Humanity has always wondered about so-called "last things," that is, what happens to a person after death. Various answers have been proposed -- the person ceases to exist, the soul separates from the body and goes to live with God, the soul loses its identity by becoming one with God, or reincarnation.
None of these are the answer provided by Jesus Christ. Moreover, Jesus didn't just talk about what was going to happen; he rose bodily from the dead so that we too might have eternal life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that this is perplexing. "How can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?" And it quotes St. Augustine as saying, "On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body" (no. 996).
The catechism goes on to note that "The 'how' exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith." We do know that it will be the same body that we have in our present existence, but that body will be transformed. "This perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53). The body is not resusitated, it is glorified.
St. Paul draws an analogy with planting a seed. Our earthly body is but a seed out of which will blossom our glorified body (1 Corinthians 15:36-37).
We see this in Christ's resurrection. His resurrected body was identical with his earthly body, but glorified. Although it was the same body, often he was not recognizable to those who knew him. He could pass through locked doors, but also eat a meal.
This transformation of Christ's body, incidentally, helps us understand the Eucharist. It gives us some glimmer of understanding of how Christ's body and blood can be present under the appearance of bread and wine.
This is a miracle, but it is also a sign of how totally transformed we will be in God's kingdom. Christ rose, not for his own sake, but for our sake so that we too might be born into eternal life.
Deep within this doctrine is a respect for life in this world. The person is not composed of two alien substances, body and soul, but is one being, undivided. The Greeks who believed in the immortality of the soul, but not the resurrection of the body, thus regarded the body and human history as extraneous to immortality. The soul, however, was seen as by nature indestructible.
In the Christian view, everything can be destroyed. Only God is by nature immortal. We have the possibility of eternal life, not by our own power, but by the action of God who knows us and loves us and calls us to himself. Christ is the Bridegroom, ever in pursuit of his bride. And it is God's love which makes the human person imperishable.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger puts it this way: "The distinguishing mark of man, seen from above, is his being addressed by God, the fact that he is God's partner in a dialogue, the being called by God. Seen from below, this means that man is the being that can think of God, the being opened on to transcendence" (Introduction to Christianity, p. 274).
We are called to be with God, as individuals, yes, but also as a community. On the last day, the whole human world is resurrected -- our actions, our hopes, our thoughts, our relationships. We are social beings and our orientation towards God is also an orientation towards other human beings. I am immortal, but there is also a new heaven and a new earth.
This gives meaning to everything we do in this world for all of our actions will be transformed and glorified in this new heaven and new earth. It is the whole person, not just the so-called spiritual dimension, which gives glory to God. We need to nurture the seed which is our life today for how it is fed and watered now will profoundly affect how it blossoms in eternity.
Rather than losing ourselves in game shows, alcohol or the pursuit of money, we should "seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your hearts on heavenly things, not the things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:1-2).
This not only means that we should pray and lead devoted lives, but that the work of our hands and minds build up God's kingdom. The whole person is called to live with God in eternity; the whole person ought to be engaged in working with God in this world.
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