A week from today is Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the day when Jesus lay in the tomb.
Before we get to the joyous he-is-risen of Sunday morning, we go through the time of affirming that he really died and was buried. So he identified with our own fate.
Death is a part of life, I hear. Well, dying is a part of life–the last part. But death means non-life. It makes no sense to say that non-life is a part of life.
To sing “He Lives” with joy and wonder comes after the realization that Jesus experienced with us the threat and reality of non-life.
So, I come to the end of my reading of Carolyn Walker Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.
Why isn’t it enough to live on as an immortal spirit? Why did Jesus rise in the body? How can my body, which corrupts and dissolves in the grave, still be me in the resurrection? Why does Christian hope involve the resurrection of the body at all?
I think Bynum sees the discussion in the Church from the 3rd to the 14th century as a struggle with this question. As I have reported, Bynum shows this discussion taking some very strange detours.
She notes that the idea that came from Greek thought that the body is a drag on the spirit influenced Christian thinking. But, contrary to Oscar Cullmann, she does not think the Church sold out to this idea. Rather, by the 14th century, she thinks a synthesis had developed. The body remained very important as the seat of the spirit’s love and longing.
She likes the German mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, who spoke of the body as a “beloved prison”. Instead of the body being a hated prison and hope being the liberation of the spirit, the body is the needed locus for the spirit’s longing for God. Hope lies in the redemption of the body and its reunification with the spirit.
When Mechtild thinks of death, she recoils at the thought that she will no longer be able to praise Jesus or even suffer for him. She wants to live in the body until the Last Judgment. She writes:
“And our Lord speaks in answer: ‘You must die….’
Alas, Lord, let my longing not die.
Even if I am not able any longer to gain anything with my body.
‘Your longing will live, for it cannot die, because it is eternal. Let it yearn on until the end of time, when soul and body will unite again” (pp. 340-341 quoted from Mechtild‘s Das Licht).
The intermediate state in which we exist between death and resurrection is, in Mechtild’s vision, a state of yearning. Is Holy Saturday a day of yearning for both the living and the dead?
I liked Bynum’s way of leaving it with these writers speaking for themselves and Bynum still puzzled. She thinks they got the problem right: the problem of identity between the earthly body and the resurrected self. But she is not satisfied with their answers.
From her approach, I thought she might end up preaching feminism and process theology. Her sympathies lie with those approaches, but the book’s value is in the mass of insights it gives about more than a thousand years of the Church struggling with death, resurrection, body, and hope.