When considering Judaism around this time last year, I attended a series of talks at a synagogue. There, I learned about how Jews approach the Torah from various levels of interpretation. Literal is but one level, and the least important. It has been hard to try to wean myself off the very literal evangelical interpretation of Christianity. I so wish my Catholic formation had been more thorough and complete. But I digress.
I have been stumbling around to find some teaching, some class, some workshop, some video, someone other than me who considers themselves to be Catholic, yet looks at our faith through the eyes of a more spiritual (and hence less literal) lens.
The resurrection, for instance. I've struggled with this, as many people do. It seems that on the surface, to call myself a Christian, I must accept this one cornerstone of the faith of Jesus. That He literally died, and then on the third day, He literally came back to life. And yet, even the New Testament alludes to the fact that while His old body was gone from the tomb, the new body that witnesses came in contact with was somehow different. Transformed.
In last week's Discovering Christ small group, I offered that I thought the resurrection is important because it provides proof for what Jesus taught about Himself and the Kingdom of God. But I'm not actually sure I buy it myself. I'm perfectly happy to accept Jesus's teachings without a literal, physical resurrection. What's much more resonant with me is a more figurative interpretation instead.
Jesus pre-resurrection lived as we normally do, albeit without sin. His body was identical to ours in terms of the bodily functions, internal organs, sensations, etc. Through His crucifixion, He humbled Himself before God to the point of death. He literally emptied Himself of any remnants of wanting justice, fairness, appreciation, or even just the escape from physical and mental torment. He distanced Himself from all that was happening to Him, uniting Himself instead with God's ideals of mercy, forgiveness, hope, transcendence.
As the story goes, His old body was never found. Instead, His followers saw Him again, yet in a new body. They recognized His personality, something that reminded them so intimately of the Jesus they broke bread with, yet He was not in the same body. The body He was in did indeed bare the markings of His crucifixion, proof of His having overcome the old. But his new body did not need to have been the same crucified body in order to have these markings. (Think the stigmata.)
When we dream, we likewise are convinced of having come in contact with some specific person, often seeing them do what we would normally expect a person to do (like eating).... but we often also see them doing things we know are not of this world (like flying). I'm of the opinion that our deceased loved ones do visit us in our dreams, and having had these experiences myself, I find it just as real as any other encounter, just not tied to my physical presence.
Perhaps Jesus's post-resurrection body was/is a sort of hologram. We know from emerging quantum physics that solid objects that appear perfectly still are actually made up of constantly moving molecules. We know this as fact from science, and yet our day to day experience insists that the table doesn't move, that there is a definite beginning and end to it. But on the quantum level, things aren't as black and white at all.
So Jesus appearing to His followers post-resurrection in a dream-like state is something I can actually relate to. Why does this have to make the importance of His resurrection any less than if it were literal? I am perfectly content knowing and believing that after this life, I will continue on in some form. I am not at all attached to the idea that I want eternal life in this body.
What's important about the resurrection is that there is life - a transformed life - possible after even the most dire, hopeless, wretched experiences. Death itself is no barricade to the life that is possible for those who fix their sights on the Divine.
When we get down to it, the resurrection is about hope. Jesus's entire ministry was about bringing hope to those who felt lost and abandoned by the social system of the day. Jesus said He came to seek and save the lost, that it was the sick who needed a doctor. It is the sick - spiritually sick - who needed to hear that they too had hope for a better future. They are the ones who need to be reassured that no matter what lies they've been fed over the years, they are not destined to be tied to their mistakes. They are not one and the same with their wrongdoing. They are more than the mere experiences and actions that have shaped their personality. They can leave all of that behind and start anew.
This is a free gift, one that God offers to anyone who wants it. All we have to do is acknowledge that indeed, we are not who we have thought that we are. That we are children of the light, and that we want to walk in the light of Christ. Christ, our example, who didn't just teach us this truth through His parables, but Who taught us through His very actions, living out what is important, utterly despising and ignoring that which isn't. To the death. Because death is no big deal to one who is enlightened and inspired by the Source of the Universe. Death is a mere sleep. Death is simply a passage way. Death is a birth to eternal life.
Those of us who fear death are attached to this current life. No matter what we may say, deep down, we aren't convinced of an ongoing consciousness on the other side, so we hold on to the only thing we do know. But Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The sorrowful will be comforted, and the meek shall inherit the Earth. In a word, life - true life, at its deepest meaning - is not the way the world sees it.
So yes the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, because when understood correctly, it gives us what nothing else on Earth can - it gives us hope. And with hope, all things are possible. With hope, we can stop living "up to" human expectations, and take our rightful place at the feet of Jesus, our mentor and savior, the one who took onto Himself all of our garbage and dirty laundry, so that He could reveal what was underneath. He wants us to be like Him. He wants us to be united with Him the way He is united with the Father. And He showed us that it is possible, no matter what the naysayers may say. He is the way to the Father. He is the truth of freedom and peace and joy. He is the life of hope.
There is need of only one thing, Jesus told Martha when she complained about her sister who wasn't helping her around the house. Mary was at the feet of Jesus, learning from Him how to live a life of hope, how to abandon the cares of this world, how to fix her gaze on her savior.
I used to ask, what did Jesus save me from? I mean, sin, I get it. But I just always believed that if God is all-merciful, He loves me even in my sin. Not that He is OK with me continuing down that path of resistance, but I honestly never feared hell. I never thought of myself as a saint, but I didn't think that was necessary. As long as I believed I wasn't going to hell, I had no real reason for religion.
Except that now I understand. God wants so much more for me and my life than what I have given myself credit for! It's not enough for God to simply keep me out of the proverbial hell. He wants me at His side! He wants to share His wisdom with me! He wants to give me His peace! He wants me to have true freedom and real joy, both in this life and forevermore! And the only reason I know that is because Jesus came to show me that this was the case. Therefore, my potential transcendence from mediocrity to spiritual greatness, to a life of peace and joy, is only available thanks to Jesus. In this sense, Jesus saved me from myself. He saves me from my negativity, from my complacency, from my despair. He saved me in order for me to put my gifts to good use. He wants me to work with Him to build up His Kingdom.
There is a John Lennon song, Imagine, that says, "imagine all the people living life in peace". I've always loved that song. I did get tripped up by the lyrics, "imagine there's no heaven.... and no religion too". But now I see that religion is a mere social convention, a human tool to help us navigate the spiritual world. It's actually not necessary. Union with God is possible without rites and rituals, dogmas and creeds. But most people do need those, and so I wouldn't necessarily throw out religion. But as John Lennon says, "imagine" - a world where people are living a Christ-like life even without religion.
Jesus didn't hold fast to His own religion; He transcended it! My goal in life should not be to be a good Catholic, or even a good Christian. My goal should be a life patterned on the life of Jesus. And that means attention to detail, an ongoing examination of every thought and word and deed and omission. This purpose-driven life cannot be replaced with mere creeds or rites. Following Jesus means discerning God's purpose for our lives, every single day. This is praying without ceasing. This is the one thing that is necessary.