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The Resurrection of the Body

General Audience — August 8, 1990

The First Letter of Peter states: "Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit" (1 Pet 3:18). The Apostle Paul also states the same truth in his introduction to the Letter to the Romans, where he introduces himself as the herald of the Gospel of God. He writes: "The Gospel is about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 1:3-4). In this regard I wrote in the Encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem: "It can be said that the messianic 'raising up' of Christ in the Holy Spirit reaches its zenith in the resurrection, in which he reveals himself also as the Son of God, 'full of power'" (n. 24).

Scholars hold that this passage of the Letter to the Romans—as well as the passage from the Letter of Peter (1 Pet 3:18-4:6)—contains an earlier profession of faith which the two apostles took from the living resource of the earliest Christian community. Among the elements in this profession of faith is the statement that the Holy Spirit working in the resurrection is the "Spirit of holiness." Therefore we can say that Christ, who was Son of God from the moment of his conception in Mary's womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, is "constituted" as the source of life and holiness in the resurrection, "full of sanctifying power," by the action of the same Holy Spirit.

Thus the full meaning of the action which Jesus performed on the night of the resurrection, "the first day after the sabbath," is made clear. In appearing to the apostles he showed them his hands and side, breathed on them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22).

The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians merits special attention in this regard. We saw earlier in the Christological catecheses that this letter contains the first historical record about the witnesses concerning Christ's resurrection, which in the Apostle's view already belonged to Church tradition: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve" (15:3-5). Then the Apostle lists various appearances of Christ which followed the resurrection, mentioning finally the one he himself received (cf. 15:4-11).

This is a very important text which documents not only the conviction of the first Christians about the resurrection of Jesus, but also the preaching of the apostles, the developing tradition, and the pneumatological and eschatological content of the faith of the early Church.

In his letter, the Apostle links Christ's resurrection with faith in the universal resurrection of the body and establishes a relationship between Christ and Adam in these terms: "The first man, Adam, became a living being, the last Adam a life-giving spirit" (15:45). Writing about Adam who became a "living spirit," Paul cites the text of Genesis, according to which Adam became a "living being" thanks to the "breath of life" which God "blew into his nostrils" (Gen 2:7). Paul then holds that Jesus Christ, as a risen man, goes beyond Adam. He possesses the fullness of the Holy Spirit, who in a new way must give man life so as to make him a spiritual being. If the new Adam became "a life-giving spirit," that does not mean that he identifies personally with the Holy Spirit who "gives [divine] life." Rather it means that, possessing as man the fullness of this Spirit, he gives the Spirit to the apostles, to the Church and to all humanity. The "Spirit gives life" through Jesus' death and resurrection, or through the sacrifice offered on the cross.

The Apostle's text is part of Paul's instruction on the destiny of the human body whose vital principle is the soul (psyche in Greek, nefesh in Hebrew: cf. Gen 2:7). It is a natural principle. The body seems to be abandoned by it at the moment of death, an event which poses the question of immortality as an existential problem prior even to being an object of philosophical reflection.

According to the Apostle, the resurrection of Christ responds to this question with the sureness of faith. The body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit in the resurrection, is the source of new life for risen bodies: "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44). The "natural" body (that is, animated by the psyche) is destined to disappear to yield place to the "spiritual body," animated by the pneuma, the Spirit. He is the principle of new life already present during mortal life (cf. Rom 1:9; 5:5), but which will reach his full effectiveness after death. Then he will be the author of the resurrection of the natural body in the completed reality of the spiritual body through union with the risen Christ (cf. Rom 1:4; 8:11), the heavenly man and the "life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor 15:45-49).

The coming resurrection of our bodies, therefore, is linked to their spiritualization in resemblance to Christ's body, enlivened by the Holy Spirit's power. This is the Apostle's answer to the question he himself asks: "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?" (1 Cor 15:35). "You fool!" Paul exclaims. "What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel of wheat, perhaps, or of some other kind; but God gives it a body as he chooses.... So also is the resurrection of the dead...it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:36-44).

According to the Apostle, life in Christ is at the same time life in the Holy Spirit: "But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong [to Christ]" (Rom 8:9). True freedom is found in Christ and his Spirit, "because the law of the spirit of life in Jesus Christ has freed you from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2). Sanctification in Christ is at the same time sanctification in the Holy Spirit (cf., for example, 1 Cor 1:2; Rom 15:16). If Christ "intercedes for us" (Rom 8:34), then the Holy Spirit too "intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.... He intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will" (Rom 8:26-27).

As is clear in these Pauline texts, the Holy Spirit who has acted in Christ's resurrection already infuses new life into the Christian within the eschatological perspective of the future resurrection. There is a continuity between Christ's resurrection, the new life of Christians freed from sin and made sharers in the paschal mystery, and the future reconstitution of the body-soul union in the resurrection of the dead. The author of all growth of new life in Christ is the Holy Spirit.

We can say that Christ's mission truly reaches its zenith in the paschal mystery. In it, the close connection between Christology and pneumatology opens up on the eschatological horizon before the eyes of believers and the research of theologians. But this perspective includes the ecclesiological level also; since "the Church...proclaims the one who gives...life: the life-giving Spirit; she proclaims the Spirit and cooperates with the Spirit in giving life. For, 'although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness' (Rom 8:10), the righteousness accomplished by the crucified and risen Christ. And in the name of Christ's resurrection the Church serves the life that comes from God himself, in close union with and in humble service to the Spirit" (DViv 58).

At the heart of this service is the Eucharist. In this sacrament, Christ's redemptive gift continues and is renewed incessantly. It contains as well the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Eucharist is the sacrament in which the Spirit continues to work and to "reveal himself" as the vital human principle in time and eternity. The Spirit is the source of light for the mind and of strength for conduct, according to the words of Jesus in Capernaum: "It is the Spirit who gives life.... The words which I have spoken to you" (concerning the "bread which comes down from heaven") "are spirit and life" (Jn 6:63).