Posts Tagged ‘Body’

The body beautiful

April 2, 2016

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).

Body beautiful

March 16, 2013

Lent 5

John 12:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who formed us and called us God’s own. Amen.

There is a beautiful Japanese movie called “Departures”. It tells the tale of a cellist whose orchestra disbands and of his subsequent struggle to find work. Daigo has no qualifications or talents apart from his music and he becomes increasingly desperate to earn an income. Eventually he returns to his hometown and answers a job advertisement for a company called “Departures”. He is shocked and dismayed to discover that the company is not a travel agency as he had expected, but the Japanese equivalent of a funeral company. In Japan, a Nokanashi or undertaker is the most despised of professions. Those who practice the art of preparing people for cremation are shunned by society and excluded from all social activities. Daigo has no choice, so he takes the job but tells no one – not even his wife.

His first days on the job are shocking. The company are called to a home in which the occupant has been dead for sometime and the sight and the smells are more than Daigo can bear. He is called out at all hours which makes his secret hard to keep. Over time however, he begins to appreciate the privilege and responsibility of preparing the bodies for cremation and caring for the families of the deceased. With the family in the room, the Nokanashi gently wash and dress the dead and lay them out in a bed with beautiful white linen before placing them in a coffin and taking them away. (Like many aspects of Japanese life – tea making, flower arranging – preparing a body after death is highly ritualised and full of grace. It is beautiful to watch.)

While Daigo is learning to love his work, his wife becomes increasingly suspicious of his activity. Finally he has to tell her about the job and to confront her anger and dismay for by association she shares the taint that the job brings with it. However, when Daigo’s estranged Father dies, Mika accompanies Daigo as he attends to his Father’s body. When she sees for herself the care and respect that is given to the dead, and the love and compassion that is shown to the family and understands that despite societal attitudes the job is not something that contaminates the encoffenier, she too appreciates how important the job is. Instead of despising her husband’s decision and feeling anxious for herself and their child, she embraces and supports his choice.

Departures is a lovely, gentle and respectful movie, which has the effect of de-mystifying death and giving us a different appreciation of the human body.

Different cultures have different attitudes to death. People of the Muslim faith believe that a person should be buried as soon after death as possible. The body is wrapped in cloth rather than placed in a coffin and it is laid in the ground such that it is facing Mecca. In Ireland and perhaps other parts of Great Britain a body may be kept in an open coffin in the family home for long enough for family and friends to come and pay their respects. Some ancient cultures had elaborate processes of mummification and the wealthy could build expensive tombs like the pyramids which could be filled with food and possessions to accompany them on their journey to the next life. I could go on, the Indians (or some of them) have the tradition of the funeral pyre and many Chinese burn money for the deceased to spend in the next life.

In Jesus’ time it appears that the dead were anointed with spices before being wrapped in cloth and entombed. The women among Jesus’ friends discovered that the tomb was empty because they had been going to anoint Jesus’ body which, when taken from the cross, had been hurriedly dealt with because of the approach of the Sabbath. According to John, Nicodemus provided about 100 lbs of spices for that task. In today’s gospel however, Jesus is not yet dead so the anointing tells us something different.

There are four different accounts of the woman who anoints Jesus. John’s account has a number of unique features – the timing is very specific, the characters in the story – Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Judas are all named and the woman (Mary) wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Jesus is with friends which makes Mary’s action less shocking and inappropriate. While the timing in John’s gospel is precise – six days before Passover – other aspects of time are confused in this period of Jesus’ life. For example, John alludes to this event before he reports the raising of Lazarus and in this passage we read: “Leave her alone, she kept it for the day of my burial.” As Jesus is not yet dead, that he should be anointed for burial is confusing. Alternately, if Mary was going to keep the ointment for Jesus’ death, why is she using it now?

These questions cannot be resolved but the stories tell us about a respect and care for the body which Western Christianity (based, in part, on a misinterpretation of Paul’s use of the word “flesh”) seems to have lost. Many of us have, deep in our psyche, a belief that our physical bodies are something of a hindrance, that they have uncontrollable urges which are shameful and have to be subdued and tamed. Not quite so extreme is our concern with normal bodily functions. We deodorise our sweat, listerine our breath, shave off hair that grows where we do not want it. Our hatred of (or ambivalence towards) the body is demonstrated today by extreme dieting or an obsession with body building or sculpting. Bodies are so dangerous or so unpleasant that many people in our culture have a difficulty with touch.

The reverence, extravagance and intimacy with which Mary handles Jesus’ body and Jesus’ willing acceptance of her ministrations tell a different story. Neither of them are embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies, they have no fear of what another might see or feel, no self-consciousness about touch. Their physical presence is a very real part of who they are. Jesus’ feet may have been rough and calloused from all the walking, Mary’s hair may not have been recently washed. Neither will have spent time with the beauty therapist to ensure that they looked and smelt their best for this moment. They were two friends who accepted each other and each other’s bodies just as they were.

Whatever this account tells us about the foreboding of Jesus’ death, the avarice in Judas’ nature or the careless abandon of Mary’s love, it is also a telling insight into the value of our physical selves. God gave us physical bodies to house our emotion, our intellect and even our souls and God took on that human body for himself when he entered our existence. Our bodies may not be all that we wish and they may express needs that we are not always happy to admit or indulge but in the end they are God’s creation and the body God chose to inhabit. They are not to be despised and subdued but celebrated and enjoyed. They are not to be bullied and re-shaped, but treasured and cared for. They are not a burden or embarrassment, but a gift from God our creator who thought that they were a suitable vessel for God’s very self. Our bodies are a precious gift. There is no need to deny them affection and touch, reverence and respect. If the human body was good enough for God, surely it is good enough for us.

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