Question: You seem to have an interest in the body. You’ve written about the resurrection body, the practice of yoga, etc. What is important to you as a theologian about the body?
Frank answers: The body is of utmost importance to Christian theology because we affirm that God created us as bodies, dwelt among us bodily in Jesus of Nazareth, relates to us as bodily creatures in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and promises the resurrection of the body. These are articles of faith. I will take up each of them. We must recognize that Christian orthodoxy affirmed these views against the Gnosticism that pervaded so much of the ancient world and infiltrated Christian circles with its denial of the goodness of the material creation and the bodily aspects of God’s work of salvation in Christ and the resurrection of the body.
Created as Bodies
First of all, God created us as bodies from the material of the earth. God created the man (Adam) from the dust of the ground mixed with the water of the spring that rose up in the desert to form clay for the Creator’s use (Genesis 2:5). God breathed the breath (ruach) into the man (oxygen) so that he would be a living being (nefesh chaim). We need oxygen (air) to breathe and our bodies need to stay hydrated since we are composed of 65% H2O (water). We are nourished by the other living things that grow and flourish on the earth.
Against the gnostic devaluation of the material world in the early Christian centuries, Christianity affirmed that the material world is created good, and that includes human bodies. The fall into sin that has affected our relationships with God, with others, and with the creation itself. It has affected our relationship even to our own bodies. We hide our bodies from others and even from God because we are ashamed. The reasons for bodily shame are varied and deep and are transmitted within society and culture. We counter bodily shame with modesty that insists on covering the “private” parts of the body that may be variously identified as the genitals, the breasts, or even the feet.
The insistence on modesty in the modern sense of the body being appropriately covered is a consequence of the fall and has reinforced our association of nudity with sex, with which we also have an ambiguous relationship. But it is possible to be naked and unashamed. There is nothing inherently sinful about nudity. We cannot ignore the consequences of sin in the world, but we must theologically affirm the goodness of the creation and of our bodies.
We are bodily creatures and we respond to God with our bodies. We are enlivened by the breath or Spirit of God so we can be up and about, praising and glorifying our Creator with our bodies, not just with our minds. As St. Paul wrote, “I appeal to you…by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). We have nothing else with which to worship God than our bodily selves. We are not disembodied spiritual beings like the angels.
Second and most important, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The doctrine of the incarnation is about the enfleshment or embodiment of the Son of God as a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. St. Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt wrote in his treatise On the Incarnation (ca. 320 AD), “If you want to know the mind of God, look to the body of Christ.” He pointed to what Christ did for us and for our salvation in his body: his conception in the womb of Mary, his human birth and bodily suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. These are aspects of the body of Christ listed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church (Apostles’, Nicene).
In these aspects of Christ’s bodily work he was also naked and has been portrayed that way in art. Christ was born naked and wrapped in swaddling cloths.
Ancient Christian iconography also portrayed Christ standing naked in the Jordan River at his baptism by John.
The most important thing Christ did “for us and for our salvation” was to reconcile sinful humanity to a holy and righteous God. An atoning sacrifice was needed and Christ provided that by submitting to suffering and death by crucifixion. This was totally a bodily act—the degradation and exultation of his body. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate” is also an article of faith. Christians have seen this as a fulfillment of the suffering servant poem in Isaiah 53, “By his stripes we are healed.”
The German artist Max Klinger (1852-1920) tried to capture a more historically accurate rendering in his oil painting of “The Crucifixion of Christ,” with exposed genitals of the victims. Roman crucifixions were about humiliation and the genitals weren’t covered with loin cloths. Klinger portrays Jesus with his penis exposed. He also depicted the bodies on low crosses. They may have been lower than we’re used to seeing so that it wouldn’t be so difficult to hoist a body that was fastened onto a crossbeam onto an upright post that was already in place.
The image above this post is the crucifixion scene in Martin Scorcese’s film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. This 1988 film, starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, tried to portray a historically accurate Roman crucifixion based on the archaeological discovery of a first century crucified man, including showing his nakedness on the cross (chastely done). Archaeological evidence of the remains of a crucified man discovered in Jerusalem indicates that the feet were nailed to the side of the cross. There wasn’t a footrest. The victim sat on a pole or seat to keep the body from pulling forward. This makes the idea of the cross as the throne for King Jesus a more apt metaphor.
When Christ rose from the dead, he had a glorified body. He must have emerged from the tomb naked since the burial linens were rolled up and put aside.
When Christ ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection in St. Luke’s chronology, his body was not left behind. It was not left in the grave and the risen Christ is not wandering around bodily on the earth. But neither did Jesus cease to have a body when he went to heaven. As one who is truly human as well as truly divine, Christ has a body just like we do and if he has ascended into heaven his body is also in heaven. Because Christ is also the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity, his body has also been taken into the Godhead. In Christ, God has a body.
Third, since embodiment has been taken into God, we are talking about one body relating to other bodies—God’s body in Christ relating to our bodies. Christ is present spiritually “where two or three are gathered in my name” but he is present bodily in the sacrament when he binds himself to bread and wine by his word and says, “This is my body. This is my blood of the covenant.” We eat his body and drink his blood in the sacramental signs of bread and wine and thereby ingest Christ, truly present, into our bodies. By means of this sacrament the church becomes the body of Christ in the world. The church as the body of Christ is not just metaphor because Christ is embodied in its members.
