The body beautiful

Easter 2 – 2016

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who ‘did not despise the virgin’s womb’, but who in Jesus embraced human flesh – its mortality, fragility and all its messiness. Amen.

We only have to pick up a magazine to be reminded that in the Western world at least, we have a love/hate relationship with our bodies. We are constantly being bombarded with suggestions as to how we can make ourselves more beautiful though diet, exercise, make-up, hair cuts, fake tans, anti-aging creams or serums and styles of clothing[1]. We can “reshape” our bodies at gyms by focusing on our “trouble spots” or build our bodies so as to have firm pecs or a “six-pack”. Increasingly, we are being given the impression that some sort of major intervention is required if we are to be truly beautiful – Botox, dermal fillers, threading and even plastic surgery. Today it is possible to take bits from here and put them there, to make some parts thinner and others fuller, to extend or to shave our bones, to plump our lips, tighten our faces and to do so over and again as fashions change or as we change.[2]

A negative attitude to the body is often associated with Christianity. After all, isn’t it our bodily desires and needs that lead us to sin? Christianity has had an ambivalent attitude to the body for most of its existence. The ‘sins’ of gluttony, adultery are put down to bodily appetites (as if our minds were unable to exercise authority of our uncontrollable bodily urges). In this debate Romans 7 is often used to suggest that Paul struggled with physical desires,[3] as is the Pauline spirit/flesh divide. This view is a misrepresentation of the central tenet of the faith – that in Jesus God became human. The Christmas hymn puts this well, “God did not despise the virgin’s womb” but took on human flesh with all its limitations. If the creation story were not evidence enough, the incarnation puts the lie to any position that suggests that God has a negative view of the human body. If the divine can take on human flesh surely the human body is not simply impure, baseless and imperfect.

This view of the body suggests a negative view of the God who created the body and who declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the human body was a suitable vessel for the divine to embrace it should be good enough for us.

The source of the body/soul divide (and with it what amounts to the abhorrence of our physical selves) can be traced back, not to the early Christian believers but to the Greek philosophers. It was the separation of the church from its Jewish roots and its movement into the Greek world that saw the Christian faith adopt the dualism between the soul (good) and the body (bad). Plato (429-347 BCE), to whom this view is attributed, taught that all things had a perfect form. The soul pre-existed the body and would outlast it and was always seeking to be free of the body (which Plato called ‘the tomb of the soul’). Such a negative view resulted in all kinds of attempts to subdue or to mortify the body including extreme forms of aestheticism such as castration.

It is no wonder that we have such mixed feelings about our physicality – the body is our enemy, trapping our soul and leading us into all kinds of temptation and sin. Perhaps for this reason we do not often think of Jesus’ physical body and why a great deal of Christian art depicts him as a kind of androgynous angelic figure.

A closer examination of the gospels and of John’s gospel in particular reveal a different picture. In the gospels Jesus is not an ethereal, spiritual presence, but a physical, bodily presence. Jesus’ body could be touched and caressed both before and after the resurrection. Caravaggio has painted a wonderful representation of Jesus’ appearing to Thomas. Thomas’s finger penetrates under Jesus’ skin to feel the hole left by the spear. This is just one representation of Jesus fully inhabiting the human body. If we pay attention to the gospel accounts, we will be surprised by the physicality of Jesus. We will notice too that he is not afraid/ashamed to touch and be touched. So far as the gospels portray Jesus, he is very comfortable in his own skin. He is not at all anxious to be free of his physical form[4].

The Jesus of John’s gospel is perhaps the most spiritual of the four portrayals: “In the beginning was the Word”, yet the Word has no problem becoming flesh and living among us. The Word doesn’t simply appear to take on the human form he becomes one of us. One of the reasons that the religious authorities won’t accept him is because they know where he comes from – he was physically born to flesh and blood parents.

What is more, it is clear that Jesus understands the needs of the body – he changes water into wine, he asks a woman for a drink. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself distributes the bread and fish to the crowds and in the discourse that follows he uses the imagery of eating and drinking his flesh and blood to illustrate the intimacy of the relationship that we can have with him. Other evidence of Jesus’ physicality in John can be found in the fact that he is able to be grasped (the crowds want to take him by force), he makes a whip, he mixes mud and saliva and places it on the eyes of the blind man and he places the bread into the hands of Judas. The human Jesus does not look on from afar, but truly engages with the physicality of the human body. He does not recoil from the stench of death when he calls Lazarus from the tomb, nor does he draw back when Mary stoops to caress his feet with expensive perfume. Jesus himself takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples (an act only recorded in John).

Our bodies – awkward, ungainly, unique – are the way God made us[5]. If Jesus was not afraid to embrace the human form, perhaps it is time that we started to become more comfortable with our bodies, time that we learned to accept the irregularities that make us who we are, time that we rejoiced in the absolute marvel of the human machine – that despite the complexity that is required to drive it manages to allow most of us to live and breathe, to walk and run, to work and relax, to embrace and to be embraced. In the words of the musical “Hair”. “What a piece of work is man (sic)!” What an extraordinary, wonderful, beautiful, precious thing is the human body!

In Jesus the human and divine are united as one, should not that be the model for us?

[1] Of course, I’m not even starting to name all the beauty options that are out there!

[2] Bigger breasts that were a good idea in our twenties can be reduced when in our thirties we regret our decision. Faces can be sculpted and resculpted until the surgeon’s knife achieves the desired look.

[3] This is a topic I have dealt with in the past. The ‘I’ in Romans 7 is not Paul but Adam. We only have to read Philippians 3:3-6 to be convinced that Paul had no problem at all with the flesh.

[4] As the later (gnostic) Gospel of Judas would have us believe.

[5] The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139).

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