John in July: Risen Jesus as Rainbow Body (Jn 20)

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I recently received a book called The Rainbow Book from its author F. Lanier Graham, who signed it and wrote, “For Daniel who sees the Light beyond color.” There is a lot one can say about F. Lanier Graham, but I will try to be brief. He used to play chess with French artist Marcel Duchamp, drink with author Alan Watts (former Episcopal priest) and study with mythologist Joseph Campbell, who called The Rainbow Book “wonderful.” He also served as the curator of the de Young museum in San Francisco, the Norton Simon in Pasadena and Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has an enormous and diverse collection of art, including temple cones from ancient Sumer, paintings by Dali, sculptures by Rodin, coins from the ancient Celts, and several Buddha statues from Tibet (and this is barely scratching the surface). His interest in Tibet and rainbows got me thinking about the phenomenon known as “Rainbow Body” which I learned about a few years ago in an introductory course on Tibetan Buddhism. Apparently when an enlightened teacher attains complete knowledge (rigpa) his body appears as pure light, surrounded by rainbows. When this teacher transmits his knowledge to the student, light and rainbows tend to appear; and when the teacher dies, the corpse does not decompose but apparently disappears, leaving behind only fingernails and hair.

When I hear about the “Rainbow Body” I cannot help but think of phenomena described in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures like Elijah’s chariot and the transmission of his spirit to his student Elisha, early forms of Merkabah mysticism as described in Ezekiel and even the transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels. Christian authors like David Steindl-Rast and Francis V. Tiso have investigated the Rainbow Body phenomenon and its connection to Christian spirituality and seem to think it is worth some serious scholarly attention.

As I read and reflect on the final chapter of the Fourth Gospel (Ch 21 is the epilogue and was most likely added later) and approach the mystery of the Resurrection, I again find myself thinking about the Rainbow Body, especially as I glance through my new colorful Rainbow Book. I resist the temptation to see the Resurrection as merely the disciples’ fond memory and affection for their deceased rabbi as many liberal-minded Christians are wont to do. Something far more profound took place, something that transformed a scared group of profoundly disheartened disciples into a bold community of world-changing apostles. Although the “Rainbow Body” phenomenon limbers up my imagination for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I hesitate to label the Resurrection as a Rainbow Body phenomenon. What little I do know about the Rainbow Body does not seem to match the data we have of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Dreams and Hallucinations?

In John 20, the Risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (vv. 14-17), then to a group of disciples (vv. 19-23) and then to Thomas (vv. 26-29). The Synoptic Gospels offer their own accounts of resurrection appearances while Paul, who provides the earliest testimony of the resurrection, claims that the Risen Jesus appeared to Cephas (Peter), James, the Twelve, and then to more than five hundred other disciples (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Sandra Schneiders writes, “the data about the appearances is extensive and diverse and suggests by its quantitative and qualitative variety that we are not dealing with a single or private experience that was multiplied by psychological ‘contagion’ or literary replication. We are dealing with something that ‘happened,’ whatever that was or means.” (Sandra Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, 12).

Based on the New Testament data of the resurrection, it seems highly unlikely that these experiences of the resurrection were self-induced hallucinations or dream-like visions. The disciples were hiding in fear, full of despair, not expecting to ever see their crucified Messiah again. They responded to news of the Risen Jesus and to the Risen Jesus himself with surprise, joy and disbelief. This data does not support the hypothesis of group hallucination, which is a questionable phenomenon in the first place. Also, the appearances took place in broad daylight as the recipients were going about their daily business, not consciously praying or seeking divine illumination or vision. The Easter experiences seem to be phenomena made of different stuff than the dreams and mystical visions received by mystics like Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila. Schneiders concludes, “We are dealing with historical experience (that of the disciples) of nonhistorical reality…somehow mediated by body (which is what we mean by the risen Jesus).” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 14).

It also worth noting that the disciples did not immediately recognize the Risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Jesus for a gardener just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus mistook him for a wandering stranger (Luke 24:13-35). In considering the body of the Risen Jesus, we need to acknowledge that “we are not dealing with a natural, physical body such as Jesus had before his death, which was visible to anyone who was present where Jesus was present and who was recognizable by his physiognomy as any other mortal is.” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 13).

