The fragile body of the risen Christ

In his latest post on “Redemption and the Body,” geraldens reflects on a funeral he attended.  He concludes his reflection by suggesting the following: “If redemption is tied to our bodily frailty, is it possible that the new resurrected body will also be one of vulnerability and weakness?” I want to take up this question.

Let me begin my saying that I think it is deeply problematic to our theological thinking when we equate vulnerability, weakness, fragility, (especially of the body) with sin and corruption. We think this way for a number of reasons, most simply because our language for the sinful state of creation is brokenness and corruption, and our language for ultimate reconciliation (and pre-Fall existence) is that of health, healing, reconciliation, wholeness. This kind of paradigm prevents us from thinking the goodness of vulnerability, weakness, and fragility, and their reconciliatory power (which of course is what the Gospels and Epistles show us). In this paradigm, we get a linear theology of redemption: wholeness, harmony, health -> brokenness, sin, suffering -> redemption as restoration to the original form of creation. You can also see this logic at work in the theology of the 3 friends in Job.

The question posed above reminds me of some of Peter Widdicombe’s work, exploring patristic writings on the question of whether the ascended body of Christ retains the marks of the wounds of the crucifixion. For Cyril, writes Widdicombe, “whether the glorified body retains the marks of the wounds is of great theological significance: it has direct implications for how we are to think about what it is that God has done for us in the sending of the Son and how we are to understand the process of redemption.” Cyril affirms that the risen body of Christ, and the ascended body, retain the wounds. Widdidcombe writes further: “The appearance of the marks of the wounds and the resurrected body of Christ are, for Cyril, evidence specifically of two things: the identity of the body – the body which appeared to the disciples is the same one that hung on the cross; and the physicality of the body – however it was to be conceived, what the disciples saw before them was a real body.” Now, Cyril also recognizes that a difficulty remains, namely that the marks of corruption are apparent on an incorruptible body. But again, this is an erroneous way of thinking: “He quotes the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:43: that which “is sown in weakness is raised in power”, and that which “is sown in dishonour is raised in glory,” and he concludes that there will be “no remnant of adventitious corruption left in us […]. For the human body was not made for death and corruption.” Clearly, then, whatever we are to make of the retention of the marks of the wounds, they are not to be seen as signs of corruption in the saviour’s body.”

All that is to say that, yes, not only is it possible that the resurrected body will also be one of vulnerability and of weakness, but that this is precisely the kind of transformation that the resurrection effects — the redeemed body is incorruptible and retains the marks of the wounds, and thus it is the very redeemed and risen body that is at once a vulnerable, weak, and fragile body.

All quotes are from Peter Widdicombe, “The Wounds and the Ascended Body: The Marks of Crucifixion in the Glorified Christ from Justin Martyr to John Clavin,” in Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 59, nº 1, 2003, p.137-154.
The article is available here (pdf).


6 comments on “The fragile body of the risen Christ

  1. Theophilus says:

    I find it odd that you insist on claiming that resurrected bodies may continue to be vulnerable and weak. I didn’t find reference to this in Widdicombe or Cyril, and so I think this draws on other parts of your theological work and thought. What I find hard to grasp about this is that vulnerability, as I understand it, refers to being susceptible to harm, while weakness suggests a lack of power. I don’t see how these notions are compatible with, in Cyril’s words, the “incorruptibility” of the body of the resurrected Christ (and, since Christ is paradigmatic, all others who are resurrected) and his being seated in power and glory at the right hand of the Father. I can see that weakness and vulnerability were used by Jesus as the means by which his incorruptibility and power were brought to fullness though his death and resurrection, but if Christ incorruptible is vulnerable, and Christ enthroned is weak, then I wonder how the terms “vulnerability” and “weakness” could mean anything at all; it would seem to deconstruct those words to oblivion.

    • Kampen says:

      Insofar as the resurrected body retains the wounds it appears weak and fragile. Of course we know with St. Paul that Christ’s apparent weakness is powerful and not the apparent power of those who put Christ to death. If the physical body of Christ retains the wounds, why should we think that the communal body of Christ (the church) would do otherwise? Paul’s inversions for the character of the body of Christ (the church) are multiplicitous, advocating that the weakest members be valued the most, etc.

