A couple of years ago I saw a movie about an isolated family who were being haunted. The family consists of a nervous, manipulative mother and two children who can't go outside because of hypersensitivity to sunlight. The movie has the usual elements of a suspense/ghost movie, but with a surpise ending. In the final minutes you realize the mother and children are the dead – and the ones “haunting” them are living, flesh and blood people.
When Jesus appeared to the apostles they thought he was a phantasm. However, it turns out he is the real one – and in relation to him we are like pale ghosts. He is solid; we are as ephemeral as mist in Arizona.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus, to reassure the apostles, took a piece of baked fish and ate it in their presence. The Risen Lord has not lost his physical humanity. Although he is much more than a mere man, we cannot say he is anything less.
In the early centuries the Church had to deal with people who did not accept the material nature of Jesus. They were called gnostics - from the Greek word gnosis meaning knowledge - because they claimed a greater spiritual understanding than the common folk. Each one had his personal key and used it to spin out a unique interpretation of Jesus and the universe.*
Over the years I have met people who strike me as neo-gnostics. Like their earlier counterparts they have cobbled together a synthesis based on quotes (or misquotes) from the Bible and ideas drawn from the culture - which today is the therapeutic culture represented by folks such as Oprah and Dr. Phil.** Like the ancient gnostics, they prefer a “spiritual Jesus” to the flesh and blood Lord found in the New Testament.
Of course to spiritualize Jesus can appeal to any of us. It keeps him at arm's length so he doesn't get in the way our plans, but he is always there when we need him. I am not saying that is all bad. It is certainly better than naturalism which has become the default philosophy of modern man. However, an over-spiritualized approach to Jesus misses the obvious: He desires that we touch him (Lk 24:39) that we contemplate his five wounds (v.40) and, shocking as it first sounds, that we bodily consume him (v. 35, cf. 22:19).
It might initially seem odd that the Risen Jesus puts so much emphasis on his physicality. The reason is that he does not want us to relegate him to some distant spiritual realm. He desires not just a spiritual relationship with us, but a physical one - a spousal union.*** He has life, dynamism, while we are slowly winding down. As St. Peter tells us, he is the “author of life.” (Acts 3:17) Jesus gave us the sacraments that we might connect with him on a material as well as spiritual level.
For sure Jesus is radically other in relation to creatures like us. As in today’s Gospel, it is natural to be fearful, even terrified before someone such as he. But he says not to fear, instead, to be at peace. He wants to take us out of the shadows into the fullness of his own life.
*To get some idea how the ancient gnostics worked, I encourage you to read Against the Heresies by Ireneaus of Lyon. Here is a sample:
Their object in this is to show that our Lord announced another Father than the Maker of this universe, whom, as we said before, they impiously declare to have been the fruit of a defect. For instance, when the prophet Isaiah says, "But Israel hath not known Me, and My people have not understood Me," they pervert his words to mean ignorance of the invisible Bythus...They maintain that Daniel also set forth the same thing when he begged of the angels explanations of the parables, as being himself ignorant of them. But the angel, hiding from him the great mystery of Bythus, said unto him, "Go thy way quickly, Daniel, for these sayings are closed up until those who have understanding do understand them, and those who are white be made white." Moreover, they vaunt themselves as being the white and the men of good understanding.
**Contemporary gnostics have a convenient slogan: "Spirituality, Not Religion"
***One could argue that the central theme of the Bible is the divine nuptials: Gen 2:24, Hos 2:19, Is 62:5, Jer 2:2, Mk 1:19, Jn 3:29, Eph 5:32, Rev 19:7, etc.
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