BISHOP JEFFREY HAINES
I once heard a story about a golfer’s final resting place. His ashes or cremains were divided among his friends, who were invited to scatter them in sand traps at various golf courses. There were two reasons put forth for this invitation. For one, this gentleman had a passionate affection for the sport of golf. Second, it was said that he hit so many shots into the sand traps that it was only fitting his remains spend eternity there.
While there is an element of charm and humor to this story, I would like to point out that the scattering of ashes is not an approved nor suitable method for Catholics in dealing with our mortal remains.
The following statement from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments clearly indicates the position of the Church on this matter:
“The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground … are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.”
One of the primary reasons for the type of respect accorded in this statement is our belief in the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body. As stated in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Our Christian conviction is that our risen life will be an embodied one. This conviction differs from the popular position known as the Immortality of the Soul, which was a teaching of the Greek philosophers. The philosophers maintained that the soul is eternal and does not die. Consequently, it was held that at the end of our days we shed the mortal body much like a prisoner escaping from a jail cell.
For Christians, the body is not conceived to be a prison and something evil or odious, simply to be discarded. Rather, as related in the Book of Genesis, the origin of the human person – body and soul – is the pinnacle of God’s creation. Sacred Scripture contends that this somehow reflects the very image of God.
As Christians, we also believe that God gave ultimate approval to the body when Christ took on human flesh, thus affirming its dignity. So sublime is the dignity of the body that it will share eternal destiny when it is taken into the very Kingdom of God.
Keep in mind, however, that when we speak of the Risen Body this is not a resuscitated one. A resuscitated body would be one brought back, which is brought back to the same kind of existence that we share now.
The Risen Body is truly like ours, but transformed. There is a “same but different” quality of the Risen Body which is particularly captured by the Evangelist Luke in his description of the Risen Jesus in chapter 24 of his Gospel. The body of the Risen Jesus is the “same” in the sense that he invites the disciples to touch him; he eats a piece of fish and he shows them the wounds in his hands and feet. Yet, the body of the Risen Jesus is “different” in the sense that he seems to appear/disappear. He passes through walls and locked doors, it takes a while to recognize him, and he has an almost ghost-like appearance.
It is clear, then, that the Risen Body shares similarity with our own and yet not completely. It seems to inhabit a different sort of space-time continuum. Put another way, it transcends the usual organic materiality. St. Paul tried to depict this “same but different” quality with an image, when he compares the mortal and immortal body with the image of the seed and flowering plant.
I also think it is important to point out that belief in the Resurrection of the Body is not merely a matter of scholarly debate or just a matter of doctrinal speculation only of interest to theologians. It is really quite the opposite.
Belief in the Resurrection of the Body has vital consequences and, literally, eternal implications.
The body is vital to our personal identity. We are not a mere idea or concept. We are tangible individuals. To believe in the Resurrection of the Body is to believe that it is really and truly us who will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven. We will not be dispersed into a cosmic pool or mass and simply exist in corporate manner.
The body also is the means by which we engage in relationships. It is a symbol of our ability to connect and communicate. Most of us can’t connect and communicate in Spock-like mind melds in Star Trek. To believe in the Resurrection of the Body, then, is to believe that we will enjoy relationality in the Kingdom of God. We will recognize each other and carry on our personal bonds.
Much of life – in fact some of the most important elements of life – are enjoyed because of the capability of the body to engage sense and sentiment. For example, we cherish the warm touch of an embrace, the sound of beautiful music, the sight of a gorgeous sunset, the taste of a delicious meal and the smell of fresh morning air. To believe in the Resurrection of the Body is to believe that our eternal destiny will not simply be an experience of acute consciousness. Rather, it will contain in some way the delight of sensation and sentiment. Granted, that experience will be transformed in a transcendent manner, but something will be felt and not just thought.
It’s not easy for us to fathom what a Resurrected Body is like. The concept really seems to strain the limits of our rational capability. In fact, it probably would be much easier to dismiss this belief in favor of the notion of the Immortality of the Soul. That sure would appeal more to the post-Enlightenment, scientific world-view. Yet, that is not what faith in the Resurrection is all about. The Gospel boldly proclaims that the Risen Christ did not manifest himself merely as a disembodied spirit or concept in the minds of the disciples. Rather, he appeared in their very midst and was revealed in all of our human sensations – revealed in a Risen Body, transfigured and glorified.