Among the meanings of the body I commented on in “Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body” is the interpersonal body. In that article I mostly dealt with the diverse meanings of the personal body that I incorporated into my book, Embodied Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016). In my most recent book, Eucharistic Body (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), chapter 5: “Epiclesis: Spirit and Community,” I introduced the idea of the interpersonal body. Since liturgy is a corporate ritual performed by a social body, it is important to explore this concept further. Reflecting on it in connection with the Festival of Pentecost seems quite appropriate.
The Buddhist teacher of meditation, Reginald A. Ray, PhD, in Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008, 2014), writes: “In the modern world, we generally think of our bodies as being discrete entities separate from other people and from the larger world. This is an expression of the disconnection we feel between ourselves and the interpersonal and cosmic dimensions of life” (pp. 129-30). He distinguishes between the personal body, the interpersonal body, and the cosmic body. These are layers of the body we all have, but we are often disconnected from the deeper layers of our body that would connect us with others (people and sentient beings) and with the world (cosmos) around us.
Christians believe that the Holy Spirit, given to us in Holy Baptism, connects us with others in the community of faith in Christ Jesus crucified and risen again and with the whole creation.
The Birth of the Church
We commemorate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles of Jesus on the festival of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s resurrection. It coincided with the Jewish feasts of weeks just as Easter (Pascha) coincided with the Jewish Passover (Pesach). Just as the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai commemorated on the Feast of Weeks constituted Israel, so the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost gave birth to the church. In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds we confess belief in “the holy catholic church”/”one holy catholic and apostolic church” right after stating “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus promised his apostles to send to them the Holy Spirit and the Spirit energized the apostles with roaring wind and tongues of fire to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ into all of the world. The story is told in Acts 2.
(Mary the mother of Jesus, called the God-bearer (Theotokos), who conceived the Son of God by the Holy Spirit, was present when the Holy Spirit descended on the chosen apostles of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost.)
Filled with the Holy Spirit the apostles poured out into the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with pilgrims and tourists for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) and began tell everyone what God had done in Jesus the Christ (Messiah), speaking to each person in his own native language. Connections broken at Babel are restored as people speak and listen and understand one another. As the commotion subsided, Peter, as the leader of the apostolic band, preached a sermon to the crowd that had gathered. The essential message was that Jesus who was put to death by crucifixion God raised up, thus fulfilling the prophecies of Scripture. When the hearers asked what they should do, Peter said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 NRSV).
According to St. Luke’s record in the Acts of the Apostles three thousand were added to their number that day. (That many baptisms must have required every pool in Jerusalem!) Thereafter those who were baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). They also “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:44). Here is the embryonic church: it had all the necessary elements of church life from the beginning: catechesis, baptism, ongoing teaching, Eucharist (daily), common prayer, and care for the needy. The new community of Jesus was born and lived its life together in the midst of all the old communities of the world.
The Apostle Paul also preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and planted new communities of Jesus among the gentiles. His brilliant metaphor for this living, organic, concrete Spirit-filled embodiment of Jesus is “the Body of Christ”: “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit, because all those parts make up a single body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). At the beating heart of this body, providing the energy that enlivens the whole community, although each in different ways, is “the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
This idea of the church as “the body of Christ” is not just spiritual poetry; it suggests that the church is a living organism. It is not invisible; it is visible in the bodies of the members who gather around the word and the sacraments to have their union with Christ renewed. Paul writes that it is precisely “in your togetherness that you are Christ’s Body” (1 Corinthians 12:27 JB). By remaining within this web of relationships with Christ and with one another, we experience salvation. Salvation occurs where there is preaching of the gospel, baptism, Eucharist, fellowship, prayer, and mutual support in the community of faith. Living in this world we need the support of this community in Christ called the church. We can’t go it alone. We need to be part of the body of Christ and connect with other members of the body, including through touch.
