This Is My Body

The most fundamental experience of being human is biological. We enter the world in a state of biological dependence, having left an utterly symbiotic existence in the womb. Parents’ first thoughts about a child are consumed with biological issues. Nursing, digestion, sleep, and various discomforts rightly occupy the often sleep-deprived parents of newborns. Conversations among young mothers tend to circle around those issues. Biology is primary. When something is biologically amiss, everything else has a way of being diminished. As years go by, our biological attention sometimes wanes, particularly when things are physically going well. We take our bodies for granted and begin to imagine that the world of thought and social interaction are primary. Of course, aging has a way of bringing things full circle. I warn people these days when they ask, “How are you doing?” I tell them that asking an old man how he is doing is an invitation to an information dump.

This pattern, our movement from the biological to the social and psychological, is also a pattern that can be seen in the history of our species. Civilization did not come into existence at the same time as our biology. Mere survival for hunters and gatherers required some level of cooperation. However, what we think of as civilization (villages and such) only came with the advent of an abundance that placed less immediacy on the primary needs of the body.

This is reflected in the incarnation of Christ. God became man, making Himself accessible in a manner that acknowledged the primacy of our embodied existence. God did not become an idea, a mere expression as a message from a prophet. He became a biological human being. St. John wrote:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…(1 John 1:1–2)

or, most famously: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

As “civilized” people, however, we seem to have a drive towards an imaginary, disembodied existence. In our contemporary setting of the internet-webbed world, this drive is all the stronger. Jesus as “idea” is all the more tempting. The life of the early Church was, on the contrary, a life of sacrament, a world in which the taste, touch, and feel of Christ and the gospel were primary. It was also a world in which, to an extent far greater than today, the biological aspect of our existence was far more prominent and undeniable. Technology has allowed us to “manage” the necessity of biology in a manner in which it largely becomes an inconvenience in comparison to the unfettered imaginary existence of the mind. We say of the passions that run through our brains, “This is my true self, my freedom, my undeniable truth,” while we suppress our biological reality with baths of chemicals and surgeries, which, like the costumes we assume, seek to hide and obscure the naked truth of our being.

To this, God says, “This is my Body,” pressing the broken, bleeding, biology of His crucified Incarnation into our mouths. “Take, eat…drink this…” Almost immediately we seek to transmute His tasty flesh into an idea, as though He had said, “Take, think….”

That huge segments of the Christian world have negated the reality of His Body and Blood is not surprising. At the same time, the doctrine of the atonement has been transformed into a moral transaction in which the biology of His suffering becomes a problem to be explained (often reduced to a moral tale – “Look what pain your sin caused!”) In such scenarios, sin is reduced to moral failing. But the Scriptures are clear: the biology of sin is primary. “In the day that you eat of it you shall die.” More than anything, sin is mortality. Whatever moral issues we might have spring from the biological death to which we are subject.

And so our embodied Savior says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” And, “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will never die.” The ultimate seal of His promise is found in His resurrection. There, His body is not put away, some temporary thing whose purpose is fulfilled. Instead, that temporal biology becomes the eternal vehicle of Life (bios becomes zoe).

St. Paul, in discussing problems surrounding marriage, adultery, and fornication, ends with an astounding statment: “Glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:20). The body and its proper sexual action is not a moral problem, but a locus for the glory of God. The old English marriage service, in the Book of Common Prayer, has the groom speaking this phrase:

With this ring I thee wed;
With my body I thee worship;
With all my worldly goods I thee endow.

I can think of no other place in English literature that more completely describes the fullness of marriage in its utter union of husband and wife. It is sacrament.

The atonement is rightly understood as Christ’s direct assault on death itself. It is for this reason that St. Paul describes us as being “baptized into His death.” In His death and descent into Hades, Christ “tramples down death by death.” His triumphant death now becomes our death by water and the Spirit, so that our death is now a Passover and not our destruction.

Many of the abstract theories that surround the atonement, as well as modern pietistic Christianity, are divorced from our bodies. Being “born again” has been divorced from Baptism (whose connection is quite clear in Scripture), and reinterpreted as a quasi-emotional experience, a definition that is no older than the 18th century or so. Baptism itself is often reduced to nothing more than token ritual. In the same manner, the Eucharist, the undisputed center of the Christian life for 1500 years, has equally been reduced and gutted. For some modern Christians, the only doctrine of the Eucharist cherished by the faithful is that it is not the actual Body and Blood of Christ. It becomes a “sacrament” of anti-Catholicism.

