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Credo XVI

“(I believe in)…the resurrection of the body,”

I have so many questions.

Is my resurrected body the saggy, baggy, old body I have now? That might get me sewing fig leaves together like crazy. Or would I be the skinny teen-ager I was sixty years ago, or the cute, little blond kid in those old black-and-white photos? What about Mom and Dad? Would I recognize them in their younger, perfect, resurrected bodies? What about Grandma and Grandpa who I only ever knew as old people? What about my cousin, Terry Joe? He was born with cerebral palsy and struggled to walk and to be understood for decades; what resurrected body does he get? Or more importantly, what kind of resurrected nervous system?

And is the physical resurrection to take place on the planet Earth in this time-space continuum? If all those saved by grace throughout all generations are resurrected at the same time, won’t the planet get a bit crowded? Especially since we will all be living forever?

I would find it easier to believe in a “spiritual” resurrection where my soul rather than my body becomes alive in a utopia-like place and I live in communion with the souls of all the other saints.

But the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been deeply connected to our physical beings and our literal Earth. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” We call Jesus the Son of God. But He calls Himself the Son of Man.

When I started college at age eighteen, I needed to work. The university had a job service and through this, and, through a series of bad decisions that are amusing in retrospect, I landed the position of diener at the University Hospital morgue. My duties were to assist the pathologist in autopsies, clean up afterward, contact the mortician, and deliver the body. Up until that time, I hadn’t thought about death very much–I mean, not real death, up close and personal. Yes, I’d been to family funerals and seen the deceased laid out in their Sunday finest, made up to look alive. I’d read about death, seen about a million Westerns and war movies and murder mysteries where the deaths were noble or justified or tragic, but always neat and clean. Now, I was handling, through thinly gloved hands, organic material that used to be living human beings. Now, I thought about death all the time. After a few months, I had to quit because the nightmares were not worth the generous pay. I went back to a job doing dishwashing and kitchen clean-up.

Later, during medical school and residency, I witnessed the transition from living to dead, sometimes slowly as a patient deteriorated from their cancer or sepsis, sometimes quickly as the patient bled out or an obstructed airway could not be opened.

The change is dramatic. The complete loss of any motion, including breathing, the loss of skin color, the open, dulled, sightless eyes–all of it is tragic and…alien. Yes, alien, because the dead body is so different from the living person it is as if they come from different worlds.

I have no love for the lifeless body. Perhaps because I have a scientist’s perspective of physiology and biochemistry and anatomy, and a doctor’s perspective on death, I can’t imagine resurrection. I can’t imagine the magic of life returning to a corpse already riddled by injury and disease, cell death and protein degradation already beginning, and the process of complete decay imminent.

But maybe that is less a problem with resurrection than it is with my imagination.

That dead body, so unreal and alien, has just been vacated by something. I never get past the feeling that something beyond the cessation of biological function has happened. Something, inexplicable with all my knowledge of physiology and medicine, so real that it is almost tangible,  has left the body.

I am not alone in this. We call it the soul, or the life force, or the animus. The better we know the person, the more we feel its absence. Although I care little for the body left behind, I miss the life that has left. None of my scientific training, and all of my intuition, tell me that life cannot just disappear. It lives on in some form. It must be somehow “resurrected.”

My wife’s best friend, Kathy, suffered from juvenile onset type-1 diabetes, and subsequently experienced every conceivable complication of the disease throughout her entire adult life, including blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy, vascular disease, and coronary artery disease. She also had hearing loss due to antibiotics when a dose was not well calculated to account for her kidney failure. She underwent so many procedures, including years of dialysis, kidney transplants, open heart surgery, and even a heart transplant. Mobility became limited due to neuropathy and vascular disease in her legs. Of all people I have ever seen, personally and professionally, short of in hospice care, she inhabited the absolutely most diseased physical body.

But her disease did not define her. Jesus did.

I remember Kathy sitting at our kitchen table during one of her visits to Jacksonville. We were both around fifty-years-old at the time, long enough that she had experience a quarter-century of visual loss and a long string of other complications, and our family had experienced cancer and other losses. We were no longer naive about life. Illness had come. Death had passed by, but only for the present; it would return. The religion we had in our twenties had been put through the fire and we were different. She explained something about her faith walk that has stuck with me ever since.

“I realized,” she said, “that eternal life starts now.”

Jesus said something similar when being pressed for answers about when the kingdom of God would come. He said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Kathy started resurrection life now, and maybe that’s the first thing to remember about resurrection of the body. The kingdom is in our midst. Life in the kingdom starts now. This is our eternal life. The only change to our “life force” or our “consciousness” or our soul after death is that we get new bodies.

St. Paul tried to assure some skeptics, like me, about the resurrection of the body. He used the metaphor of a seed. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” he said to begin his explanation, and goes on later to say, “…as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” This seems plausible and even comforting. This old, scarred body is only a vessel carrying a DNA-like spirit that will be planted into eternity and thrive as something so much bigger and so much better.

Jesus assured us that there would be a life after death. He talked about the kinds of relationships to expect with Him and our Father and each other, but he didn’t talk much about the specifics, probably because he knew we didn’t have the conceptual framework or intellectual capacity to understand. Only once, when He was being harassed by some folks who did not believe in life after death did he mention some specifics. He said, “…those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection of the dead…they can no longer die; for they are like angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

We will be beloved children and we will be like angels.

My imagination can handle this. I can accept that there are questions unanswered, that my humanity and position as a created being limits me from understanding the cosmos in all its complexity, especially that which takes place beyond our time-space continuum and biological life. I’m looking forward to hearing my cousin Terry talk with a clear voice and run with strong legs. I’m looking forward to see Kathy seeing me. I’m imagining resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection of the body–this one, in this life–and resurrection as an angel-like child of God in the kingdom to come.

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