The photo above this article is of me confirming youth at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston in 2013—my last confirmation class. The photo below this article is of me confirming youth at Immanuel in 2011—my second last confirmation class. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church is understood as an affirmation of Baptism. The pastor who has developed a relationship with the confirmands in the confirmation ministry of the congregation is the officiant. It involves a blessing with he laying on of hands — a form of connection through touch.
The Interpersonal Body
Rites of initiation are performed on the body because this is a way of connecting body-to-body within the social body. We need elements of touch to open up the layer of the interpersonal body within us. We connect with others in society by touching one another’s bodies.
Biologically, humans belong to the primates who reach out to touch one another to establish social bonds through cuddling, grooming, and other gestures. Some of the touching may lead to sex, although most touching among primates is not a prelude to sex. For humans, too, touching is a way of connecting to people socially. Touching is the most basic sensation infants need to bond with their parents and to connect with the world beyond themselves. For parent and child this experience of touch is the interpersonal body.
The most perfect example of the interpersonal body is, of course, the act of coitus when male and female spouses become one flesh.
The act of receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ into our bodies is also a concrete experience of the church as an interpersonal body because we share the one loaf and the one cup in communion with Christ and his whole church in heaven and on earth. In the Eastern eucharistic prayers offered to bless bread and wine, when the Holy Spirit is invoked on the bread and wine the petition for the gifts of Communion slide into intercessions for the whole church (the interpersonal body) and the commemorations of the saints (the cosmic body). These elements of prayer have been typically missing in Protestant eucharistic prayers. But these elements of the eucharistic prayer connect Communion with the whole church in space and time.
We also have ways of experiencing the interpersonal body in other rituals used in Christian liturgy. The ancient Christians used to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20). In liturgical renewal this ancient gesture has been modernized by hugging or shaking hands. But many worshipers are put off by it because, they say, it disrupts the flow of the liturgy, gets out of hand, or impinges on their sense of privacy.
At Catholic parishes especially it has become customary to hold hands while praying together the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). Again, some worshipers object because they want to be left alone in their prayer.
As the Maundy Thursday foot washing has been restored, it has sometimes involved members of the assembly washing each others’ feet rather than the priest washing the feet of acolytes or the pastor washing the feet of a few volunteers by way of demonstrating Jesus new commandment in John 13. Worshipers resist participating in this degree of connectivity, either as washers or recipients of the washing. Some pastors have substituted hand washing, which doesn’t carry the ritual or theological impact of foot washing.
Some practices that developed in Pentecostal assemblies have been brought into Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches. One is the practice of the congregation as well as the ministers laying on hands on persons for healing or commissioning someone for particular work in the church or sending a member who is moving to another parish. This scene is enacted in the Episcopal parish I regularly attend. If we can’t reach the person who is receiving the laying on of hands we lay hands on the person closest to us. A chain link may flow down the center aisle as worshipers lay hands on one another aiming toward the one receiving the blessing. Too bad pews get in the way of connecting with one another with liturgical touch.
In these and other ways we stir up and strengthen the interpersonal body that the Spirit-created body of Christ is intended to be, but for various reasons such expressions are resisted by members of the liturgical assembly.
Interpersonal motor actions are controlled by cultural mores. Americans are not known for being “touchy feely” in the physical sense. Other than shaking hands, physical contact, such as holding hands or hugging, is reserved for people we are close with. It’s pretty awkward with a stranger. In most Western countries overt physical contact is an expression of social dominance. People with a higher status tend to exert more physical contact toward peers and those who are under them. For example, your boss might come up and pat you on the back in greeting or maybe grip your shoulder in conversation, but you would never do that to your boss.
Some cultures allow more physical contact during greetings and conversation. In the Middle East, southern Europe, and Latin America it is common for men to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. In the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia it is common for men to hold hands while conversing or walking together. But in these cultures men do not greet women with a kiss or hold their hands in public.
