What did Jesus look like after the Resurrection? Why was He hard to recognize? Was he physical or spiritual in appearance?
Once we start reading about Jesus' resurrection after Easter I always wonder why Peter, Mary Magdalane, and other disciplies did not recognize Him. Father James Martin, author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" shares the following article and excerpt from his book on this topic:
"What the Risen Christ looked like is hard to pin down. Some of the Gospel stories are confusing on this point, seemingly at odds with one another. In some post-Resurrection stories, Jesus seems distinctly physical. In one instance, he asks for something to eat (Lk 24:41). In another, as we have seen, he shows Thomas his wounds: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” he says (Jn 20:27). Therefore can we conclude that the Risen Christ had a body, and so it was easy for the disciples to recognize him?
Not exactly—because in other Gospel passages the disciples have a hard time identifying him at all. As we just saw, on Easter morning Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener, until he says her name. Then suddenly, like the disciples en route to Emmaus, she recognizes him and says, “Rabbouni!” In another appearance the disciples are fishing in the Sea of Galilee and even when Jesus calls to them from the shore, they seem not to know him (or recognize his voice), until they draw closer to the shore. Then suddenly the Beloved Disciple grasps who this is and says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (As in today's Gospel: Jn 21:1-14). In these cases, it seems that Jesus has a body, but not a recognizable one.
But in still other stories Jesus seems distinctly unphysical: he suddenly appears in a locked room (i.e., walking through walls). In the story of Emmaus he simply vanishes in front of their eyes.
What’s going on?
Here we tread on mysterious territory. As we’ve seen, many parts of the Gospel story are familiar to us, and can be more or less understood 2,000 years after they occurred. Even though none of us lives in first-century Galilee, we know what it feels like to be sick, what a farmer does, and what a lily looks like. Most of us have seen a sheep, been on a boat, and had a sick relative. Many of us have been fishing. We’ve all seen violent storms, maybe even over a lake. Many parts of the Gospels are part of our experience.
But the story of Road to Emmaus poses an unanswerable question: What does someone look like after rising from the dead? None of us can say. We are walking on unknown ground, and what we say about his appearance is mere speculation.
Only those who saw the Risen Christ could say what he looked like, and their descriptions, passed along through the Gospels indicate that, above all, it was hard to describe. Theologians sometimes refer to Jesus’s appearance in his “glorified body,” a state that is both physical (he is still has a body) but wonderfully transformed (his new body is unlike other bodies, and is difficult to recognize). It’s a helpful way of thinking about it: there is a body, but it is glorified, created anew by God. And remember that Jesus wasn’t simply “revived,” as if unconscious: this new body will never die.
For me, the seemingly contradictory descriptions (physical/spiritual; recognizable/ unrecognizable; natural/supernatural) indicate two things: the difficulty of describing the most profound of all spiritual experiences, and the unprecedented and non-repeatable quality of what the disciples witnessed. (Not to mention some seemingly contradictory actions by the Risen Christ—for example, asking that Mary not touch him, but inviting Thomas to do just that.)
In the first case, you need only speak with someone who has gone through a life-altering experience to grasp the difficulty in describing what happened. Imagine speaking with a woman who has just given birth. “What was it like?” you might say. “Well, it was wonderful!” she says. So it was joyful. “But also frightening,” she might say. So was it joyful or frightening? “Well…both.” Just as I was writing this chapter a friend wrote to say that her niece had sent her an email after the birth of her first child. It read: “Full of unexplainable love. And exhausted to the bone.”
Some things are difficult to describe, even for the most articulate, and sometimes the descriptions seem contradictory. It’s hard to put big experiences into words.
How much harder it must have been for those who were the first ones—the only ones—to experience the Resurrection first-hand, to describe the greatest event in history. At least in the case of giving birth, there is some precedent. Other mothers can say, “Yes, I know just what you mean,” even if their own experiences differ. But to whom could the disciples appeal when describing Jesus’s appearance?
Their experience of the Risen Christ was unique. So it’s not surprising that the descriptions seem at once convincing and confusing.
Here, at least for me, is another sign of the authenticity of the Gospels. Had the evangelists been concerned with providing air-tight evidence, rather than trying to report what the disciples saw, they would have paid more attention to ensuring that their stories matched.
But the evangelists, as I see it, were more concerned with preserving the authentic experiences of those who saw the Risen Christ, confusing as they might sound to us."