Saturday, November 19, 2016



This morning the monks are celebrating our annual mass for the faithful departed of our wider family of friends, alumni, benefactors, relatives and so on. It seemed appropriate for me to spend my meditation time this morning reflecting on the question that we have all wondered about since we were little kids: “Just what happens after you die?”

We tend to answer in terms of the Greek philosophical mentality: Your body dies but your soul survives and goes to heaven.  We throw around the word soul pretty liberally when speaking about our heavenly reward.

But this language poses a problem for us Christians. In two words, the problem is “Jesus Christ.” The Creed says that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. So, we believe that Jesus is “in heaven.” But earlier in the creed we say that he was born of the virgin Mary and became man. Jesus is not a soul, but a human, a body-soul composite; his bodiedness is an essential part of the Word-made-Flesh.

So, if Jesus is in heaven, that state must necessarily involve his body. We can safely conclude, then, that our existence in heaven will also involve our bodies and not just our souls. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Anima mea non est ego,” “My soul is not me.” I am an embodied spirit, or an enspirited body, so somehow my eternal reward will involve my body. By the way, that is why we must be good to our bodies and treat them with reverence and care: they are going to be ours forever and ever.

Okay, but this belief poses a new set of questions. (The Sadducees were happy to point out one of them to Jesus in last Sunday’s gospel.) If my body will be mine in heaven, just how old will my body be? Twenty-five? Will my hair be black again? What about the widow who has remarried: whose wife will she be in heaven? The questions sound sensible, but lead to some ridiculous head-scratching.


So, we’re stuck, it seems. How does all this work? We do not understand, we cannot understand it. That’s the definition of a “mystery.” A mystery refers not to something completely incomprehensible, but rather to a truth which is so vast that we can only understand parts of it, and will never come to understand it completely. We have to be content with grasping pieces of it.

Those troubling questions such as “how old will I be in heaven” are based on a misunderstanding of the whole mystery of the resurrection of the body. I would like to offer one idea that might help us understand a piece of the mystery. It has to do with the ideas of “change” and “transformation.”  

A stalactite in a cavern "changes" by having minerals deposited on it over time: it gets bigger, but it’s still, no matter how big, just a stalactite. But living things change in a different way.

Think of an acorn. An acorn doesn't just get bigger and bigger. Its whole purpose is not to be the biggest acorn around, but rather to stop being an acorn and become an oak tree. It dies to being an acorn. Even little children understand this fact: you never hear a kid point to an oak tree and shout “Look at the big acorn.” We don’t look a a butterfly and call it a caterpillar, or listen to a frog and call it a tadpole.  What's involved here is a process called transformation: a thing stops being what it is in order to become something else.

This is true of us humans as well. St. Basil said, “Man is a being whose purpose is to become God.” The promise is not that we will each “come back to life” the way Lazarus did, or the widow’s son. Jesus did not come back to life, but rose glorious and immortal. He was transformed: He was somehow the same, but was transformed. The gospels wrestle with this mystery when Jesus shows the apostles his wounds (It’s really the same me!”) but then he can walk through closed doors, and is unrecognizable to Mary Magdalene (He is completely different!).

When we rise again one day with Jesus, we to will be transformed. We become something new, transformed in the dimension of God, where time and space are transcended; but our transformed bodies are definitely part of the deal: we are fulfilled beyond our ability to imagine right now, with a joy beyond all telling.


Transformation, though, is also a process. The process of becoming Christ, as it were, can and should start now by dying to ourselves through selfless actions, and dying to our base impulses through self-restraint.

November is the month when we remember our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, but it’s also the month when we think about our own mortality as the dead leaves start blowing at our feet. Thanksgiving Day, appropriately, gives us an opportunity to contribute to our own transformation in Christ, to die to ourselves, by being generous to people who are in need.

So, as we pray for those members of the communion of saints who have gone before us, let us be conscious of our need to cooperate with divine grace and begin our transformation today into what we will be one day: a transformed person in the Risen Lord.

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