The day I became a poet, life and death were one

“Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez, circa 1632.

After Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s other apostle Thomas — known as Didymus, the twin — was arguably the most despicable of the very first Christians. Judas sold out Jesus for money — for 30 pieces of silver, the gospel writer Matthew says, while Luke and John say he was possessed by Satan, that is, had gone off his rocker.

The case against Thomas was based on his denial of the most fundamental belief of Christianity — the raison d’être for Jesus being born — that he, though having experienced human death, rose from the dead and thereby beat death at its own game.

With Thomas’s denial we get the archetypal character of the “doubting Thomas,” an epithet applied to someone who rejects belief in some basic principle or event. The disbeliever is chided, “Ah, don’t be such a doubting Thomas.”

The gospel writer John says that, after the Good Friday execution on Golgotha, the official Registrar of Deaths had Jesus listed in the dead column but that he soon appeared, as if alive, to all the apostles, except Thomas was out at the time.

When he got home the 11 others excitedly exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord! He was here! He showed in person! He’s alive!” Thomas thought they were off their collective rocker: Jesus was dead; everybody saw him die on the cross.

But Thomas conceded he would believe if he could stick his finger in the holes in Jesus’s hands from when they nailed him to the cross, and could stick a hand in the hole in his side where a soldier had pierced him with a spear.

The story continues: Eight days later, all 12 apostles — Matthias had replaced Judas — were gathered in a locked room and Jesus appeared again, this time passing through the door as if he was Casper the Ghost.

He wished everyone peace, “Pax vobis,” then turned to Thomas right away — it was a business trip — and said, “Thomas, take your finger and stick it in these holes in my hands and put your hand in my side where the spear went, and stop being a disbeliever: Believe!”

All a stunned Thomas could say was, “My Lord, my God.” The vulgate says: “Dominus meus et Deus meus.”

Looking at him Jesus said, “You believe because you see what’s in front of your eyes, but blessed are those who do not see such things, physically, and believe.”

The moral of the story? The true Christian believes that Jesus rose from the dead — bodily — and that that body, as some gospel texts proclaim, later ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

What resurrected these thoughts in me was an article in The New York Times this past Easter (April 9, 2023) by an Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren, called “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?” She meant bodily.

Not to be disrespectful but the “bodily” part reminds me of when my chums and I played “Cops and Robbers” as kids and someone got shot dead; after a few minutes the dead person got up, came running back in the game shouting, “New Man! New Man!” And we accepted it.

Warren’s article turned out to be an interview she did with the renowned scripture scholar N. T. (Tom) Wright whose 848-page scholarly treatise “The Resurrection of the Son of God” appeared in March 2003.

Wright, once the respected Bishop of Dunham in the Anglican Church — the same denomination as Warren — also held the esteemed Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

He was long interested in a Christian’s view of life after death and, with respect to whether Jesus rose from the dead bodily, he said all the biblical talk about resurrection and apparitions, etc. was not metaphorical. The guy came back.

Wright’s thinking is considered by many as theologically and Christologically conservative; in 2005, he threatened to discipline clerics in his Anglican Church who registered or blessed a civil partnership. He was incensed that an openly gay Anglican vicar had exchanged vows with another man inside a Newcastle church.

On March 11 of the same year — two years after his magnum opus appeared — the bishop found himself on a stage in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-born, former Roman Catholic priest, prepared to debate/discuss/dialogue — but not argue — with the man about the correct view of the life and death and after-life of Jesus. The session was advertised as “The Resurrection: Historical Event or Theological Explanation.” It was standing-room only.

To those committed to getting to the bottom of this pons asinorum, the session was their “Rumble in the Jungle” or “Thrilla in Manila.”

Everything the two said, and discussed, and exchanged views on that day, can be found in “The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue,” which Fortress Press put out a year later; its editor, Robert B. Stewart, included articles from eight renowned scholars to help make sense of the issues.

I might add that Crossan was and remains the world champion of scholars on Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. He’s got more than 15 books on the subject without an ax to grind.

What he shared in his discussion with Wright was what he’d said many times before. In his 1998 “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus,” he said, “Bodily resurrection has nothing to do with a resuscitated body coming out of its tomb … Bodily resurrection means that the embodied life and death of the historical Jesus continues to be experienced, by believers, as powerfully efficacious and salvifically present in the world. That life continued, as it always had, to form communities of like lives.” As in communities of love.

In other words, Jesus died, and was no more, and would never be again. And for all the talk of Mary Magdalene finding an empty tomb on Easter morning, the stark reality is that a renegade peasant Jew like Jesus, crucified on a cross for being a rabid insurrectionist, was not likely to see a burial at all.

As Martin Hengel says in “Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross”: “The crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete. What it meant for a man in antiquity to be refused burial, and the dishonor which went with it, can hardly be appreciated by modern man.” Id est, Jesus was chum.

When I was in fourth grade in a Roman Catholic school being taught a lesson on the mother of Jesus rising from the dead and being assumed into heaven, bodily — the same “perk” as her kid — I told the nun that that was preposterous; I said Mary, like everyone else, was buried below forever and ever.

I wrote about it in a monograph in 2010 “El Día Que Me Hice Un Poeta” (“The Day I Became a Poet). After I registered my objection — I was 10 — as I say in the text, “The nun responded as quickly as I had to her: Impossible, [she said], that is blasphemy; the things of God are not the things of this world. The body of the mother of the son of God lives in heaven forever and ever without stain of sin or death.”

Two things I am sure of: the first is that the day I became a poet, life and death were one; the second is that, if John Dominic Crossan were a web designer today, he’d offer his services to any loving couple who wanted to marry, doing for them what Jesus had done for him.  

A very much belated Happy Easter.