Seeing the Risen Lord

In our church we have a copy of a seventh-century Coptic icon from Egypt. It shows Christ with his arm round the shoulder of an unknown friend. By this gesture he takes upon himself the burdens, the mistakes, all the loads pressing down upon the other.

Christ is not shown facing his friend; he walks along beside him, accompanying him. That unknown friend is each one of us.

Brother Roger of Taizé, Journal, May 2, 1980 (Essential Writings p.110)

The Resurrection is not a thing of the past, the Resurrection has reached us and seized us. We grasp hold of it, we grasp hold of the risen Lord, and we know that he holds us firmly even when our hands grow weak. We grasp hold of his hand, and thus we also hold on to one another’s hands …

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Easter Vigil, April 15, 2006

There are many interesting discussions of the Resurrection on the Internet – I can point you to a returned Joe Cecil. Here, I would like to meditate on how we might come to “see” the Risen Lord, become aware that he accompanies us, and “grasp hold of his hand.” What separates the believer from the unbeliever? In a recent essay, the Anglican priest Sarah Coakley tells us that there are two common answers to this. The proponents of the first answer, she says, subscribe to the Humean principle that “the wise man proportions his belief to the evidence” and believes in a miracle when disbelief should prove “more miraculous.” And so these proponents press tough rational criteria and historical demonstrations upon us, claiming that, if we only would subject the Resurrection to the same level of scrutiny that we give to any other historical event, the “wise men” among us would surely come to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

The followers of Karl Barth, among others, object to this first answer, because our belief in the Resurrection really must go beyond the “obscurity and error and essential questionableness” that inevitably comes with belief in any historical event. They tell us that we will see the Risen Lord when we leap into the void through faith and enter a new world. There is no substitute for such a leap, for, as Karl Barth wrote, “In the resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it.”

Sarah Coakley finds neither of these common answers satisfactory. The first does leave us in the ambiguous realm of “obscurity and error and essential questionableness,” but the second answer has its own obscurity, as the leap into the void remains inexplicable and even paradoxical. Furthermore, neither answer seems to shed much light on the details of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. One can recognize Jesus and still doubt (Matt 28:17); Mary turns multiple times before recognizing the Risen Christ (Jn 20:11-18) in one of the many accounts of gradually coming to believe; and it is only when Jesus, after traveling unrecognized with companions on the road to Emmaus, breaks bread that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:31).

Rev. Coakley suggests another answer, and “We are in the realm here of what some patristic and medieval writers called ‘the spiritual senses’: the transformed epistemic sensibilities of those being progressively reborn in the likeness of the Son.” Rev. Coakley does believe, as she later says, that our “capacities themselves are transformed.” But in a published discussion after her presentation, a commentator worried about “the impression of new mechanics.” The Lutheran theologian Ingolf U. Dalferth then suggested that we instead follow Bonaventure: “What we have is not a change in capacities, but in how these capacities are used. It is not a miraculous change in one’s epistemic outfit, but in how we use our capacities.” Perhaps this is something to keep in mind for later discussion.

What does Rev. Coakley mean by “transformed epistemic sensibilities”? Origen suggested that we come to see “spiritually” as we are ourselves progressively transformed through a life of meditation on Scripture, climaxing in a deep communion with the eternal Word that is most profoundly described using the erotic language of the Song of Songs. To be sure, Origen’s emphasis on these “faculties of the heart,” Rev. Coakley acknowledges, comes in part from a Platonic disdain of material sense knowledge, and even “squeamishness about the final redeemability of physical matter itself.” But Gregory of Nyssa, who became a monk only after first having been married, will later subtly allow for “continuity or development from the physical to the spiritual in the spectrum of purgation of the senses.” For him, Rev. Coakley says, “the toe-hold for spiritual perception is precisely in the physical.”

This idea of coming to see spiritually helps us make better sense, she suggests, of the Gospel accounts and our own experiences. Grasping the “multi-leveled aspect of the pre-modern spiritual senses tradition” helps us to see how there can be different responses to the risen Christ, some still very much intermingled with doubt. Understanding that seeing the Risen Lord depends on moral and spiritual preparation helps us to see how recognizing Christ might first require a process of change best symbolized in Mary’s “turning.” Lastly, since the “spiritual senses tradition” integrates the erotic and affective language of the Song of Songs into our ways of knowing, we can notice how the evidences of the heart play a role in recognizing Christ: “Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32).

Finally, the idea of the “spiritual senses” might help us to understand the theological meaning of the primacy of women’s testimony in witnessing to the Resurrection. In Jewish law, female testimony was regarded as less reliable, and the testimony to the Resurrection might seem, well, stereotypically feminine indeed with its inescapable trembling, bewilderment, and fear (Mk 16:8). One can imagine certain readers wishing that Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome had been replaced by more rational and reserved (or decisive) figures who would then provide us with the coherent and ordered testimony that would convince the “wise men” among our agnostic neighbors. One can imagine at least some of these readers imagining these replacement figures as, well, masculine. But this is not what God has given us. The spiritual senses tradition of the Songs of Songs can help us make sense of this. As Rev. Coakley tells us, this tradition claims that “it is also only the ‘feminized’ soul that can fully respond to the embraces of the Bridegroom, the exalted and heavenly Christ.”

Later, in a perhaps similar vein, Thomas Aquinas finds himself responding in the Summa to the objection that “It does not seem becoming for Christ’s Resurrection to be manifested first of all to the women and afterwards to mankind in general.” Aquinas notes that women were not allowed to teach publicly in church, but, since women did see the Resurrection first, he must conclude that it is the capacity for love that brought them before others to the Risen Christ: “the women whose love for our Lord was more persistent–so much so that ‘when even the disciples withdrew’ from the sepulchre ‘they did not depart’ –were the first to see Him rising in glory.” And, so the tradition of the “spiritual senses” lets us learn from the women that it is not some masculine fantasy of absolute judgment or daring that enables us to encounter the Risen Lord, but rather a “feminized” soul and the capacity to love. These things enable us to see who is accompanying us, whose hand we must grasp.

I hope this makes at least some sense; what do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Seeing the Risen Lord

  1. Pingback: God and Evolution: A New Solution? « Catholic Sensibility

  2. Pingback: What the Resurrection is Not « Catholic Sensibility

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