This is an excerpt from a homily given Easter Thursday.
Easter lingers in our liturgy and in the selection of readings and prayers as we continue to celebrate the triumphant and redemptive rising of Jesus from the dead during this Easter season.
St. Luke tells how the two disciples of Emmaus, after recognizing the Lord “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24: 35), returned to Jerusalem full of joy to tell the others of their experience.
In the midst of their excitement, suddenly, without warning, Jesus appeared. “They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Lk 24:37). But Jesus was kind to them. He said ghosts do not have flesh and bones. Touch me and know I am real. Then he showed them his hands and feet, with the wounds of the cross now overlaid by God’s healing love: “See that it is I myself” (Lk 24:39).
Then he makes a surprising move. He says he is hungry. How much more un-ghostly could you get? And then he helped himself to the baked fish they brought him, just as he had done so often in their life together.
Meals were special moments in Jesus’ public ministry – where they symbolized reconciliation with sinners and his promise of bounty. Think of the Last Supper, that meal whose table is always set and whose food does not die or give out. Jesus was gently instructing his friends, his disciples, that the Eucharist is the place where he was forever to be “reached” or encountered.
Now, in the light of the resurrection, he explains how he has truly fulfilled the aspirations of Israel, even though he has fulfilled them in a way that the people could never have imagined. Now, through the very simple human acts of breaking bread and eating fish, he opens their inner eyes, enabling them to see who he really is.
In this and in other accounts, such as the narrative of “doubting Thomas,” we can discern a repeated invitation to overcome our lack of faith and believe in Christ’s bodily Resurrection – the central and fundamental truth that binds Christians together. To deny it or attempt to transform it into a purely spiritual event is to thwart our very faith. St. Paul clearly affirms the stakes involved: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15: 14).
Despite the efforts of countless commentators and interpreters over the centuries to reduce these narratives of Jesus’ appearances to something neither quite so strange nor nearly so wonderful, one fact remains: those who had experienced Jesus’ dying now experienced his risen presence.
Jesus’ Resurrection is real, not just “in the eye of the beholder,” but something that changed him, not just those who came to believe in him. This was no ghost, no hallucination. His was, quite insistently, an embodied presence.
This Risen One is a Jesus of sight and sound, of love, tenderness and friendship. He ate, allowed himself to be touched and even let his wounds be examined. Yet, while recognizable, he transcended the conditions of known materiality. He would appear out of nowhere, pass through walls and closed doors, walk on water, and reveal wounds startlingly different from the open sores of his earthly trauma.
We, too, await the resurrection of the body, our bodies. Personal immortality would be incomplete if our bodies were not somehow part of the picture. The Gospel assures us that we, like Jesus, will one day have a new bodied existence, truly related to our bodies in this world, but freed from their present constraints. As Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it, our faith in the Resurrection is “our chance to break out of the cosmic prison of time, space and death.”
Without belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, nothing would be left of authentic Christianity. It would be reduced to an ethic, a moral way of life rather than friendship with a person. Pope Benedict said being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice but an encounter with an event, a person. “Christianity is first and foremost a gift: God gives himself to us.”
Christians rejoice in the dignity of the human body, not just because it was created in God’s image and likeness, but because of the Resurrection of Jesus and his promise that we, too, shall rise up on the last day (cf. Jn 6).
By taking flesh in the wonder of the Incarnation (cf. Jn 1:14), the Son of God became totally involved in our world and gave it – and us – incomparable dignity. Any ethical system rooted in Christianity must take this amazing affirmation of Jesus’ bodily Resurrection as its starting point.
In this Eucharist Christ gives his Body – possible only because he is risen from the dead – and makes of us his Body. Let us pray that as we recognize in this celebration the reality of being loved by the Lord, we may, in turn love others just as he has. Amen.