Although the empty tomb does not provide any proof of the resurrection, we have to acknowledge the fact that the Jewish and Roman authorities did not discredit any claims of the resurrection by simply producing the body of Jesus; something they would have most likely done if they could. It is unlikely that Jesus’ body was thrown into a heap of corpses as John Dominic Crossan suggests since all four Gospel accounts attest to Joseph of Arimathea, who was seen burying Jesus. In John 19, Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea in the burial and in John 20, Mary Magdalene knows exactly where to go to find Jesus’ body.

Fingernails and Hair?

If the tomb was empty and no one could produce the body, then the Risen Jesus appeared to his disciples not as an ethereal ghost but as a body. It seems clear that his body was not the same body he had prior to his death but it also seems clear that his body was not a second body. In other words, the crucified body of Jesus did not rot away while the spirit of Jesus found a new and improved body in which he could appear to his disciples, cross wounds included. Also, the crucified body of Jesus likely did not become a Rainbow Body, leaving behind fingernails and hair. There is no mention of anyone finding hair or fingernails of Jesus in the tomb alongside the burial cloth and linen wrappings, even though they would certainly be some impressive relics!

Speaking of fingernails and hair, Carolyn Walker Bynum explains how medieval scholars engaged in serious debate about these factors in attempting to make sense of the resurrection of the baptized: “The medievals discussed such things as whether bits of one’s body, like fingernails and hair, would have to be found and reassembled for the general resurrection at the end of the world, or whether the body of a person who had been digested as a cannibal would be resurrected as part of the eater or the eaten.” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 19). Although these debates might sound ridiculous, I’ll admit that I have similar questions about bodies that have been cremated into ash and then scattered. Similar questions and concerns caused the Roman Catholic Church to ban cremations until relatively recently (1963).

Body as Symbol

Schneiders begins to make things click for me when she invites me to think of the body as a symbol of the self. “Symbol,” she explains, “is not…a mere ‘sign.’ It is a way of being present of something, such as person, that cannot be encountered except in and through its symbolization” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 26). Although there may be more to me than my body, I am symbolized to the people around me as my body, the same body that is typing this sentence. It is through my body that I am present and available to others and to the world. “What is essential to the notion of symbol,” Schneiders says, “is that it renders present and available that which it symbolizes.” (Schneiders,Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 26).

In the same way that I am present and available to others through my primary symbol, which is my body, the Risen Jesus chose to be present and available to others through a body. However, his body was clearly different. Schneiders sums up her approach, when she says, “The body of the risen Jesus functions symbolically just as his earthly body did, but the difference lies in the character, not the fact, of his bodiliness. In other words, what changes through Resurrection is not the reality but the mode of the bodily or symbolic presence of Jesus among his disciples. The major difference between our earthly (material/physical) bodies and the glorified (nonphysical) body of Jesus as symbolic is that the physical materiality of our bodies entails space-time limitations and the intrinsic decomposability of physicality that no longer apply to Jesus’ body since he is no longer within history. ‘Death no longer has dominion over him’ (Rom 6:9), and neither do the conditions of intra-historical existence” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 26)

This understanding of the body as symbol helps me make sense of some conundrums…

Empty Tomb?

I briefly discussed the importance of the empty tomb, which seems to suggest that somehow the crucified body of Jesus became the glorified body of the Risen Jesus. If the body is a symbol of a person, which makes the person present and available, then the corpse is a symbol of the person’s absence. So it would not make sense for the living Jesus to leave a corpse, which symbolizes his absence. “A corpse of the living Jesus would be a counter-symbol” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 28). So what happened to the dead body of Jesus? Schneiders says, “It makes no more sense to ask where the corpse of Jesus ‘went’ than to ask where my five-year-old body is now that I am an adult. The answer is that the child body, the symbol of my five-year-old self, is not because my five-year-old self no longer exists. Or better still, it is subsumed in the present symbol of myself, the body that I am today. The body of the pre-Easter Jesus is not resuscitated, nor did it decay. It is not. Or better still, it is subsumed into the symbolic capacity of his glorified self.” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 28). So the crucified body of Jesus does not simply become the body of the Risen Jesus. The crucified body of Jesus becomes subsumed in the glorified body of Christ.

 The Mystical Ascension

As I described in the post about Mary Magdalene, Jesus in John 20 is trying to teach Mary and the reader how to experience the risen body of Christ. Jesus tells Mary, “Do not touch me, but go to my disciples” (20:17). He is saying, “If you want to touch me now that I am risen, the best way to do so is within the community of believers.” That is why Jesus invites Thomas, who is among the community, to rummage through his flesh in the same chapter. Jesus seems to be inviting his people to experience his body communally rather than personally. Furthermore, Jesus invites his people to be his body in the world so that the world can experience his risen body through them.

