as a Father. For if, as the disciples experienced in their encounter with the risen Christ, God has space within himself to receive Jesus as his only Son, it is because his relationship with the Son was internal to God from all eternity. Otherwise, God would constitute himself as a Father somewhere in the course of history and would not be able to bring salvation to history. With respect to the human being: if human history is able to enter into such a fullness of communion with God, it must have been capable of this fulfillment from the beginning. From the final destination of time we illumine man’s origin and path as a journey toward the fullness of divine filiation. Maximus the Confessor summarized this view when he wrote: “the one who has been initiated in the ineffable and hidden force of the resurrection knows the purpose for which God created originally all things.”
We have, then, two statements about Easter that are in continuity with Jewish expectations, while also presenting a radical novelty: a) the resurrection as the eschatological fulfillment of history in the person of Jesus; and b) the resurrection as Jesus’ entrance into the very essence of God as his Son. The Christian theology of history develops from the union of these two statements. At Easter the history of the world comes into its meaning because it is included in the dynamism of love between Father and Son that constitutes God’s deepest mystery. The worldly course of events is not guided by chance or determined by an anonymous deterministic law, but can rather be explained in light of the Son’s path from the Father to the Father.
The Church Fathers expressed this claim by saying that Easter took place on the eighth day, a day which both follows upon the seventh day in the series of the week, and also extends beyond the week’s circular rhythm into eternity.Moreover, the resurrection was also joined to the first day, Sunday (day of the Sun), in which God created the world: “we all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the Universe, and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.”In this way Easter appeared as the final revelation of the origin of all things in God. At the dawn of Easter a search for the source of all things begins, a search that starts with the life of Jesus and moves backwards to the rest of time. This search implies that the Gospel’s reflections on the virgin birth, on Christ as the new Adam, and on the eternal coming of the Son from the Father are all internal to the experience of Easter. In this sense the resurrection is not just one mystery among others, but a dimension that pertains to every mystery of Jesus’ life, the light in which the entire Gospel is written and ought to be read.
We can conclude that at Easter the concrete history of the world plunges into the Son’s eternal filial relationship with the Father, into his coming from the Father and his going toward him. In this light, Easter is as much an affirmation about eternity as it is about time. For what Christians learn in this mystery is not a desire to run from history, but rather the ability to affirm its goodness fully in light of its primordial origin and final destiny in the Father’s love.
The attempt to affirm Jesus’ return to the Father and the manifestation of his divinity, but not that he took with him human flesh and human time in their concreteness and materiality, is the core of the Gnostic temptation, which takes different forms in the history of the Church. This temptation is related to various contemporary attempts to reduce the resurrection to a mystical experience, as if it happened only within man’s interiority. In this vein, it has been said that the empty tomb is not necessary for belief in the resurrection;or that the experience of the disciples is just a light that allows them to reinterpret their memories of Jesus.
As we have seen, the continuity with the Old Testament background excludes the possibility of such an explanation: since the Bible tells the story of God’s coming to man’s flesh and history, its fulfillment too must be related to corporeality and time.Moreover, this connection with our concrete space and time is of extreme importance for understanding Easter’s significance for contemporary culture, for the problem Christianity faces in postmodernity has to do precisely with the possibility of God’s manifestation in bodiliness and history. To isolate Christian faith from these realms in order to make it acceptable only condemns it to irrelevance. As Romano Guardini has noted, if God is not the God who acts in our body and time, then he is not real enough; he is not present in a significant way in man’s life and can be reduced to a beautiful or a consolatory theory.C. S. Lewis expresses a similar point in The Great Divorce, where risen bodies are described as heavier, more solid, than earthly ones.Accordingly, solidity ought to be added to the traditional properties of the glorious body, such as clarity and agility.