St. John makes this simple declaration in his second epistle:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.

This, of course, is not the intention of those who have evolved a non-sacramental Christianity. However, the deep anti-embodiment that permeates our culture (and fuels such theology) has set itself on a course towards an antichrist of St. John’s definition. Given the increasing alienation of what it means to be human from our own bodies, Christ’s words, “This is my body,” need to be carefully re-read.

Along with this admonition, we need to return to a consciousness righty grounded in our own embodiment. To live embodied is to acknowledge limits, and to properly respect them. The limits of our bodies should be honored rather than treated as cumbersome obstacles. Our bodies are not given to us as objects to be transcended. Medical experimentation, however noble in its intentions, needs to be reined in with genuine regard and veneration for our limits. An embryo, for example, is a human being, not a scientific tool or toy.

St. John of Damascus offers a profound statement for our consideration:

I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God.

Glory to God who gives us His flesh and blood as the food of immortality. May He grant us grace to glorify Him in our own bodies!

22 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Father! I have been pondering the importance of the body of late and this is a wonderful addition!

    I cannot think it important enough to realize that Christ was incarnate, that He arose bodily into heaven, that we are whole beings, spirit and body, and bodily resurrected. There is so much to consider in the importance of our embodiment!

  2. Father Stephen, this is exactly where I am “at” right now. After time spent earning a living (my job), participating in the life of the church and then the looking after of the body (the cooking, the cleaning, the exercise and the myriad administrivia) there is just no time to write the masterpiece, to gain the theological degree, to do that impressively worldly feat. And that is because this is how it is. These things come first. It seems that a simple life has been ordained for me and that sounds very much like the God I know. Your blessing!

  3. Thinking of this passage from “What’s Wrong With the World” by G. K. Chesterton:
    “Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.”

  4. Thank you, Sunny.

    This is an awesome piece of Chesterton I’d never heard before. And it makes sense of the everyman’s approach to just looking down at his own two feet to figure out which one to put forward first. Whether it’s the little girl’s hair or your own two feet, it is the simplest things in life which we have been created to focus on. Once this is accomplished successfully, then and only then can we rule neighborhoods and worlds. This is because it is all modelled off the small things…like a little girl’s hair.

  5. Truly Chesterton-esque.

    Chesterton thought long and hard on economics and such – and the implications of Christian thinking for those things. He promoted “Distributism,” along with a number of others. It championed the small, the local, the ownership of the means of labor by those who labor, etc. He was not a socialist, but a localist. He would have loved the book, Small Is Beautiful. Solzhenitsyn championed some similar ideas and made very positive comments about Chesterton’s work when told of it.

    In my own small way, I try to point us towards being small, being local, doing the next good thing, etc. Nothing, of course, is more local than your body. We have abstracted much of our existence away from our bodies, such that they become our enemies, things to be changed, modified, and managed in order to fit our ideas. It is, of course, an extremely backwards way of doing things. Ideas shift and change, but, like it or not, you’re stuck in your body. Truth is – you are your body.

    St. Paul could write: “No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it.” (Eph 5:29) It is only in the sickness of the various diseased philosophies of modernity that human beings have learned to hate their own flesh.

    I do not say this in order to blame or shame anyone. It is to say that such alienation from our bodies is truly unnatural. I do not fault individuals, much less the young who are being victimized be these things. The alienation is the symptom of a disease that is widespread. In this article I am pointing out that even various theologies serve to alienate people from their bodies (and thus from Christ). Living in a One-Storey Universe also requires that you be in the right universe.

  6. The abstraction of Christianity began in ernest, I think, with the attitude toward the Theotokos. One one side is her virtual deification. On the other is the denial that she is at all significant. Yet my first visit to an Orthodox Church was dominated, at first by Mary, sitting with Jesus in her lap with arms outstretched in welcome. Such an embrace. It is much more difficult to disembody Jesus with a proper veneration of Mary and the Saints.

    Yes, as we age we are forced back into our bodies and a great deal of living is centered on overcoming pain.

  7. WITH this ring I the wed: with my body I the worship: and with all my worldly goodes, I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Sonne, and of the holy Ghost. Amen.

    A sacrament that is not just a sacrament, but also sealed within a prayer.

