Among the zany beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that Jesus Christ, when he resurrected, was able to alter his physical appearance. Obviously, the proof text for this would be Mark 16:12:
After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
They reason that because Mary Magdalene, the two men on the road to Emmaus, and the disciples on the boat all did not immediately recognize Jesus, he must have been morphing His appearance or something to that effect.
Not only is this idea more than a little creepy, it would appear to contradict both the Scriptures (for example Luke 24:16 states that “their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him”) and iconography, which clearly show the resurrected Christ looking the same.
So, imagine my surprise when I read the Orthodox Study Bible commenting on Mark 16:12 that:
Our Lord’s resurrected body transcends not only physical space and time, but appearance as well. He was sometimes recognizable to His disciples, while other times He was not.
Comments on John 21:12 appear to concur:
His form was altered in a way that amazed them. Yet they did not ask because they knew even though His appearance was altered it was the Lord.
Does Orthodoxy teach the above? The following is a cursory overview of how the early church fathers saw the subject:
That which Mark expresses by the Lord’s appearance “in another form,” is what Luke means by saying that “their eye were holden that they could not know Him.” For something was upon their eyes, which was allowed to remain there, until the breaking of bread (Saint Augustine).
For they walked not with their eyes shut, but there was something within them which did not permit them to know that which they saw, which a mist, darkness, or some kind of moisture, frequently occasions. Not that the Lord was not able to transform His flesh that it should be really a different form from that which they were accustomed to behold; since in truth also before His passion, He was transfigured in the mount, so that His face was bright as the sun. But it was not so now (Saint Augustine).
It seems as if some impediment to recognition had been effected in the eyes of those who beheld Him and when it is plainly stated elsewhere: “He appeared to them in another shape”…their eyes were subjected to a delay in recognition (Saint Augustine, Letter 149 to Paulinus).
But let no one suppose that Christ changed the form of His face by His Resurrection, but the form is changed when of mortal it becomes immortal, so that this means that He gained a glorious countenance, not that He lost the substance of His countenance (Saint Severianus).
Rightly also he refrained from manifesting to them a form which they might recognize, doing that outwardly in the eyes of the body, which was done by themselves inwardly in tile [sic] eyes of the mind. For they in themselves inwardly both loved and doubted. Therefore to them as they talked of Him He exhibited His presence, but as they doubted of Him He concealed the appearance which they knew (Saint Gregory the Great).
Hence as Mark says, He appeared to them in a different form, in which they were not permitted to know Him; for it follows, And their eyes were holden that they should not know him; in order truly that they may reveal their entirely doubtful conceptions, and uncovering their wound may receive a cure; and that they might know that although the same body which suffered, rose again, yet it was no longer such as to be visible to all, but only to those by whom He willed it to be seen; and that they should not wonder why henceforth He walks not among the people, seeing that His conversation was not fit for mankind, but rather divine; which is also the character of the resurrection to come, in which we shall walk as the Angels and the sons of God (Theophylact).
This was said not of their bodily eyes, but of their mental sight (Saint John Chyrsostom).
…in silence and awe, absorbed in regarding His altered and now supernatural form (Saint John Chrysostom in Homily 87 of John).
The preceding is every single verse from a church father I was able to dig up on the subject. There appears to be a consensus that Jesus Christ did not morph or actually change physical appearance, but rather 1. the eyes of the disciples were withheld from recognition and/or 2. Jesus Christ’s glorified body had a “transfigured”/glorious glow but no explicit physical changes. If the commentators in the Orthodox Study Bible were intending to communicate Number 2, it may be helpful in future editions to make this more explicit.
Ramifications. In my lack of learning, I will make the most surface-level observations pertaining how the preceding may be relevant. For one, though there are a few saints that have reported visions of the infant Jesus, I believe it best to exercise significant caution in presuming upon the literalness of these accounts. Here are some reasons:
- More than one saint has reported what was found later to be a false vision of Jesus or the uncreated Light, so it is possible for saints to be deceived.
- It is possible for us to misconstrue what the saints report. A saint can have a vision or dream, and derived some sort of comfort or teaching from it. This does not mean what happened in the dream has a literal reality. For example, Peter had a vision of animals descending from the heavens and he was told to kill and eat. He can report the vision without actually believing there were animals descending from heaven.
- Due to the Theotokos being bodily assumed and Christ being physically resurrected, any literal appearances that occur would have to be physical ones. While glorified bodies apparently could transcend space, there is no indication whatsoever they can change appearance and size as we can see from the writings of the fathers.
The third point is perhaps the most relevant, as post-schism in the West (there some Orthodox Christians have written about it) are reported apparitions of the Theotokos holding an infant Christ. If such a vision occurs in a dream or a trance, it may be suspect but not necessarily demonic. However, if it appears to be a literal appearance of an infant Jesus, now that He is resurrected, a physical manifestation seems to be impossible. And, if this apparition is spiritual in nature and not physical, it appears its origin is demonic.
It is always safest to assume that any appearance is demonic, for we are not worthy to see the Lord and His saints. Further, our pride can be inflated by such phenomena and this is something demons know all too well.
I would be interested in any further research or insight into this question.