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from issue no. 04 - 2009

He lets Himself be seen and touched so that they might acknowledge the reality of His flesh

In the sermons of the Easter period Augustine often repeats that it was Christ Himself who wanted to rid the apostles of any doubt about the reality of His Resurrection. Interview with Father Nello Cipriani, Professor at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute

Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti

<I>The disbelief of Thomas</I>, Caravaggio, Bildergalerie, Potsdam-Sanssouci

The disbelief of Thomas, Caravaggio, Bildergalerie, Potsdam-Sanssouci

“Resurrexit tertia die
sicut apostoli,
suis etiam sensibus,
(Augustine, De civitate Dei, XVIII, 54, 1)

We talked with Father Nello Cipriani during Eastertime about how, by letting Himself be seen and touched Jesus Himself meant to testify to the apostles the reality of His Resurrection.

In which of Augustine’s works is the Resurrection of the Lord in His real body most amply commented?
NELLO CIPRIANI: He speaks of it in several places, but especially in the numerous sermons of Eastertide, a period in which Augustine preached every day. Various aspects of the mystery of the Resurrection of the dead are dealt with in those sermons. What is most striking is that Augustine is trying to make the faithful understand that it is Christ Himself who wanted to get rid of the doubts of the apostles who thought they were seeing a ghost, “Why are you troubled, and there are doubts in your heart? Look at my hands and my feet, feel me and see”, says the Lord (Lk 24, 38f). And Augustine, as if in persona Christi, comments, in Sermon 237: “If it seems little just to see me, stretch out your hand. If it seems little just to see me and not even touching is enough, feel me. He did not merely tell them to touch, but invited them to feel and handle Him. Your hands will tell you if your eyes deceive you. Touch me and see. Let hands become eyes. But feel and see what? That a ghost has not flesh and blood as you see that I have. You had stumbled [Augustine uses here a generic second person singular] into the same mistake as the disciples: get yourself straight with the disciples! It is human to err, it’s true. Even Peter and the other apostles did: they thought they were seeing a ghost. But they did not persist in the error. So that you might know that what they had in their heart was altogether not true, the doctor did not let them go away in such fashion, but approaching applied the medicine. He saw the wounds in their hearts and to heal these wounds in the heart, He still bore on His body the scars”.
They are words that make better understood than many arguments that it was the Lord Himself Who, by getting Himself seen and touched, constituted the apostles as witnesses to His resurrection.
CIPRIANI: In another sermon (Sermon 242) Augustine responds to a criticism of Porphyry, the third century Neo-platonist philosopher, author of Against the Christians. Among his many arguments against Christianity, he also advanced one against the resurrection of the body, which for a Neo-platonist is absolutely unacceptable. Porphyry also criticized the Gospel account of Luke, posing a kind of dilemma: either the risen Christ asked to eat because He needed to eat and thus did not have an incorruptible body, or, if He did not need to eat, why would He have asked? Augustine answers by quoting the words of the risen Jesus: “‘Do you have something to eat here? And they offered Him a piece of roasted fish and a honeycomb. He ate and offered them the leftovers” [as the Latin in the hands of Augustine puts it] (cf. Lk 24, 41f). Here is the objection brought against us: if the body is raised incorruptible, why does Christ the Lord set Himself to eat? In fact, you have read that He ate. But have you perhaps read that He was hungry? Eating was a gesture demonstrative of His power, not of a need”. And a little later, to the further objection that, if not risen with defects, it is difficult to see why the Lord has kept the scars of the wounds, Augustine answers again that the Lord’s “was a gesture of power, not of need. He wanted to rise thus, thus He wanted to show Himself to some who doubted [sic resurgere voluit, sic se voluit quibusdam dubitantibus exhibere]. The scar of the wound on His flesh served to heal the wound of disbelief”.
Augustine refuting the heretics. Episode from the “Augustinian Stories” 
by Ottaviano Nelli, fresco from the second half of the 14th century, church 
of Saint Augustine, Gubbio, Perugia