Americans generally are uncomfortable being touched or touching others. We don’t normally greet one another with hugs and kisses to the extent people do in some other societies. In America boys and girls are discouraged from touching one another at an early age by parents or teachers. I remember in fourth grade (ca. 1952) that a new boy came into my class from England. I was interested in where he was from and befriended him. But our teacher saw me walking down the corridor with my arm around his shoulders and instructed me that “we don’t do that.” I said, “But I like him.” The teacher told me I should like him without touching him. Touching someone else is off-limits. Yet in southeast Asia I saw boys and men walking down the street hand-in-hand or with arms around each other. In Singapore a Methodist high school was at the bottom of the hill from Trinity Theological College where I was living and teaching in the summer of 2013. I usually walked down the hill to the mall for breakfast as the youth were arriving for school on buses. I observed that most of the boys were holding hands with or another boy (not with a girl like American teenagers). Boys hugging each other was not uncommon.
Even more shocking to this American was to see in a Korean spa not only fathers and sons and brothers but also friends scrubbing each other’s backs. (Mothers and daughters and and sisters and female friends presumably did the same in the women’s pool areas.) In was told by one of my Korean graduate students that congregational groups sometimes have a day at the spa and members sit on the stools in the pool area (in which clothing is prohibited) scrubbing one another’s backs.
American men are not actually averse to hugging each other in certain contexts, as we see in the huddles of sports team. These players of the Trojans football team of USC formed a shirtless huddle in the rain to show that they were not afraid to play in cold, rainy Everett, Washington.
And good friends are not averse to embracing each other as they express a buddy relationship. They they have developed a comfort level with each other that even enables them to be present naked to each other and touch each other as a sign of affection without worrying that they might be considered gay. In fact, straight and gay guys who are buddies can hug each other. But in our society acts of touch may require sensitization.
Preparing our Bodies for Connection
We need to come to terms with our own bodies and explore why we are averse to touch, if we are. In my own family upbringing there wasn’t much hugging or kissing. It took me quite a while to become comfortable hugging or kissing a girl on a date. For persons whose aversion to touch is severe, somatic psychotherapy or body work may be helpful. In doing this work we meet up with those aspects of our self that contradict the qualities that compose our self-image. Somatic psychotherapy identifies ways in which the body keeps the memory of bodily abuse or unwanted touch or traumatic illnesses that often affect behavior later in life. Massage is a way of being touched in a safe environment whose purpose is relaxation or healing of pains or muscular tension.
We may also discover buried aspects of our own life as we allow someone else to share their stories with us. There is always some shared ground with other people. But, just so, sometimes as someone else shares the dark areas of his or her life we come face to face with the dark areas of our own life. In this scene of empathetic sharing in the beautiful coming-of-age film Stand By Me with River Phoenix and Will Wheaton, River Phoenix’s character confronts his own family issues as he listens to Will Wheaton’s relate his. They express their connection with each other by touching with a hug.
Of course, in addition to cultural or personal aversion to touch there has been what one commentator called the “abundant evil” of the widespread sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests, sports coaches, teachers, relatives, etc. and, recently, testimonies of pervasive sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power. The reaction to these revelations is leading to a necessary emphasis on establishing boundaries and strict control over touching one another. But these experiences will contribute to the body-shame that is pervasive in our society, shame which necessarily focuses on the body because we are our bodies. In avoiding the areas of shame we stay away from the deeper layers of our bodies.
If the church really is the body of Christ, joined in mutual union with Christ in hearing his gospel and in receiving his body and blood into our own bodies (the same sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is being received by all communicants), it ought to be possible to transcend these traumas. We ought to be able to touch one another in ways that the world cannot do. In our present social situation people tend to avoid intimate contact with others, especially strangers. But in the church we have the gift of the Holy Spirit who came down on the Day of Pentecost to connect us once again with others and with the world.
To that end many young people will receive the laying on of hands on Pentecost when they affirm their Baptism and have the Spirit given to them in Baptism strengthened. Lay hands on their heads firmly and at the greeting of peace give each confirmand a hug. Encourage them to hug each other. By these gestures of touch they will know that they are connected.
Pastor Frank Senn, STS