Breath of the Spirit: The Body of Christ – and Our Bodies – as Sacrament
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April 18th, 2021: Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:13-15, 17-19
Psalm 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9
1 John 2:1-5a
Reflection by Jeff Vomund
Sometimes, in the afternoon, when I get too tired to work productively, I take a little walk: not long, usually about 10 minutes or so, one lap around our apartment complex. For me, the best walks happen during spring afternoons, with their paradoxical combination of cool breezes and warm sunshine. When I feel that particularly springtime sensation on my skin, along with birds chirping and the foliage blooming, my whole body feels more alive. The sensory pleasures of my springtime stroll are almost always enough to revive my spirit for further work.
I never take that walk without thinking of today’s psalm and response, “God, let your face shine on us.” Surely, I imagine, the image of God’s face shining upon us came to the Psalmist through a moment just like one of my walks, with the sun’s nurturing warmth on full display. It is no wonder that so many ancient religions considered the sun to be a god.
This gift, God’s love shining on us through the sun, is transmitted to us through the mysterious interactions of wind and warmth with our skin’s cells. This revelation, like all revelation, comes to us through our bodies. Whatever we consider our “soul” to be, we communicate with it using the synapses, nerve endings, and language that are the result of bodily experience. God communicates to us, ultimately, through our bodies: the words of Scripture, the oils of anointing, the bread of Eucharist, not to mention the warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze, all proclaim it to be true.
Perhaps that is why the author of Luke’s gospel seems so intent on showing us that the risen Jesus still has a body. The disciples are invited to touch Jesus and eat together. Jesus even asks the disciples to make fish. The gospel writer seems intent on making the point that Jesus is not a ghost but continues to inhabit a body – albeit one different enough from our own that the Risen One can pass through locked doors! This emphasis on the risen body has been an essential aspect of our Catholic theology over the centuries. Writing against the Apollinarianist heresy (the belief that Jesus had a human body but a “divine” mind) in the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus famously wrote, “what was not assumed” [by Jesus’ incarnation] “was not healed” by it. In assuming our bodily nature in every way, Jesus sanctifies our bodies just as thoroughly.
This bodily tradition suggests one reason why the Church’s recent declaration that same sex unions cannot be blessed (“One cannot bless sin.”) feels like such a betrayal to many of its LGBTQ+ members. It says that our bodies – unlike heterosexual bodies – cannot be trusted to accurately experience God’s love through our own loves. By implication, our bodies are worth less than those bodies which can be trusted to interpret the divine love accurately. The message is that our bodies are damaged. It is an easy, and frequently made, leap to go from bodies that are worth less to lives that are worthless. We have heard it from Christian preachers who advocate imprisonment, or worse for members of our community. We have seen it in the frequent brutalization of trans women of color. Many of us have, at least for a time, made that leap ourselves.
If one holds that body-negative mindset, they might be tempted to interpret our first and second readings, Peter’s call for repentance or John’s admonition that we keep God’s commandments, as a rebuke of the body, especially its sexual tendencies. But every aspect of our body has been assumed, healed, in the Incarnation; therefore, the body is first and foremost a place of divine communion. True, we can also use our bodies to sin, but the resurrection suggests that we sin not by embracing our bodies but precisely by ignoring them. Obedience to God comes not from shutting out our bodies but from listening more closely to them. If Christ’s body is the sacrament of our salvation, then we access that font of grace by opening to our bodily experience, not shaming it.
This is not to say that every bodily whim can be taken as God’s call. If that were so, then surely Eucharist would be taken under the form of chocolate chip cookies and whole milk! Obedience to the divine call comes precisely from the process of discerning what the longings of our bodies are asking of us. Those who advocate complete license to our bodily cravings and those who reject our body’s truth out of hand are, ultimately, both on the same theological team. They advocate against the deep and prayerful listening to the body as a source of sacramental connection to the divine love.
But the post-Easter accounts which emphasize Jesus’ body beg to differ. These passages celebrate our bodies as occasions to eat together, touch one another, enjoy each other – given the current rate of vaccinations, hopefully we can all enjoy these activities again soon! These passages advocate listening to our bodies – neither to give in to every whim nor to deny every desire – so that we might hear God’s call to greater health, honesty, and communion.
During this season of Easter joy, how might we celebrate our bodies? How can they be for us places of joy, and also places of listening, discernment, and generosity? For you, that might be a well-cooked (or simply thoroughly enjoyed) meal, or perhaps a vigorous exercise, or a safe and lingering hug. It might even be a walk in the warm sun and the cool breeze. But whatever it is, these Scriptures remind us that if we cannot find God in our bodies, then we cannot find God anywhere else.
All of this reminds me of a short section from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” the truth of which sounds a lot closer to Gregory of Nazianzus, than I had first realized.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Jeff Vomund is a member of Dignity/Washington and currently lives in Arlington, VA. After 15+ years of full-time parish ministry and 7 years of teaching students with particular learning needs, Jeff now works at George Mason University as a Graduate Research Assistant and a Graduate Lecturer, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.