Augustine refuting the heretics. Episode from the “Augustinian Stories” by Ottaviano Nelli, fresco from the second half of the 14th century, church of Saint Augustine, Gubbio, Perugia

He takes up the reasoning already set out in Sermon 237. It is not a lack, then, it is not a need that leads the Lord to ask to eat, but His wish to self-certify, one might say, His resurrection.
CIPRIANI: Certainly, the risen body no longer needs to eat, it is spiritual, the risen no longer have hunger. But Christ wanted to give this evidence to convince the disciples of the reality of the resurrection. There is another sermon, Sermon 246, which resembles Sermon 237 a little. As we have seen, already in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 24, 38f), Christ says: “Why are you troubled, and doubts arise in your heart? Look at my hands and my feet, touch me and see”. And Augustine comments: “Was He perhaps already ascended to the Father when He said: ‘Touch me and see’? He let His disciples touch Him, indeed, not only touch but feel, to provide a foundation for faith in the reality of His flesh, in the reality of His body [ut fides fiat verae carnis veri corporis]. The well-foundedness of the reality had to be made obvious also through human touch [ut exhibeatur etiam tactibus humanis soliditas veritatis]. Thus He let Himself be touched by the disciples”. Then, referring to the woman whom the Lord instead commanded not to touch Him because He had not yet ascended to heaven, Augustine goes on to say: “What is this inconsistency? The men could not touch Him if not here on earth, while the women would be able to touch Him once ascended to heaven? But what does touching mean if not believing? By faith we touch Christ. And it is better not to touch Him with the hand and touch Him with faith than feel with the hand and not touch Him with faith”. The proof that Christ offers, in other words, is aimed at the faith of the disciples. Often then – I repeat – Augustine answers the objections of the pagans, especially the Neo-Platonist philosophers, and Porphyry in particular. Porphyry actually had a certain admiration for Christ. Christ was indeed a wise man, he says, whereas the Christians are unspeakable people, impostors, it was the apostles and evangelists who invented the Resurrection, who created this myth.
Those paragraphs in the City of God at the end of book XVIII come to mind in which Augustine looks at the fable, adopted by the learned (about whom Augustine is ironic), that it was the magical arts of Peter that enable the development and growth of Christianity.
CIPRIANI: Faced with the objection that Christianity is nothing but the result of magic, Augustine argues that Christianity was born and grew by the grace of God: illa superna gratia factum esse (cf. De Civitate Dei XVIII, 53, 2). In this regard, in Sermon 247, again from the Easter period, in which he comments on the Lord’s apparition to the disciples on the evening of Easter behind closed doors (cf. Jn 20, 19ff), Augustine writes: “There are some people who are so dazed by this fact that they waver or almost, bringing against the miracles enacted by God the prejudices of their arguments [afferentes contra miracula divina praeiudicia ratiocinationum suarum]. Thinking in this way: if it was body, if it was flesh and blood, if what rose from the tomb was nothing more than what had been hanged on the gallows, how could it pass through closed doors? If it was impossible one must conclude that it didn’t happen. If, instead, He could do so, how was it possible? If one understands how it is no longer a miracle, and futhermore, if you do not believe it a miracle, you’re close to denying the Resurrection from the tomb. Turn your thoughts to the miracles performed by your Lord from the beginning, explain to me the why of each one. Man does not intervene and the Virgin conceives. Explain to me how a virgin could conceive without the intercourse of the male. Where reason fails, there faith constructs. Here, then, a miracle in the conception of the Lord, but heed another in the birth: she gives birth as a virgin and remains virgin. From that time then, well before He rose, the Lord, in being born, passed through closed doors”. In short, divine power is the true cause of the Resurrection. If one excludes the power and action of God, every miracle is inconceivable, even more the Resurrection of the Lord.

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