We disciples of Jesus are not left as orphans by Jesus’s ascension. He is present for us in the sacrament of his body and blood. But Jesus also promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit in his name. This Spirit came upon the chosen apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), fifty days after the resurrection and ten days after the ascension in St. Luke’s chronology. That same Spirit is given to all who are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the person of God who is constantly in touch with us—in our bodies. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in the water of baptism and anointing with oil (a sacrament applied to our bodies) and our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Rebirth by water and the Spirit: Baptism in a lake. Baptism in the ancient church was administered on naked bodies entering baptismal pools. This is still the practice in Eastern churches for both children and adults.
The Spirit and the Body
Fourth, this Spirit is “the Spirit of our Lord and of his resurrection,” as a communion prayer in Lutheran Book of Worship puts it. The Holy Spirit is not some entity separate from the Father and the Son. The Spirit is the wind, the life-giving breath of God—“the Lord and giver of life,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. The Holy Spirit will raise our mortal bodies in the resurrection of the dead on the last day by breathing life into them. The article in the Creed on the resurrection of the dead is under the article concerning belief in the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit does not connect only with our minds or with the “spiritual life.” The Spirit is all about the body. If this has not been clear, it is because influences on early Christianity by Gnosticism with its devaluation of the material creation and the body, by Neo-Platonism with its body-soul dualism, and in recent centuries in the Western world by Rene Descartes’s dualism of mind and body (with a preference for the mind—“I think, therefore I am”). In the 20th century there was a recovery of ourselves as bodily beings with the mind as part of the body in the philosophy of phenomenology. Pope John Paul II, in his theology of the body, embraced the slogan of the phenomenologists, “I don’t have a body; I am a body.” We reject the Platonic idea that we are spiritual beings contained in a body.
Christian Life and Mission in the Body
Finally, the consequence of these affirmations is that Christian life is sanctified in works performed in the body—in fasting and feasting, work and rest, sexual intercourse in marriage and procreating, and by pursuing a healthy lifestyle. These are all aspects of how we understand spirituality, the practices by which we relate to God, to others, and to the world.
Our bodily lives include our sexuality and how we express it. It is a biological fact that we have sexual bodies and are able to procreate. Two become one flesh and produce a third (and more). In this physical act we replicate God the Holy Trinity, three persons in one Godhead.
We also use our sexuality to express love and commitment to another person. Christianity expects that this will be a lifelong, monogamous commitment, until death parts us — a relationship in which husbands “love their wives as they do their own bodies” and wives respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:28-33).
We have become aware of the reality of same-sex attraction and orientation. As biological, anthropological, and historical studies show the pervasity of same-sex practices in animal species and human societies , there has been a growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals in Western societies. Some Western countries have made same-sex unions and marriages legal. It has already happened in Canada and as of this writing it is happening in some of our states. Churches will have to come to terms with the fact that they have gay male and lesbian members and discern how they will relate pastorally to these members. Biblical texts discuss same-sex practices, especially in relationship to idolatry, but not the modern clinical understanding of “homosexuality.” The presence of gay bodies in society and in private has become a fact of life.
We also attend to the needs of other bodies in Christian mission that includes physical works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, rescuing the victims of disaster, providing relief and burying the dead. Christian mission from the beginning has included the ministry of healing. Medical missions have been an indispensable part of Christian missionary activity. Because we live our lives in the body and not just in the mind, we are alert to the bodily needs of others. Because we have known pain, we are sympathetic to the pains of others.
Christian spirituality today also embraces the health and well-being of the earth on which we walk, whose water we drink and whose air we breathe in order to live. We have been recovering our sense of stewardship of the earth—that the first responsibility of man is to tend the garden of the Lord as managers of what belongs to the Lord: the earth.
Protestant movements of physical culture and muscular Christianity in the 19th century emphasized the need for Christians to have healthy bodies so they could be of service to others in missionary work and ministry. The Young Men’s Christian Association promoted healthy minds, bodies, and spirits.
The YMCA also became known for its swimming pools, which it began to install in the 1880s to teach children how to swim because so many urban children were drowning. Consistent with the ideals of the physical culture movement in the 19th century, swimming and exercise was done naked at the YMCA. Swimming naked last until around 1970 when the Y admitted women and girls into membership.
The YMCA was an early promoter of exercise using equipment such as monkey bars and weights. In fact, the term “bodybuilding” was coined by the Y. Today YMCAs provided state of the art gyms and fitness centers and membership is open to everyone.
The question mentions my posts dealing with yoga. In our time, we are learning helpful techniques and practices from other cultural contexts that can help us implement in practical terms our own faith understanding. Yoga is one of those systems. As more and more Christians practice this ancient, yet ever evolving discipline, they are finding ways to relate it to their faith and may be influencing yoga in the process. The physical culture movement, rooted in Christian culture and promoted by the YMCA, was an influence on the Hatha Yoga revival in India in the early 20th century. Yoga can be practiced for various reasons. We Christians who practice yoga regard it primarily as a way of exercising our minds and bodies and keeping them fit for service to God and neighbor. (See “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga”.)
The resurrection of the body
Finally, Christians believe in “the resurrection of the body.” We are created as bodies and these bodies will be raised up when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. We have no immortal soul that exists apart from the body, although Christian views on the soul have probably been more influence by Plato than by the Bible (which has little to say about the soul). Michelangelo painted this immense mural of Christ the judge and the resurrection of the dead on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel.
The body is not just an important aspect of Christian theology; it is fundamental to it. Christian theology, worship, sacraments, mission, and spirituality are all about the body because God created us as bodies in the first place and will recreate us as bodies in the resurrection of the body in the last place. Against the body shame in so much of our culture today, we need to retrieve the sense of the sanctity of our bodies and, in the words of St. Paul, glorify God in our bodies because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. There is a lot of body shame in our society and dissatisfaction with our bodies. But there is nothing shameful about our bodies from the perspective of God who created them.
Pastor Frank Senn