3rd Sunday of Easter, Luke 24:13-25
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
In our commentary on the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, we considered two of the qualities of the resurrected body of Christ: Impassibility and subtlety. Now, we look to the final two qualities of the glorified body: Agility and clarity. Agility describes rapid movement, while clarity denotes a particular brightness in appearance (i.e. the resurrected body shines). Just as impassibility and subtlety were the means by which Christ entered into the locked room by walking through the walls and yet was able to be touched by St. Thomas, so too it is by virtue of agility and clarity that the Lord walked along with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus but then vanished from their sight.
If Jesus had a true, physical body after his Resurrection (and if it was a body at all, it must have been physical), how is it that he appeared in an unrecognizable form to Cleopas and his companion and then, immediately upon being recognized by them, disappeared all together from their sight?
Why Christ appeared under varying forms after his Resurrection
Before considering how it was that, after the Resurrection, our Savior appeared to his disciples under various forms and likenesses, it will be profitable to contemplate why the Lord appeared in varying manners. On this point, St. Thomas Aquinas offers a remarkable insight which comes from several of the early Fathers.
The Lucan account of the apparition on the road to Emmaus is contained in condensed form in the Gospel according to St. Mark, He appeared in another shape to two of them walking, as they were going into the country (Mark 16:12). St. Thomas asks whether it was fitting for our Lord to appear to the disciples in another shape. (ST III, q.55, a.4)
“As stated above (1,2), Christ's Resurrection was to be manifested to men in the same way as Divine things are revealed. But Divine things are revealed to men in various ways, according as they are variously disposed. For, those who have minds well disposed, perceive Divine things rightly, whereas those not so disposed perceive them with a certain confusion of doubt or error: for, the sensual men perceiveth not those things that are of the Spirit of God, as is said in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Consequently, after His Resurrection Christ appeared in His own shape to some who were well disposed to belief, while He appeared in another shape to them who seemed to be already growing tepid in their faith: hence these said (Luke 24:21): We hoped that it was He that should have redeemed Israel. Hence Gregory says (Hom. xxiii in Evang.), that ‘He showed Himself to them in body such as He was in their minds: for, because He was as yet a stranger to faith in their hearts, He made pretense of going on farther,’ that is, as if He were a stranger.”
To those who were properly disposed to the truth of the Resurrection by the virtue of faith, Christ allowed himself to be seen in his proper figure; but to those who were not yet so disposed, he rather disguised himself under another form. Hence, St. Mary Magdalene did not at first recognize her Savior, until he moved her to faith. Likewise, these two on the way knew the Lord only in the breaking of the bread – which signifies the sacrament of faith. The physical vision granted to the disciples corresponds to the spiritual vision of their hearts.
Could the Lord teleport?
And yet, immediately upon being recognized by Cleopas and his companion, Jesus vanished from their sight. Are we to suppose that he teleported away from that place – literally falling out of existence from one place in order to come into existence in another place, without crossing the intermediary length of space?
The Angel of the Schools: “Opinion is much divided on this point. For some say that a glorified body passes from one place to another without passing through the interval, just as the will passes from one place to another without passing through the interval, and that consequently it is possible for the movement of a glorified body like that of the will to be instantaneous. But this will not hold: because the glorified body will never attain to the dignity of the spiritual nature, just as it will never cease to be a body. […] Hence others with greater probability hold that a glorified body moves in time, but that this time is so short as to be imperceptible.” (ST Supplementum, q.84, a.3)
Indeed, “although the power of a glorified soul surpasses immeasurably the power of a non-glorified soul, it does not surpass it infinitely, because both powers are finite: hence it does not follow that it causes instantaneous movement. […] Now it is impossible to take away from a body its being in some place or position, except one deprive it of its corporeity, by reason of which it requires a place or position: wherefore so long as it retains the nature of a body, it can nowise be moved instantaneously, however greater be the motive power. Now the glorified body will never lose its corporeity, and therefore it will never be possible for it to be moved instantaneously.” (ST Supplementum, q.84, a.3, ad 3)
So long as the resurrected and glorified body remains a body (and surely it must), it will be physical. While the Resurrection perfected and elevated the body of Christ, it did not essentially change it – the saints will be raised immortal and incorruptible, but not immaterial. The glorified body, by the gift of agility, will move extremely fast – but it will not teleport.
Therefore, as it is simply and absolutely impossible (on the level of a logical impossibility) for a body to pass from one point to another without crossing the intervening space; it is not possible that the Lord should have teleported away from the disciples at the meal on the road to Emmaus.
Jesus did not teleport, he vanished – this implies a change in the vision of the disciples (and in the manner in which Christ was manifested to them) more than a change in the location of the Lord.
A glorified physical body need not be seen by a non-glorified eye
St. Thomas explains that, by the gift of clarity, it is possible for a glorified body to be either visible or invisible without any change in the body itself: “A visible object is seen, inasmuch as it acts on the sight. Now there is no change in a thing through its acting or not acting on an external object. Wherefore a glorified body may be seen or not seen without any property pertaining to its perfection being changed. Consequently it will be in the power of a glorified soul for its body to be seen or not seen, even as any other action of the body will be in the soul's power; else the glorified body would not be a perfectly obedient instrument of its principal agent.” (ST Supplementum, q.85, a.3)
Though the resurrected body of Jesus must necessarily be physical and, therefore must be extended in space, it need not always be seen. Indeed, it often occurs that, while the quantity and size of an object remains the same, that object is seen under different aspects according both to the properties of the eye which looks and according to the circumstances of the environment. A change in manifestation need not always imply a change in essence or quantity.
In the case of the glorified body of Christ (as well as that which will be given to the saints), though the quantity of the body does not and cannot change, the visible manifestation of the body is capable of being changed according to the will. Hence, when Jesus desired to be seen, he was seen; and, when he desired no longer to be seen, he was not seen. And this, without any essential change in the body itself – which remains ever physical and material, though glorified.
[Certainly, much more could be said on this last point … it would be particularly interesting to consider how the physical properties of light might interact with a glorified body; and this would probably lead us to make certain modification to St. Thomas’ doctrine. However, I am confident that the essential points of this teaching are correct and will hold even in the modern scientific age … therefore, as this is a blog and not a theological journal, we will rest our case.]