Robert Spaemann, in an article devoted to the existence of God, has recently insisted on this point.What does it mean, he asks, to believe in God? The answer lies in the connection between two fundamental aspects of human experience. Human action is pursued, on the one hand, with the implicit assumption that meaning exists and can be found; that there is goodness in the world and that we can live according to it. On the other hand, the human being is continually faced with the irrefutable facticity of things: the laws of nature that rule at every moment do not depend on us anddo not necessarily contribute to the construction of a meaningful life. These two realms seem to coincide only by chance, for man perceives that the events of the world proceed according to their own necessity and independent of his intentions.
Spaemann argues that faith in God means to believe in the coincidence of these two realms, which he relates to two divine attributes: goodness and power. Everyone knows that in the world there are areas of meaning and goodness; everyone knows that in the world there are effective forces beyond our will that influence the course of events. Only the believer knows that these two elements are not extrinsic to each other but are rather one in God’s providence. In other words, the believer accepts that God is good and that his goodness is powerful enough to determine the course of events. In this regard Spaemann complains that many a preacher talks only about a loving God but does not mention faith in God’s omnipotence. A confession of God’s love that would then deny his capacity to act in the world would ultimately confess a love that is full of good intentions but not real enough and, therefore, not good enough. On the other hand, a powerful God without goodness would not be powerful enough, for this power would be conceived always as in opposition to other forces of reality, and thus limited by them.
In this light we can turn to Christian faith in the resurrection, with its insistence on the connection between the earthly life of Christ and his exaltation at Easter. Easter tells us that the concrete course of history finds its fulfillment when it is located in the current of love that unites the Father with his Son. The facticity of things, with its apparent lack of meaning, is explained as a path that leads from the Father’s love to his final embrace. Because the resurrection is God’s final word on Jesus’ concrete life and death, we know that his love is powerful enough to act in the world; because the life and death of Jesus are included in the resurrection and not canceled by it, we know that this power is the power of love, which reigns in the world through the self-offering of the Father’s Son. The resurrection is the exact point in which we find the confluence of both affirmations: God is good; God is omnipotent.
Once we accept that the resurrection brings forth the final reconciliation of history, then we can measure the extraordinary power it requires of God. For Easter is not just a happy ending, a way to escape time and leave behind all the accumulated traces of evil through the centuries, a new beginning that would forget what had gone before. In order to achieve its real goal, the resurrection has to be powerful enough to bestow meaning on the whole of history from beginning to end. For this purpose, a simple reinterpretation of the events does not suffice, since this would take too lightly the non-coincidence of fact and meaning in our experience. In other words, it does not suffice to reveal to us how things have gone according to a wise plan, even if we could not see it at the time. The keys held by the risen Lord, the keys of death and of the netherworld according to Rev 1:18, must not only disclose the meaning of every single event of the world’s history (showing what was hidden) but must also transform it, purifying it from evil and allowing it to be fulfilled and assumed into eternity. It is in this regard that Benedict XVI cites the German thinker Theodor W. Adorno in Spe salvi: “[Adorno] asserted that justice—true justice—would require a world ‘where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.’ This would mean, however … that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead.”When formulated this way, the resurrection appears as the most powerful act of God (cf. Phil 3:10). “The One who raised Jesus from the dead” (cf. Rom 4:24; 8:11) becomes God’s honorific title par excellence.
How can we explain this confluence of the power and goodness of God that are proper to the resurrection? How is it possible for the concrete time of the world to be infused with fullness of meaning? To understand the resurrection as the arrival point of history allows us to see in turn the path that leads from the human experience of time toward Easter. If history is able to bear the fullness of the divine presence, if it is able to enter into a total relationship with the divine, this is because it was ready for this transformation from the beginning. We will now trace the path that leads from our experience of time to its fulfillment in Jesus.
As we have already pointed out, there have been various attempts to conceive of the resurrection as taking place only in the interiority of the believer and manifested externally by its effects in the believer’s words and works. When Rudolf Bultmann accepted Barth’s characterization of his position that “Jesus is risen in the kerygma,” he wanted to insist on the novelty and power of the disciples’ preaching as an expression of their existential encounter with the living Jesus.On the other hand, he rejected as mythological any talk of the corporeality of the resurrection: in his view it conflicted with the affirmations of science, thus jeopardizing the possibility of faith for modern consciousness. In this way Bultmann was able to secure a “safe area” for faith that was unaffected by the intromissions of science.
