Question: You seem to have an interest in the body—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 God created us as bodies, dwelt among us bodily in Jesus of Nazareth, deals with us as bodily creatures in the sacraments, and promises the resurrection of the body. These are articles of faith, but I don’t think we really internalize the implications of these affirmations.
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.
Oil painting by Nadine Rippelmeyer, “Adam and the Breath of God”
We respond to God as bodily creatures. 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 inception in the womb of Mary, his human birth, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. These are aspects of the body of Christ listed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church.
It is noteworthy that these important aspects of Christ’s saving work all involved the naked body: Christ’s birth, suffering, death, and resurrection. Christian art has portrayed Christ’s nakedness in these events, although often with his genitals discreetly veiled. Ancient Christian iconography also portrayed Christ standing naked in the Jordan River at his baptism by John.
Christ suffered, died, rose again, and ascended in the body
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.
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 a penis. 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 could come through locked doors, but he wasn’t a ghost; he ate and drank with his disciples. The marks of the nails in his hands and feet and the mark of the spear thrust in his side were still evident as identifying marks for so-called “doubting” Thomas, who needed to see them.
The Resurrection of Christ, 1555, Marco Pino
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.
Ascension of Christ by Jan Matejko (1838-1893)
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 we become the body of Christ in the world, the church. The church is the body of Christ not just metaphorically but literally. The church is embodied in its members.
Holy Communion in Three Kings Church in Frankfurt, Germany
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 Baptism 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
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 Christianity early on was influenced 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.”
Christian Life and Mission in the Body
The consequence of these affirmations is that Christian life is sanctified in works done in the body—in fasting and feasting, work and rest, sexual intercourse in marriage and procreating, and by dying a good death.
Christian mission 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 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.
Precisely because our bodies serve God in worship, in ministry to the neighbor, and in the care of the earth, we have to keep our bodies healthy. Christian mission from the beginning has included the ministry of healing. Medical missions have been an indispensable part of Christian missionary activity. The image below is of Mother Theresa’s hospital in Calcutta, India.
But individual Christians also have a personal stewardship responsibility to take care of their bodies by keeping them fit through proper diet, exercise, rest, and medical attention when needed precisely because our bodies are needed in the service of God. Modern calisthenics and gymnastics developed in the northern European (Lutheran) countries of Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark in the early 19th century.
The physical culture movement was embraced by the Young Men’s Christian Association, founded as an international Christian organization with an emphasis on strong bodies, souls, and spirits as a Christian value. The Y promoted this in its gymnasiums and summer camps.
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 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. The YMCA was an early promoter of exercise using equipment such as monkey bars and weights. In fact, the term “body building” was coined by the Y.
Swimming naked last until around 1970 when the Y admitted women and girls into membership. Today YMCAs provided state of the art gyms and fitness centers.
Christianity has a high theological regard for the human body as God’s good creation, and therefore provides for physical health through medical missions that have been a part of Christian mission since Christianity’s beginnings and promotes wellness through physical fitness. At the same time, we must acknowledge that individual Christians have not given their bodies an equally high role in their physical and spiritual lives by means of particular practices.
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 will find ways to relate it to their faith and probably also influence yoga in the process. 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 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 which God created good.
Pastor Frank Senn