Can we meet God in our bodies? This question seems strange and yet it is implied in almost everything we do in our Christian life: prayer, worship, fellowship and communion. If we answer “yes” then we need to explain “how”. If we answer “no” then we have to explain why not. The question is really about whether we understand ourselves and others to be bearers of God’s image and whether the incarnation of Christ alters the way we understand our embodied existence.
Often, our relationship to God is something that is characterised as “spiritual” as though our bodies are far removed from our relationship with God. I think that Christ’s incarnation has much to say to our question, for the fact that God became human affirms the role that the body plays in our relationship to God. So, when we ask whether we can meet God in our bodies do we mean it literally or symbolically?
I’m going to suggest that both the literal and the symbolic meaning might be true. If we take seriously the idea that God became flesh in Jesus Christ, we discover how important our bodies are for connecting to God. We will start by looking at what theologians in the past have said on this topic, specifically an early church father and a medieval mystic.
Christ Incarnate in Creation
The 4th century church father Saint Athanasius thought about what John 1:14 means when it says that the “Word became flesh.” For him, it came down to two basic ideas:
- That God brings to life that which is not through the Word – here we may think especially of God’s act of creation.
- That this Word took on flesh in order that creation may be in union with God.
This means that Christ became incarnate as a human being, but also that he became incarnate as the Word of God spoken at creation. The incarnation is thus central for Athanasius because it is in and through Christ – the Word – that creation was brought forth. The implication for creation is that when Christ becomes incarnate as a human being, he both brings us into union with our creator and he affirms our existence as one which is created in the image of God.
We can learn a lot about the importance of flesh from Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation. First, we may think of creation as having a “worded” existence. As creatures we have our origin in God’s initial utterance, “Let there be…” This means that the very fact that we exist attests to the presence of God in our lives. Secondly, when Jesus becomes incarnate, he takes on nothing other than that which was birthed from his own words – flesh. As such, Christ’s becoming flesh is a way of bringing into union his uttered words (creation) with the source of its existence, God. Thirdly, our flesh becomes the very same flesh by which God became incarnate giving meaning to our bodily existence.
Saint Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation shows us how Christ’s incarnation ensures that our relationship to God is not only spiritual but also bodily. Our relationship to God is bodily in the sense that our being created in God’s image culminates in Christ’s becoming flesh.
The Marriage of Christ and Creation
For the medieval mystic Catherine of Siena, Christ’s becoming incarnate was an act whereby (proverbially speaking) the saviour stretched out his hand and asked her to be wedded to him. The matrimonial language which Catherine employs suggests the fluidity with which she understood the incarnation. When Christ took on flesh, it was not a static event, but was rather dynamic in that she understood Christ to be perpetually made incarnate in the here and now. The incarnation therefore represents itself both as an event and as a continuous action whereby the Word is echoed in the present.
This is how Catherine can understand her union with Christ as a union of the flesh. But Catherine also speaks of Christ’s flesh as the body of Christ. If one thinks of the Pauline epistles, the body of Christ is often associated with the Church. For Catherine, the body of Christ extends beyond the church to those individuals within society that need ministering to. Catherine sees the community that surrounds her as the body of Christ because she understands Christ’s incarnation as an invitation to participate in God’s being. As such, ministering to the body of Christ becomes a ministry to Christ. In this sense “flesh” almost takes on a literal meaning while also becoming sacramental.
The Church, the Body of Christ
In Catherine of Siena and Saint Athanasius’ understanding of the incarnation, the flesh can be understood both in a literal and a symbolic sense. In a literal sense, our bodies are graced by Christ and thereby constitute the body of Christ which is the community of saints. Catherine of Siena took this notion to its furthest reaches as she saw her ministry to others, irrespective of who or where they were, as the ministry to the communion of saints. Here Catherine creates a fluidity between “my flesh” and “Christ’s flesh” whereby my body participates in Christ’s body. But also in a symbolic sense, when our existence echoes what we believe to be revealed in the incarnation, we point sacramentally to God. In this way, our existence is one that both points to God and yearns for God.
How can we meet God in the flesh? When we understand our existence and the existence of others to be sacramental. By doing so we recognise that creation as created in the image of God by the Word is both a sign and a symbol of the Word made flesh. As such, our meeting one another in communion, worship, prayer and fellowship is like the bread and wine presented at the Eucharist. “Take, eat and drink, this is my body and my blood” says Christ as the last meal.