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Two of the fingers on his right hand
had been broken
so when he poured back into that hand it surprised
him—it hurt him at first.
And the whole body was too small. Imagine
the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill.
He came into it two ways:
From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants.
And from the center—suddenly all at once.
Then he felt himself awake in the dark alone.
Marie Howe, “Easter,” in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 24.
I love Marie Howe’s imaginative account of Jesus’ resurrection. Specifically, I love the way it pulls us down from the clouds of theological abstraction and confronts us with concretes.
I’m a systematic theologian, but one who relies on the unsystematic and imaginative testimony that only art offers. I don’t mean this only in the sense that there are things that theology can’t do—although that is true. I mean that artistic investigation itself clarifies and illuminates the provisional and imprecise nature of all speech about God.
Howe’s poem invites us to wonder, Was God the Son poured back into Jesus’ body like a second incarnation? And what was it like for Christ to wake up again in his formerly broken body, with, perhaps, still fractured fingers and a gash in his side? Did his body heal up in that instant—save for his scars, of course? When you consider the resurrection concretely, the questions can go on and on. In a similar vein, in the Christian Century, my friend Melissa Florer-Bixler asks us to consider our Savior’s resurrected gut biome.
These are the kinds of inquiries that have embarrassed and unsettled theologians of a certain ilk from the rise of higher criticism to the present day. But I find something wonderfully provocative about the way these investigations simultaneously resist our conceptual efforts and hold our confessional feet to the fire. Do questions like these make nonsense of the Christian confession? Or do they rather crack open the small linguistic world that we’ve constructed for ourselves, reminding us of the strange and ungovernable nature of God? My money’s on the latter claim.
What, after all, do we mean when we say “resurrection”?
Each semester I ask my intro theology students to close their eyes and visualize Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, moment by moment. It’s an exercise in imagination, because although we have accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to his followers, we don’t have any of the resurrection itself. What happened in the tomb?
“A dead man was brought to life again,” is the response. “Oh,” I say, “you mean like Lazarus, who would die again? Is resurrection synonymous with resuscitation?”
Assuming there was light enough to see in the tomb, what would you have seen? Would your senses have been overwhelmed by a flash of light and Jesus’ glowing flesh suddenly standing over you? And what would have convinced you that you weren’t hallucinating?
Or do you imagine something more gradual? Jesus’ chest rising again as his lungs filled up with air, the color gradually returning to his cheeks, his small finger beginning to twitch like a patient coming out of a coma?
Could you have come away from this experience with the thought that Jesus was another Lazarus or, even more ordinary, a medical mystery?—Read all about! The first man to be declared dead for three days is discovered alive. Scientists are just beginning their investigation.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes only one post-resurrection appearance to his disciples. There, it is written that when his disciples saw him, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Apparently, eyesight was not evidence enough to quell every doubt or to eliminate every ambiguity.
The biblical account of resurrection is not less than physical. There is a reason that the apostles take such pains to describe the resurrected Jesus stretching out his scarred hands to his disciples in one scene and eating a piece of fish in another. The scars, the the skin, all there.
The resurrection is not less than physical, but it is more than physical. Something one of a kind. In addition to revealing his wounds and eating, the resurrected Jesus is also found doing things that bodies don’t do, like showing up in the middle of locked rooms and concealing and then revealing his identity to those closest to him.
Finally, due to his ascension, we acknowledge that Jesus is mysteriously present among us by the Holy Spirit, despite his absence. He is risen, we proclaim, to signal that he lives yet.
Resurrection, then, is more than physical, an acclamation of faith in the victory of God on the cross and the Lordship of Christ.
Maybe at best we can say is that resurrection is a category there are no categories for.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright is usually found arguing the facts in his books and interviews. But at other moments a more imaginative Wright can be found: “All language about the future…is simply a set of signposts pointing into a fog. We see through a glass darkly, says St. Paul, as he peers toward what lies ahead,” and yet, “supposing someone came forward out of the fog to meet us? That, of course, is the central though often ignored Christian belief” (xiii-xiv).
What does it mean? Was Jesus resuscitated? Did his glorified body have the power to teleport across walls and closed doors? If we had a grasp on it, it wouldn’t be resurrection. If we knew what it was all about, it wouldn’t be God’s fundamentally new act, without comparison to anything we know. If we’d seen it before, it wouldn’t be the One, firstborn from the dead, coming forward out of the fog to meet us.
What is true of all true statements about God is true of this one: Their meaning outstrips what we mean when we say them. God is light, says Irenaeus, but God is unlike any light we know.
Jesus is alive, more alive than any life we know.
* * *
Young children have wonderful imaginations and haven’t yet been ordered to convert their faith statements into universal truths. My kids and I often speak about the day “when God makes all things new.”
“Will dinosaurs exist?” “Will we go to school?“ “What age will we be?”
Honestly, I don’t know if dinosaurs will exist, if we’ll have eternal youth, or even if we’ll live in time. But I know that Jesus will be there.
Melissa Florer-Bixler, “Jesus’ resurrected gut biome,” The Christian Century, April 11, 2023.
Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).
Irenaues, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 13, Section 4.
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2018).