…What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
–from “The Mother of God” by W.B. Yeats
Mary must have been so frightened. The “Holy Spirit” (what was that, anyway?) was going to make her pregnant? Her belly would swell up, bringing shame and disgrace on her family; there would be blood and pain, and she would feed from her own body the Ribbono shel olam—the Master of the Universe? Of course she must have experienced “the terror of all terrors, that I bore / The Heavens in my womb.” And yet, in the midst all this visceral fear, she agreed to do it.
And so, God took on a human body inside the human body of a young woman. You’d think that would have settled the question of whether the body was a good thing or not. But even if there were still doubt, surely Jesus’ incarnate life should have cleared things up. Jesus seems to have liked eating and drinking (Matthew 11:19) and spent a lot of his ministry making sure others could do the same (Matthew 14:13-21, et al.) His first miracle was turning +/-100 gallons of water, set apart for ritual ablutions, into wine for a wedding feast (John 2:1-11), and he allowed himself to be anointed with a year’s wages worth of oil of nard (John 12:3).
Nevertheless, the church’s troubled relationship with the physical body has persisted, and the world has taken note. I once was one of two Christian contributors who wrote for a large, amalgamated blog specializing in Buddhism and yoga. I often had outraged yogis unload on me about the presumption of a Christian writer writing on a blog about yoga. After all, Christians hate the body. Everybody knows that.
Once I asked a hostile commentor to quote me a passage from the Gospels that suggested a hatred of the body. He came back with about a dozen passages—all from the letters of Paul. “Good itself does not dwell in…my flesh;” “There is a law in my body that is at war with my mind;” “Who will save me from this body of death?” None of them were from the Gospels, of course, but I decided to let that go. I informed him that the New Testament uses two Greek words that are both traditionally translated as “the flesh.” Soma means the literal, physical body, and it hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Sarx means the carnal nature, our tendency to sin for the sake of gratifying our physical desires. I looked up all the passages the angry yogi had provided, and discovered that every single one of them used the word sarx where the English text said “the flesh.” Not a single one of those passages referred to the literal, physical body.
And yet, it isn’t enough to point that out, because people who love the body are not angry at the Church without reason. The Christian religion, which is predicated on God taking on human flesh, has often had a fraught relationship with the physical body. And yet, “I was hungry, and you gave me food,” said Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). “I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.” There are no thoughts and prayers in that parable. It’s all about concrete needs, most of them relating to the physical body.
In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a human life and died a human death, and along the way experienced hunger, thirst, pain, pleasure, heat, cold, desire, aversion, and all the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to – and all the messy emotional stuff, too: love, loss, grief, anger, and abandonment. So when we are suffering, we can turn to God in Jesus, and God in Jesus will revive our spirits.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose a passage of scripture that the Christ project fulfilled, it would be this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
But also with those who have a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite.
The unchanging, transcendent, incorporeal creator of the universe has stubbed his toes and blown his nose and seen his loved ones die, in a body just like ours. And Mary allowed it to begin in her own physical body.
[Image Credit: Caravaggio: The Annunciation. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]