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Angela Tilby: Why bodily resurrection troubles us

28 March 2024

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AS ONE who regularly attends choral evensong, I find myself frequently reciting the Apostles’ Creed, with its ringing affirmation of belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The latter of these is perhaps sufficiently vague not to be too much trouble for many people. But bodily resurrection is much harder. Does anyone really believe that the dead will somehow clamber out of their graves, or be recomposed from their ashes and stalk about again, as in Stanley Spencer’s famous The Resurrection, Cookham?

There have been multiple interpretations of the resurrection of the body down the ages. One contemporary suggestion is that “the body” here is a corporate reality referring to the Church as the body of Christ. Yet the phrase could also shed light on something more individual, which has been emphasised recently for me by the inquiry over the identity of cremated remains at a funeral firm in Hull.

Whatever we might think of the resurrection of the body as an article of faith, the bodily remains of loved ones matter to most people. There have been heartbreaking stories of bereaved relatives driven to despair at the thought that the urn of ashes that they received from the firm after their loved one’s cremation might not really be theirs.

For many, the body is precious, even in the form of ashes. It is, after all, the last physical connection with the deceased, which is why some have jewellery made from the carbonised remains. Wearing the ring or pendant brings comfort, enabling them to believe that the loved one remains, in some sense, present.

Some believers are robustly sceptical about all this. Either the dead are with Jesus, or they are not, and their mortal remains should not be treated as relics. And, indeed, there is, for most of us, a significance to letting go. The scattering of ashes or their burial marks the moment to move on.

Reading the Gospels again, I am struck by the vividness of Jesus’s resurrection appearances, especially the passage in St Luke’s Gospel where he eats a piece of grilled fish to prove that he is more than a lingering presence. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s insistence that the life to come is not merely a life of shadows and memories (though these may have to be dealt with beyond death), but of greater substance, greater vitality, than anything that we have known on earth.

Our bodies bear the weight and the pain of mortal existence, including our bad and good choices and commitments. This is why the resurrection of the body involves judgement (John 5.28-29). But it also prepares the way for deeper connection than we could ever have known on earth — that belonging to one another and to the risen Christ which we sum up in another credal phrase: “the communion of saints”.

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