Leonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision
Editorial Note: This post was first delivered as a homily for Vespers on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. We are grateful for the author’s permission to repost it here.
This I declare, brothers [and sisters]:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,
nor does corruption inherit incorruption.
Behold, I tell you a mystery.
We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound,
the dead will be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
For that which is corruptible
must clothe itself with incorruptibility,
and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.
And when this which is corruptible
clothes itself with incorruptibility
and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:50–57)
At first blush, it seems that those who would be suspicious of the body—of bodiliness— have found a friend in Saint Paul. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, and so the gift of salvation, it seems, must happen without these human bodies, outside the body, ‘after’ the body.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons knew this argument well. He knew that many declared the body insignificant and claimed St. Paul as their authority. So Irenaeus sought to read Paul more patiently than his adversaries and pinned their distrust of the body on a failure to see. What they fail to see is that, far from disappearing, the body appears in glory.
“Vain are those who allege that [Christ] appeared in mere seeming” (Against the Heresies, Bk. V, Ch. 1), declares St. Irenaeus, for what appears on Easter morning is the definitive revelation of what the Word of God assumed. Did he appear in soul only, as pure spirit? No. He appears bodily, in glory; not in mere seeming, but with lance and nail marks, clinging to the flesh he assumed.
“Behold the Crucified One, Now Risen in Glory.” Behold the last thing those suspicious of the body would want to find:
the human body, in glory.
But what dies? Irenaeus asks.
The whole man.
And what decomposes?
And herein lies the great mystery to which Paul testifies, that “that which is corruptible is raised incorruptible.” It is a point of incomparable importance—not just for Paul or Irenaeus, but for us, today, and for our beloved dead.
“For what is more ignoble than dead flesh?” Irenaeus asks, “Or, on the other hand, what is more glorious than the same when it arises and partakes of incorruption?” (Against the Heresies, Bk. V, Ch. 7). In an instant, in the blink of an eye, that which is most ignoble: dead flesh, becomes the most glorious of things: the same flesh, incorruptible.
Why is this of incomparable importance? Well, first we must ask, “What is my body?” To put this all rather briefly, your body is your contact with the world. It is the space of interaction, of relationship. It is with this body that you feel pain, that you know joy, that you are delighted and disappointed and wounded and healed. This is the body that your mother held, that friends have embraced; through this body you have learned all the things you know. It’s this body that you and others have cared for; this body that you and others have mistreated. What is your body but your history, the symbol of your history, the memory of your history, your very presence in and participation in the world with others?
And so what happens when your body dies?
All of that dies with it?
We resist this thought, and for good reason. Surely, all of that can’t die. Even when I am not here, what about those who will remember me? All of that will live with them, and some mark I have made upon the world will endure. We resist this thought, and for good reason, because we remember those we have loved, those who have loved us. They live on in our memories of them, in the impressions they have made upon our bodies, our histories, our hearts and minds.
But if they live on by the power of our memories, then they themselves become subject to our memories’ endurance. And we know our memories fail.
Angel of Death (tomb of Pope Alexander VII, St. Peter’s Basilica)
We struggle to sustain them, but eventually our memories, too, which we want to keep alive and active shall become inert in our own deaths, so that even those great figures of history, whom everyone knows and remembers, will disappear into obscurity when no one remembers them. Our memories fail and our bodies decompose.
What greater ignobility than this? So says Irenaeus. Death, in this sense, is absolutely humiliating. All that energy we expend, the drama and tragedies of our lives, our cares and our loves and our fears and our sufferings, become meaningless in the dead flesh.
Alas, the body is unstable, corruptible, or, in a word, insignificant.
So why is nothing more glorious than the risen body?
Because. . . God returns significance to the body. God re-members: He preserves all that we would lose and he puts back together all that is pulled apart. God gives us a power of memory that does not depend on our own power: the God who remembers gives us a share in the unfathomable power of one who meets the meaninglessness of dead flesh and rescues meaning.
How do we know? Because Jesus was raised bodily. His body is the promise that we, too, can be raised bodily; His body is the sacrament that this life, now, has permanent significance, because God remembers the body. . . all of it and all it means.
Oh, that sting of death, it’s the looming threat of meaninglessness. That victory of death is significance swallowed up. But where is that sting, where is that victory, if God remembers the body? If God’s “knowing us” is not limited by death, then what have we to fear?
So we find ourselves both haunted and comforted by this restlessness of memory, to believe we shall be remembered, even as we know our own powerlessness. In the one who appears—Christ Crucified, Christ Risen—we discover what we always wanted and never expected: from our powerlessness we are raised in glory.
It is this mystery we contemplate this month above all; we practice remembering our dead, in faith; we entrust ourselves to their prayers, in hope; and we dare to imagine our communion with them, in Christ, in love.