The COVID-19 pandemic has made us acutely aware of two basic human impulses: the fear of death and our need for community. To address the former brought on by the spread of the virus, people around the world, including and especially people of faith, sacrificed the latter. Although the pandemic gave heightened attention to mortality and community (or lack thereof), these concerns are as old as humanity itself and are nothing new to the Christian tradition. In the last Theology on Tap for the 2019-20 season, Dr. Steve Harris, faculty member of the Religion and Theology Department at Redeemer University in Hamilton, expounded on two articles of the Christian faith that respond to these age-old issues: the belief in both the “communion of saints” and the “resurrection of the body”. Every time Christians proclaim the Apostles’ Creed, they declare publicly these beliefs are their own, and their inclusion in the creed means that they are essential tenets of the Christian faith. In this brief reflection, drawing upon the richness of both Sacred Scripture and Tradition and building on Dr. Harris’s emphasis on the notion of “bodiliness”, we will seek to make these potentially esoteric ideas more relatable to our ordinary human experience while illuminating the hope that they provide us.
Bodiliness and the Communion of Saints
The communion of saints is the Church, the mystical body of Christ made up of the believers on earth, the souls undergoing purification in purgatory and the blessed in heaven (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 946). The word communion is derived from the Latin communio, meaning “sharing in common”. It is through Baptism that we enter this communion, which is expressed in the sharing of spiritual goods, especially the sacraments. The Mass is the most visible, tangible sign of this communion, since we join with the saints and angels in their hymn of praise to God in heaven and become one with God ourselves through our reception of the Eucharist. Another common practice that signifies this reality are our prayers that ask the saints in heaven to intercede for us as well as those we make for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed. These activities show that the communion of saints is indeed real and transcendent. Those of us here on earth have the benefit of having friends in high places. As a dying St. Dominic said to his brothers in the Order of Preachers, “I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.” At the same time, our communion is still imperfect because while we can commune with some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the body, we can only commune in spirit with those who have gone before us.
One may ask what importance the body has to the soul that has passed through this earthly life and is now in heaven. That soul is indeed with God, therefore a body would seem unnecessary or even limiting. However, the union of soul and body in human beings and the experience of communion in and through physical bodies was established as part of God’s original plan for creation. It is fundamental to who we are. Consider the reaction of the man when God presents him woman, the crown jewel of creation: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23). The first human communion was formed when the first man recognized the first woman as sharing with him the substance of his own body. Quoting the late theologian Robert Jenson, Dr. Harris refers to our bodies as our “personal availability” to one another. Using everyday examples, he illustrates the extent to which our bodies animate communal life:
“So much of the life we share is expressed bodily: smiles, waves, handshakes, the sign of peace, the deep extended hug you share with a grandparent or lifelong friend, the Body of Christ you take on your tongue, simply being present together in silence. Our bodies are crucial to our communion.”
The pandemic has given us a profound experience of the deprivation of the presence of flesh and blood. As Dr. Harris observes, despite technology facilitating a mitigated sense of being together, we nonetheless feel a great emptiness: “we miss the real body of our fellow believers. Spiritual communion is a true communion, but it is an imperfect communion, one that cries out for fulfillment in real bodily presence.” It is our bodies that are the members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, meant not for immorality but for the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:13-15, 19).
This experience of a diminished communion is a foretaste of the more wrenching loss of communion brought about by death. Death is not merely the chronological end of an individual history, but also the robbery of personal availability in the body. Dr. Harris observes that when one dies, their body “ceases to be for us their presence. They are no longer available to us in their bodies, and we can no longer be available to them in our body.” Anyone who has mourned the loss of a loved one has felt the sadness that comes from the knowledge that they will never again experience communion with the departed person here on earth. Like communion, death is also an intrinsic aspect of our nature as embodied beings. However, unlike communion, it was not made so by God but by our own doing. Scripture tells us that God did not make death (Wisdom 1:13) and that it entered the world as the consequence of the sin of our first parents (Romans 5:12-14). It was through the misuse of the body – eating the forbidden fruit – that humans earned the “wages of sin”. This sets the stage for God’s unfolding plan of salvation, which involves both body and soul as both were compromised in the Fall. As the early church theologian Tertullian (155 – 240) wrote, “the flesh is the hinge of our salvation.”
The resurrection of the body is what will eventually perfect the communion of saints. This is defined by the Catechism as the granting of “incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul” that will take place at the end of time (CCC 1016). Our body and soul, which are separated at death, will be reunited so that our entire being will enter our eternal fate. Therefore, bodily communion with each other and with God will not only be real for us on earth but also in heaven. We will be together again in a bodily way with the loved ones we mourned the loss of here on earth. Although St. Paul hints in his letter to the Corinthians that our bodies will be transformed from their perishable and weak states into an imperishable, powerful state, the exact characteristics of what the immortal, resurrected body will look like for us remains the subject of theological speculation. However, it is beyond question that the resurrection of the body is central to the Christian faith:
“if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are all of men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
Even if our souls live on after death, if our bodies do not experience redemption, then we cannot be fully saved. Jesus, the first-born from the dead, is the great exemplar of the resurrection of the body. Appearing to his disciples after His rising, He invites his disciples to touch him to know that he is not a spirit, but flesh and blood, and eats physical food in their presence. Most notably, Jesus converts the doubt of Thomas into belief when He invites his disciple to touch the wounds he suffered on the cross. These wounds are the signs that confirm that this same Jesus, who was brutally executed by the Roman Empire, had returned to life in bodily form. He ascends to heaven in His glorified human body. What this means for us is that all the ailments and wounds we experience in our bodies, even physical death itself, is only temporary, because like Christ we will rise with bodies conditioned for eternity. It is the knowledge witnessed to by Jesus that death does not have the final word that informs our hope. This makes sense of the willingness of the martyrs up and down the centuries and all over the world to give up their earthly lives rather than renounce their faith. As St. Therese of Lisieux is recorded as saying, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, to see God, I must die, and I am not dying, I am entering life.” This mortal body will perish, one way or another, but the soul lives on to await the glorified body it will be united with for all time. Death therefore, is not an end, but a step towards our ultimate destiny.
Dr. Harris’ conclusion to his talk sums up all these points beautifully, and since this is a Theology on Tap reflection, it seems fitting to give our speaker the last word on this topic:
“It is only at the resurrection of the dead that the communion of saints is perfected. When Jesus comes to raise the dead at the end, we will be together, with one another, along with all the saints past (and future), in unbroken and unthreatened life and love. The body of Christ that is taken up into the life of the Trinity at his resurrection is also the body that we are as his people—the body that we also take into our own life in the Eucharist—the body that contains not only you and me, but all those we love in the faith, all those who have gone before and are yet to come, from the least to the greatest, the saints, and Mary the Mother of God herself. Our hope for perfect communion with one another is fulfilled only at the resurrection of the body. In that hope we live and in that hope we die; in that hope we die and in that hope we will live.”
About the Author: M.J. began to fully embrace his faith after a life-changing experience at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid. An original member of the campus evangelization program at York, he helped the Chaplaincy blog reach 11,000 people in 60 countries within the first six months of its launch and was part of a team of students that ministered to pilgrims venerating the relics of St. Maria Goretti in Detroit, Michigan as part of a US tour of her reliquary in 2015. He also had the great honour of participating in a national Forum on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment in support of the 2018 Synod of Bishops, which aired on Salt & Light Television. M.J. is proud to be a volunteer with Faith Connections and help his fellow young adults build a community of faith through enriching in-person and virtual events.