- From Empty Tomb Toward Transfigured Bodies:Pondering Resurrection with Wit
Resurrection,1 in Hans Urs von Balthasar's poignant words, establishes "the all-controlling turning point"2 in divine and human history. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sacramental hinge in the historico-cosmic drama of salvation. Its utmost soteriological and spiritual relevance resides precisely in its provocative yet irreducibly embodied nature. Hence, a mere mention of Jesus' empty tomb in scholarly discourse rarely fails to raise historical-critical eyebrows. It is no secret that Christian theological inquiry, especially in its modern Western manifestations, has habitually struggled with the intricacies and angsts of human embodiment. Yet it has wrestled even more profoundly with the absence of one critically important—yet missing—body: the body of Jesus Christ, "the firstborn of all creation," in whom "all things hold together" (Col 1:15-17).
Regardless of the intellectual scandals and cultural shockwaves that bodily resurrection engenders, nothing less than the overarching sacramental integrity of salvation hinges on the possibility of redemptive transfiguration of all matter starting with the exquisite yet vulnerable human body. But if, as Tertullian claimed long ago, caro salutis est cardo—if our flesh indeed is the hinge of salvation, the empty tomb is much more than just the most embarrassing episode within an already eccentric narrative of Jesus' death and resurrection. For the resurrection to be what the Christian tradition continues to claim it is—the ultimate liberative and healing transfiguration of our earthly personal, social, and planetary corporeality towards its true actualization and fulfillment in spiritual, affective, sensual, intellectual, and material wholeness—the tomb of Jesus had to be, as it were, empty.
Despite persistent temptations to "spiritualize," rationalize, and demythologize, the scriptural narratives suggest that the resurrection events were multisensory events that stretched human senses, sensibilities, affects, and intellects to the breaking point. The reflective trajectory of this essay starts with a multimedia event that engages senses and sensibilities—HBO award-winning film Wit. Wit foregrounds my theological reflection on the corporeal exigencies of Christ's—and, proleptically, our own—resurrection. But why choose a movie as a theological interlocutor? [End Page 217]
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Today some of the most fascinating conversations on life, dying and death in our globalized high-tech world increasingly occur outside the precincts of strictly defined "traditional" theological contexts—pulpits, cathedrals, seminary lecture halls and elitist peer-reviewed publications. To put it with a Shakespearian twist, today all the world, particularly its "world-wide-web," is indeed a stage of theological discourse. From a sacramental perspective, everything under the sun can potentially communicate and embody the divine, including media arts. The sacramental interface of revelation is not limited to Renaissance madrigals, Mannerist paintings, and Oberammergau passion plays. Digital media can serve equally potently as an occasion of grace3—and surprisingly perceptive theological insight. Moreover, William Dyrness has emphasized how "powerful and pervasive are the visual dimensions of contemporary popular culture" to the point where "culture has made a turn toward the visual, and with the rise of the new media, the visual image has come to occupy an unprecedented central place in our lives."4 We live in a cultural milieu where "images have come to count for more than words" and "the contemporary generation has been raised and nourished by images; it has an inescapably visual imagination. Regardless of whether one considers it good or bad, for this generation, aesthetics counts more than epistemology."5
Mark Jordan mused that the charism of theology is to facilitate our "restlessness on the way to beatitude."6 At the present time some of the most incisive and revealing contemporary restlessness around the mysteries of dying, death, and afterlife—an enigma never exclusively owned or solved by one single epoch, religion, culture, or genre of human creativity—has migrated into the media arts. In the context of contemporary visual theology, the critically [End Page 218] acclaimed HBO film Wit (2001) stands out as a stirring instance of courageous and intricate existential engagement with the agonies and disfigurations of terminal illness and death. The film is based...