  8. Not sure I want to get too far into distributism, localism, democracy, etc. I look at the same places they look (eg, Eden) but come up with a very different model, which I’m implementing in my community. It’s probably equally far from the 2 modern economic systems as distributism is, but ends up being the opposite of distributism on many points! Funny how 2 people can look at the same verses and see something totally different… Anyways, if we ever have a blog post on the theology of economics and the ability to have a safe comment thread, it would be an interesting topic. I already have e-mail and SMS chains with economists around the world discussing this stuff and there is definitely a *lot* to work through.

    I really like the blog post at the general level. Yet on some points, such as the locality and immediacy of the body, it is difficult for me not to wonder. We have more non-human cells (mostly bacteria) than human in and on us. We constantly take in parts of our environment (air, water, food, etc) and cast off parts ourselves to the environment (not just simple waste products but hair, dead cells, and more). We receive sensory input not merely through touch, but by hearing and sight which extend our reach kilometers from our “body” all the way to *light-years*. So it isn’t just a biological Ship Of Theseus problem, but a radical paradigm shift in what constitutes “us”. I don’t think this negates your main points about embracing our physicality or our limits, only that they are more complex than we might imagine. Some of our limits take us beyond the galaxy, some of our limits stubbornly lock away parts of our very own, “immediate” bodies from our control. Perhaps I would say rather “civilization (villages and such) only came with the advent of an abundance that could *change* which bodily needs are most immediate”.


    …the biology of sin is primary.

    This was one of my top 3 favorite lines. I know you are not neglecting the ontology, but it is easy for us to abstract that, as well; calling out the raw tangibility was striking. Really, the consequences of sin are very physical. They have tastes, they have feelings, they have smells. We can’t live Orthodoxy “in our heads” and then pretend that how we eat, how we dress, how we work, how we play, and how we associate with others is up to us, that it is our “choice” or that it “doesn’t matter”. It *is* matter! I would also add that the biology of righteousness is primary!

  9. JBT,
    I don’t think there will ever be a post on economics on the blog. In modern culture, everybody fancies themself to be a manager, and therefore experts on economics (and all the other managerial sciences). It brings out opinions but little knowledge, and it would only be an occasion for opinions since no one in the conversation actually has any responsibility for shaping an economy.

    What there will continue to be is mention of the commandments Christ gives us regarding what to do with our own money (if we have any). We can practice radical generosity regardless of the system under which we live.

    I’m doing my best to repent of managing the world.

  10. Father, I am fitfully trying to not be managed by the world and my flesh(including acquisitiveness). The devil is behind both. I have yet to see an economic system that frees me from that struggle. We only “manage” the world, or try to, because of our estrangement from God. Obedience to Him, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy in all things. To dress and keep the earth would be possible without sin and bounty beyond imagining.

  11. JBT
    Going off on a little tangent:
    It is notable that Holy Tradition advocates that one’s complete turn inwards, towards the ‘smallest’ and ‘most local’ if you like (i.e.: one’s heart of heart’s), is also the true route to achieving cosmic dimensions. This is a great mystery indeed.
    It is, of course, a path that is beset by incessant attacks and distractions by the “classic three adversaries of man” – as in: that of (1)“corrupt nature” (actually implying “ego” here, to be more accurate, but there is a loose use of this term in many writings as in St Basil’s first prayer before Communion: “and hast renewed with Thine Own Blood our nature corrupted by sin”), (2) the ”
    “world” and (3) the “devil/demons”.
    The most ‘globally influential’ saints that are said to be able to alter the course of history are (after the Theotokos), typically considered recluses (as in Saint Barsanuphius’ famed ascetic answers), and inward, heart dwellers (Luke 2:19) whose prayers uphold the world.

  12. Dino,

    Indeed. I am quite supportive of hesychasm and owe no small debt to St Gregory Palamas. It is only that I believe hesychasm has no special connection—practically, theologically, or otherwise—with some of the political/economic philosophies mentioned, namely localism. Talk of the various motions (eg, circular, to say nothing of the higher motion which is rarely discussed even in the Fathers) is probably beyond most of us English-speakers, but these motions must be understood first and foremost as being from, in, and to Christ, not as a sort of anti-position regarding sin, passions, and the like; one of the my other favorite lines from the article captures this nicely: “The body and its proper sexual action is not a moral problem, but a locus for the glory of God.”. I should also point out, somewhat humorously, that the recluses didn’t believe in localism, either: if they did, they would not have become recluses but would have stayed where they were at!

  13. Yes the struggle is far more “tropical” (as in mode of…) than “topical” (as in place of) in its manifestation and the closer to the end we get the more so…

  14. JBT,
    “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything,” (from the Desert Fathers) seems to describe a kind of “localism” that belongs to a recluse – as does the monastic vow of stability.

