Msgr. Michael K. Magee
The Challenge of Jesus Today
The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer in the Mass of Christian Burial reminds us of the implications of the Easter mystery, not just for our belief in the Lord Jesus but for our own eternal destiny as well. Because He is risen from the dead in His human body, we who are baptized in Him now hope to share in His destiny.
Unfortunately, many Catholics in America may not realize that they are implicitly denying that hope. A recent poll (cf. pewforum.org) suggests that 28 percent of Catholics in the United States believe in reincarnation, defined as the notion “that people will be reborn in this world again and again.”
Undoubtedly, some will consider resurrection and reincarnation to be two roughly equivalent ways of saying that our bodily death is not the end of our existence. This mistake, however, overlooks the fact that our human existence includes the body in which we spend our earthly life, the relationships that we forge while here, those persons by whom we are nurtured and fed and those for whom we sacrifice ourselves. A “new life” that would not include these elements would not be the same existence at all.
At times, professed Christians have even applied this notion of reincarnation to Jesus Christ Himself, suggesting that He was only one incarnation (or “enfleshment”) of the Son of God, that He had previously come in other bodily forms, and that He can be expected to appear in a new form at some later time.
Besides emptying the Easter mystery of its power, this error also misses the astounding truth that in Jesus Christ the one unique and unrepeatable Person of the spanine Son has joined Himself to an inspanidual human nature that remains His forever. The body in which He appeared to His disciples after His resurrection was the same body in which He had been born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though it was now glorified and changed in appearance. In this same body He was recognized “in the breaking of the bread” by those whom He had met on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:35), and in this same body He comes to us under the forms of bread and wine in every celebration of Holy Mass.
A person is not a repeatable or interchangeable commodity. I could not have been comforted at the time of my parents’ deaths by the thought that they continue somewhere else, no longer as my parents but as members of some unknown earthly family, or perhaps as someone else’s dog and cat.
Nor could I have been comforted by carrying out my mother’s one-time wish (thankfully changed before her death) to have her ashes scattered over the hills around her birthplace, as if she were being reunited to the earth.
So consoling instead is the hope that Jesus’ resurrection opens up for us, namely that on the last day, my mother’s and father’s bodies will rise in glory and be rejoined to their souls, and I will meet them again in the same body that was born from them, also now glorified in Christ.
Thanks be to God for the resurrection of His Son, and for the hope that shines on us because of this great event.
Msgr. Michael K. Magee is the chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.