Was the dead body of Jesus still God incarnate?
I was thinking about this the other day, between eating a cheese toastie and watching the Monty Python clips. Maybe it was all the talk of “THIS IS AN EX-PARROT” that got me onto this particularly moribund train of thought.
Was the dead, lifeless body of Jesus in the tomb still truly and fully God? As much as He was when He was alive? My first thought was ew, no. He’s dead. How can He be God? I mean, He is dead. That seems as undivine as you can get, right?
But I started to think. When the soldier pierced His side after He had died, and blood and water came forth, was He still God? When our blessed Mother took Jesus into her arms, was He still God? When the holy women prepared His body for burial, was He still God? If, somehow, you’d found your way into that tomb, could you have knelt down before Him and worshipped?
Could you, in short, worship a corpse? Was this body of Jesus — dead, lifeless, brusied and bloodied — still God, or was He now merely the corpse of the former Saviour? The ex-God?
When Jesus died, His soul was separated from His body. That’s what death is. It’s the separation of the soul, which animates the body, from the body itself. Without the animating force of the soul, the body is dead and lifeless. After Jesus died, His soul (now separated from His body) descended into hell while His body remained in the tomb.
Our Lord’s soul is a human soul; it is not a divine soul. (There’s no such thing since God Himself is Spirit and Life.) The Word of God, who is fully God, assumed a fully human nature. He took on both a human body and a human soul.
His divine nature was united to both His human body and His human soul and this union could never be broken. As such, the Word of God remained united to His incarnate body — even after death. Even when His human soul had been separated from His body, He was still God and still united to both His human soul and His human flesh. And not just in “well, we call Him God because otherwise it gets a bit complicated” kind of way. No, the dead body of Jesus Christ still contained the fullness of deity! Dead Jesus was still fully God!!
Dead Jesus in the Scriptures
In case you can’t tell by the exclamation marks, this has me slightly unnerved. It seems one thing for God to become a human person, but to be a human corpse? That feels almost blasphemous.
Yet, Scripture and Tradition speak of the dead body of Jesus Christ as true God even after His death. In his first sermon at Pentecost, St Peter tells the crowd that,
You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:15)
If God ceased to be united with Christ’s body at the moment of death, then the Author of Life could not have been raised from the dead. It is our bodies which are raised from the dead, not our souls. (Our souls remain living; they don’t need to be raised from anything.) So St Peter is saying God, the Author of Life, was raised from the dead through His human body. As the Catechism puts it,
Since the ‘Author of life’ who was killed is the same ‘living one [who has] risen’, the divine person of the Son of God necessarily continued to possess his human soul and body, separated from each other by death. (CCC §626)
Dead Jesus in the Creed
We confess this every time we proclaim the Creed.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages… For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
Who is the He who was crucified “and was buried, and rose again”? The one Lord Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the Father. If the Son of God did not remained united to His dead body, then we could say He suffered death perhaps, but not that He was buried or that He rose again.
Dead Jesus According to the Saints
The doctors of the Church understood this. St John Damascene writes,
Wherefore, although [Christ] died as man and His holy Spirit was severed from His immaculate body, yet His divinity remained inseparable from both, I mean, from His soul and His body. (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III, chp. 27)
St Thomas Aquinas explains, in typical fashion, why this is the case. The gifts of God are irrevocable; He doesn’t do swapsies.
What is bestowed through God’s grace is never withdrawn except through fault. Hence it is written: “The gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.” (Romans 11:29) But the grace of union whereby the Godhead was united to the flesh in Christ’s Person, is greater than the grace of adoption whereby others are sanctified: also it is more enduring of itself, because this grace is ordained for personal union, whereas the grace of adoption is referred to a certain affective union. (ST, III, Q. 50, Art. 2)
If we cannot sever our personal union to God except through sin, then how much stronger is “the grace of union whereby the Godhead was united to the flesh in Christ’s Person.” Now, Christ did not sin and so “it was impossible for the union of the Godhead with the flesh to be dissolved.” He concludes,
Consequently, as before death Christ’s flesh was united personally and hypostatically with the Word of God, it remained so after His death, so that the hypostasis of the Word of God was not different from that of Christ’s flesh after death. (ST, III, Q. 50, Art. 2)
Every time I think I’ve understood the humility of our Lord, He knocks me over the head with a theology textbook and says, oh girl, you ain’t understood nothing yet.
Our Lord was content to unite Himself, not just to a human nature, but to dead flesh. He did not abandon His own body to the grave; neither will He abandon us. Our God descends to the dead, not merely in His human soul, but as a human body. He endures the full bitterness of the human experience — from the cradle to the grave.
If somehow, you could have snuck into the tomb of Jesus on that mournful Holy Saturday, you could have knelt down and worshipped the true God.
The dead body of Jesus Christ was still inseperably united to the divine Son of God.
Even in the grave, He was still God.