The cost of this operation, however, was extremely high, for an enormous region of being—that of the material universe—was excluded from the transformative power of the Gospel. The Christian experience, which in this view could speak only to the isolated consciousness of man, lost its relevance for shaping community and society. Contrary to what Bultmann thought, Christianity’s contribution to our culture does not need to accept the great rift that divides our modern world, but consists rather in healing it. The resurrection of the flesh is precisely a witness that this healing is possible.
One difficulty in understanding the Easter event is that, influenced as we are by Cartesian dualism, we conceive of matter and time as devoid of meaning. In this understanding, man’s relationship with the divine is viewed as taking place apart from his corporeal presence in the world. This, however, does not correspond with the biblical view of the human person. It is precisely his concrete situation on the earth from which he is formed, his place in the concrete events of history, that allows the human being to relate to God.
There are elements in contemporary philosophical reflection on the body that, in harmony with the biblical vision of man, offer a way out from the dualism that characterizes a Cartesian perspective. While Descartes considered the body as a secondary component of man with regard to the soul’s original cogito, today we see attempts to develop a vision of the body as a constitutive dimension of the person’s core identity.In this vision, bodiliness is the space of man’s openness toward reality. It is only through his body that man is able to participate in the external world and to manifest himself in it. Because of his embodiment, man is not an autonomous and isolated self, but rather a being who is constitutively open to relationship. Moreover, by encountering in his body the otherness of the world, human life opens up to new encounters on a journey toward ever greater horizons, toward transcendence.
Primary among the encounters that man undergoes through his corporeality is the experience of personal love, which, by revealing the inexhaustible greatness of the other person, opens up the transcendence of man’s path in a definitive way. The different ways man participates in the world through his corporeality do not find their fulfillment in themselves, but always point beyond, into the horizon of personal love. Eating, for example, does not consist only in the assimilation of food, but points toward the possibility of sharing a common world with others, as expressed symbolically in the fraternal meal. In the same way, sexual desire does not stop at the physical or affective union between man and woman, but calls out to be integrated into a communion of love that accepts the other person in his or her fullness. The body, which enables man to relate to the world, appears here as the place where the mystery of the other enters into man’s life, calling him to go beyond himself.
It is precisely here, in this personal encounter made possible by man’s embodiment, that God’s mystery and transcendence appears in human life. If God were to show himself to the Cartesian luminous consciousness, he would always run the risk of being enclosed within man’s gaze. God would then become an idol, an object placed “in front of man,” and not the all-embracing mystery that sustains man’s existence. To the contrary, man’s corporeality (an ensouled corporeality, to be sure), by linking man’s interiority with the external world, offers a space in which God can show himself as both immanent and transcendent, interior to his creature without any diminishment of his majesty. In the Bible, this space is represented by man’s heart, the place where his life opens up for the divine Spirit to descend.
Man’s embodied condition, because it allows him to encounter the otherness of the world in the horizon of God’s transcendence, opens up life as a journey in time. Embodied life is always temporal life. It is to the consideration of this temporality, which is intimately linked with bodiliness, that we now turn.
The human person lives in time and finds his identity in time. In order to pronounce who he is, he needs to tell his own story, from the immemorial past to the unforeseeable future, and only through the mediation of this narrative can he express his own mystery. What this means is that the human person not only “has” time, but “is” his own time.