Jesus makes himself present and available to his disciples through the symbol of his risen body. Even though this risen body exceeds the physical limitations that bind our physical bodies, the risen body of Jesus still seems to remain bound, at least to a degree, by space and time. The risen Jesus does not appear at multiple locations at the same time nor does he travel into the near or distant future. One way that Jesus could bi-locate and travel through time would be to make numerous clones of himself and scatter them throughout the world and throughout history. Jesus does not do this, but he does something like it. By inviting us to experience his body in the community and to be his body in the world Jesus makes himself into a body that can simultaneously be in California and Hong Kong; that can be present in the American Civil War as well as in Merovingian France.

The Gospel of John offers no explicit account of the ascension of the risen Christ although it is referenced several times (6:62; 7:33; 8:21; 13:1; 20:17). I think John might be trying to subtly communicate a profound truth through this omission. I think John is showing how the community of believers are becoming one just as Jesus and the Father are one (17:21) in that Jesus, the Father, and the community all become one through the Spirit. In this way, the ascension of Jesus to the Father is synonymous with the risen body of Jesus becoming the body (and the bodies) of the believing community because they are all one, as Jesus prayed.

Jesus tells Mary not to touch him because he has not yet ascended, but he is about to ascend. Jesus does not mention his ascension again after that because Jesus’s appearance to his disciples in John 20 is John’s version of the ascension, when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, empowering them to forgive and bringing them into the oneness he shares with the Father (“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” 20:21). So although the risen body of Jesus may ascend to the right hand of the Father, John wants to stress how the risen body of Jesus remains present and available to the world through the collective body of his followers: “The primary ongoing symbolization of the glorified Jesus in this world is his present historical body, which is all the baptized who are corporately one as the Body of Christ through the power of his indwelling Spirit” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 29).

The Rainbow Body of Christ

When we begin to see the body of believers as the primary symbol of the risen body of Jesus in the world, we can begin to see the risen Jesus as a Rainbow Body, but not necessarily in the Tibetan Buddhist sense. Schneiders writes, “Jesus, now glorified, is no longer limited, either personally or as principle of his corporate members, by gender, ethnicity, race, age, chronological setting, or any other characteristic that is a function of physicality. However we might imagine Jesus (and most people probably imagine him as a young man with Semitic features), Jesus’ real continuity with his historical self is no longer personally limiting. His bodiliness is not physical. When some of the medieval mystics spoke of Jesus as ‘mother’ they were not distorting his reality but attending to something in Jesus that he himself affirmed but that was ‘muted’ in his earthly life by the fact of his physical maleness, namely his maternal or nurturing character in relation to his disciples. Jesus, although he died in his early thirties, is no less identified with the elderly in their aging than he is with young people. Jesus is no more Jewish than Gentile, male than female, straight than gay, white than black, well than sick, European than Asian or Hispanic. Jesus is fully identified with his body, which is individually each of his members and corporately the Church” (Schneiders, Jesus Risen In Our Midst, 32). So in this sense, the risen Jesus is indeed a Rainbow Body.

My gifts and my body contribute to the Rainbow’s beauty and just as the branch can bear no fruit apart from the vine neither can color display its splendor apart from the light. Perhaps this is partly what Rainbow expert F. Lanier Graham was referring to when he said, “For Daniel who sees the Light beyond color.”

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One thought on “John in July: Risen Jesus as Rainbow Body (Jn 20)

  1. This is an excellent article. I’ve been fascinated by the Rainbow Body phenomenon for many years. The work done by Fr. Tiso and Br. Stendl-Rast has been most promising and hopeful. The theory I’m subscribing to is that the body has innate potentials in it which the Holy Spirit unlocks leading to such phenomena and happenings. It is so wonderful that the Spirit releases itself not only in Christian people but people in many faiths who exhibit this phenomenon and undergo this type of redemption. Jesus must be the prime example of this. I really appreciated what you discussed about Jesus’ discourse with Mary of Magdala… “don’t hold on to me…for I’ve not ascended to my Father” and then connecting this to his unlimited presence in the community and the invitation to experience him communally. Thank you so much.

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