      • Theophilus says:

        I like your use of the word “inversion” to describe what’s going on here, as well as saying Christ’s resurrected, wounded body only “appears” weak and fragile. That makes a good deal more sense to me; thank you!

  2. geraldens says:

    I can’t speak for Kampen, but as far as my post is concerned, I was inquiring after the possibility of genuine weakness/vulnerability in the resurrected body. This is because it seems to me that much of what we rightly experience as redemptive is tied to our susceptibility to harm. Touch is perhaps the most profound and common way in which we receive and enter into forms of communion with others, and yet the possibility of this touch is not possible without the possibility of feeling pain – touch is redemptive because of our bodily vulnerability. Put differently, if it is impossible for you to harm me, then is there anything meaningful in gentle, caring touch? Further, particularly in John, the accounts of the resurrected Christ are full of this kind of vulnerable touch and bodily intimacy. Mary holds onto Jesus when she first sees him; Jesus shows his disciples his wounds; Thomas touches his wounds; Jesus breathes on his disciples to give them the Holy Spirit. John 21 recounts the resurrection breakfast on the shore of Galilee, which is often interpreted as the Johannine equivalent of communion. Throughout the Gospels, a common metaphor for the Kingdom of God is banqueting or feasting together. I think it is important to remember that we eat because of our bodily vulnerability, even if eating often goes far beyond mere nourishment. Here again, vulnerability seems to be tied to what is redemptive (in this case, feasting together).

    Theophillus, you point out that, according to Paul, the resurrected body is incorruptible. I never wanted to contest that point…which is one of the reasons my “suggestion” was posed as a question. Even more important, I think, is that if we bring vulnerability and redemption together, we do so from a logic of abundance and excess, rather than lack. This is what I think Kampen is getting at when she says that “it is deeply problematic to our theological thinking when we equate vulnerability, weakness, fragility, (especially of the body) with sin and corruption.” The point is that certain forms of vulnerability, weakness, and fragility may be constitutive of our human, bodily thriving, rather than necessarily tied to sin and corruption. Now, you also worry that putting incorruptibility and vulnerability together may make meaningless our concepts of vulnerability and weakness. I am sympathetic to that point as well. However, this is where inversion, as I understand it, comes into play. Inversion is not using vulnerability and weakness to find what we call power; this is to remain within the logic of worldly power, albeit using different methods; inversion does not mean that where we were once vulnerable we are now strong. Rather inversion is a reclamation; it claims that what we see and name as vulnerable is true strength, that what we see and name as weakness or a lack of power is how we as humans can most fully or truly live. This, for example, seems to be the message of the Beatitudes, where Jesus states that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, are poor in Spirit, are merciful will find themselves at home when the Kingdom arrives.

    • Theophilus says:

      geraldens, I wonder if it might make sense to talk about needs or appetites as being an irreducible component in what it means to be human. In that case, sin and corruption could be called the denial or distortion of natural, God-given human needs and appetites, and the resurrection life as one in which those same needs and appetites are no longer subjected to distortions and scarcity, but are instead satisfied. If there is not this redemption, what I see as an alternative is to claim that we are experiencing paradise when we are starving and wounded, which is rather at odds with the promises of well-being and satisfaction that are found in the Beatitudes, the prophets, and many other places in the Scriptural witness.

      • geraldens says:

        I agree that appetite or desire is an excellent way to talk about our humanity, and then that salvation would consist in the proper ordering and realization of those desires (this would make salvation both internal and external). I also agree that to speak of starvation, sickness and the like as paradise is clearly problematic. What I have been trying to point to is what I see as a kernel of our human thriving in our weakness and vulnerability. If we take the proper ordering of our desires/appetites to be desire for communion/reconciliation with God and humanity, then I wonder what would happen to concepts like these (communion and reconciliation) if we remove our human vulnerability; might they be abstracted into oblivion? The meaningful relationships I have had in my life have all contained a significant amount of vulnerability…this is simply what happens when we open ourselves up to others. Likewise, I would think it hugely problematic if we would speak of standing openly before God as anything but a posture of vulnerability – which, I hope, is not the same as saying we are compromised or harmed. Perhaps it is similar to living a life in fear of the Lord, which is not the same thing as living a life frightened of God.

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