From this viewpoint, man’s being in time seems to be a painful fragility and dispersion. Because it is in time, man’s life is dispersed in the rapid and unceasing flow of past, present, and future. By recognizing that past and future are part of his identity, man acknowledges regions of his being that are not under his direct control and do not fall under the luminous light of consciousness. As the poet says: “Time past and time future, / Allow but a little consciousness. / To be conscious is not to be in time.” (T. S. Eliot)
On the other hand, it is precisely time’s openness to otherness that gives time an ecstatic character, a way of prompting man to come out of himself and to find his identity in communication with the world and others. It is indeed impossible for the isolated consciousness to arrive at a meaning for its being in time. The enigma of each person’s temporality, because of its dispersion into the past and future and the resulting evanescence of the present, can only be illuminated from a point outside the limits of the individual’s own borders. Temporal man requires personal mediation in order to configure a meaningful relation to his past, present, and future. What does this mean? We will briefly show three dimensions of the connection between time and the interpersonal encounter, dimensions we will develop later.
a) Our being in time elicits, first of all, the need to understand our origin. Man’s having a past reminds him that he is always dealing with things he has received and that he cannot change at will. This could cause him to interpret his own life as governed by blind fate, or to see his existence as a “being thrown into the world.” The question “where do I come from?” receives an initial answer only when the child discovers that he is the fruit of the love of his parents. In this light of filiation the human being understands that the givenness in his life is not the product of arbitrariness or luck, but is rather a personal gift that, if received with gratitude, enables him to act in freedom.
b) Man’s existence in time also forces him to face the question of the continuity of his own life. How is coherence possible in the face of time’s constant dispersion? Is there a thread that allows him to find meaning in the succession of past, present, and future? As we will develop later, it is the experience of receiving and giving a promise—which is only possible within the encounter of love—that assures man that this continuity is possible. The promise, by assuring me of the presence of the other and enabling me to be present to him in faithfulness, expands the narrowness of the instant and enables a meaningful narrative of my life.
c) Finally, to be in time means to face the question of one’s destiny. What is the future, this time of uncertainty that lies before us? Can it be fully deduced from the past, as, for example, in the experience of an unrelieved boredom? Does the future’s total openness harbor a continuous threat, the dissolution of our being into something utterly different? It is, again, the encounter of interpersonal love—now in its dimension of fruitfulness—that allows man to gauge his relationship to the future. The promise of love does not only ensure continuity, but it also announces an excess of being, a growth beyond oneself in the “we” of the union with the beloved. Through this encounter the future appears in a different light: one’s life has an inexhaustible novelty and the ability to expand beyond one’s own projects and plans. This experience is confirmed in the birth of a child, who is the fruit of the love of the spouses, and who inaugurates for the parents a new time, a time of creativity, in which their life extends beyond themselves.
At this point our reflections on time converge with what we said earlier regarding the body. If the body is the space of man’s openness toward the world, others, and God, and the space in which man learns that relationship constitutes his own identity, then time is the openness of our life to others, the space that enables a covenant with them that reaches to the core of who we are. (…)
We can return now to Michelangelo’s painting. His vision of the body, we said, goes beyond the Greek harmony of a selfcontained corporeal presence. What we have here is a body that comes out of itself, a body capable of expansion and communication beyond its borders because it is filled with divine strength. It is from the dynamism of Jesus’ body, as Michelangelo painted it in the Sistine Chapel, that the whole of history is set in motion.
Jesus’ risen body is the source of a risen time, a spiritual time fulfilled by the Spirit’s presence. This risen time is not alien to earthly time: its structure preserves an analogy to the human experience of past, present, and future, understood in light of an interpersonal encounter. The past is one with our coming from God and witnesses that the Father is Origin and Fountainhead. The present is the present of fidelity, of the keeping of the promise, first received from God and then uttered by us. The future is transfigured into the fecundity of love, the continuous excess of our encounter with the divine.
Since our time became at Easter a time fully shared in God with others, Jesus’ time can be donated to us, it can communicate to us its rhythm. Moreover, it is capable of expanding toward the past and future to embrace the whole of history. History, from beginning to end, has been inserted into the dynamism of filiation, promise, and fruitfulness that is proper to eternity. At the end of time, history will be fully conjoined to the embrace of love of Father and Son in the Spirit. And what Michelangelo requests in one of his poems will come to pass: “make my whole body an eye, so that there is no part of me that does not enjoy you.”
JOSÉ GRANADOS, DCJM, is assistant professor of patrology and philosophy of the body at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.