  15. “We take our bodies for granted and begin to imagine that the world of thought and social interaction are primary.” Growing up (I’m now in my mid-30s) I encountered almost the opposite: if it’s not physically present and tangible, it’s worthless. There was nothing more damaging to an aspiring fiction writer than the phrase “Get your head out of the clouds and your feet on the ground.”

    “I warn people these days when they ask, ‘How are you doing?’ I tell them that asking an old man how he is doing is an invitation to an information dump.” I give people a similar warning: “Don’t ask a question unless you *really* want the answer.” I often ask people how they are doing and a good many of them are surprised to learn it’s not just an automatic greeting or courtesy when coming from me. As someone who worked retail for 16 years, I would ask customers how they were doing and would sometimes end up spending close to an hour talking to them on “the floor.” The fact I never once got into any kind of trouble for doing that speaks for itself, I think.

    Almost two years ago I stumbled upon the “personal development” industry and it was a massive upending of my worldview when the teachers I was reading and listening to took a unified look at people: body, mind, and spirit all interconnected and equally important to the functioning of the whole. I have found some teachers who are just motivational speakers and I quickly learned to set them aside. The ones that look beyond just what we can see and touch have been of tremendous value to me, however.

  16. Jonathon, you and my son agree wholeheartedly agrees with you. So much so, I have taken to answering “As God Wills” or “By His mercy”.

  17. Father Stephen:
    Not to subtract at all from a very excellent and valuable post, I will just point out a bit of inconsistency or oversight.
    You write: “…..(often reduced to a moral tale – “Look what pain your sin caused!”) In such scenarios, sin is reduced to moral failing. But the Scriptures are clear: the biology of sin is primary.”
    Two comments. First, the “…pain…” is pretty darn “biological”, if you ask me – not an esoteric ‘idea’ at all. That phrase doesn’t seem to make your point, IOW. Second, it was Christ Himself Who said in Matthew 5, “27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Isn’t He here taking sin a bit AWAY from the biological, to the heart and will?
    But I get your point, and agree with the embodiment of our sacraments, good works, and devotion.
    Thank you

  18. Shannon,
    I’m glad you get the point. 🙂

    Christ’s admonition regarding thoughts and the will was not an effort to dismiss the body – but to rebuke a minimizing hypocrisy within the Pharisee’s approach.

    To this day, the Church’s approach to sin and repentance remains prayer and fasting – both of which – properly, are both inner and outer practices. My example, “Look what pain your sin caused,” is weak, I think. The pain of sin is death – quite biological in its final form. I do not mean to be reductionist with the article – I have said that the biological is “primary” – but did not say it was all that mattered.

    Over the years, my experience of the heart and the will is that they are far more physical than I once imagined. The abstractions of much of contemporary Christianity (non-sacramental, etc.) create the odd phenomenon of human beings who are simply out-of-touch with their bodies and imagine that biology is infinitely malleable (given time and money). At its core, the Christian life is a “traditioned” life: we largely live into what has been given to us by God. There are, no doubt, struggles that surround this, in that what is handed down to us in our existence can be quite difficult. The essence of such living is, I think, the giving of thanks.

  19. It is difficult for me as one raised in a culture that discounts both the body and the corporeal nature of sin to really understand that my sin is both personal, in my body but that because we humans are all in bodies so, in their own particular way every body has the same tendencies. As my father taught and practiced as a leading community health officer, the community is sick if one person is sick and if one person is healed, the health of the community is improved. He was not even Christian but he understood it better.
    So any external evil we see and experience is in my own heart too. My repentance is always the first step to witnessing to the goodness that will conquer the objective, external evil I see or experience. Or at least, that seems right to me.
    That also seems to answer the question of how the righteous prayers of a few uphold the existence of the world.

    Sin came into the world physically, partaking of the apple.

  20. Fr. Stephen,

    “Over the years, my experience of the heart and the will is that they are far more physical than I once imagined.”

    I have heard you talk in the past of how when we talk about a broken heart or a gut instinct that it is closer to the truth than we realize, that there is some sort of mysterious but visceral and perhaps physiological connection between the emotional mention and the body part. It makes a lot sense to me, especially when referencing that our 3 parts – body, mind & spirit – can only be separated in conversation and are acting in harmony when we are healthy – and that a number of our ailments come about when they are not synchronized as such.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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