Kim's Blog

Embodied spirituality

Happy new year! I’ve just returned from three days of retreat in Canterbury, where I was confronted all over the city by relics and stories of murders and martyrdom. It chimed well with some reading I’ve been doing about Mary, the God bearer, and her willingness to make her body available to God.

It has been dawning on me slowly that the patterns of the Incarnation and the virgin birth – the adoption of flesh and the sacrifices made through the body – are not one offs but ongoing, continuing patterns of our faith. When Christ came, he inhabited a human body as the medium whereby he could show us what God is like – a show and tell, embodied message. And this incarnation continues, through us, as he continues to live through us by the Holy Spirit.

This is not an ethereal spiritual idea – it is a very demanding physical matter, that we assent to at baptism but must continue assenting to throughout this journey if we will allow it. Its purpose is the same as the original – for us to live and act in ways that show what God is like, becoming tools in his hands. It is like constantly being pregnant and giving birth to him through words and actions, and like Mary we consent to that but are aware of the weirdness of it!

Terese of Avila described the physicality of this brilliantly in her poem Christ has no body:

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Stephen Herring has apparently explored (in a book not yet published) the idea found in the Old Testament (OT) of theophany, the physical presence of God dwelling with people. In the OT, he was seen in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, signifying his presence and availability, his protection and favour on his people. He posits that in the NT there is no visible theophany because after Christ’s incarnation, the people of God are now the theophany showing God’s presence in the world. God’s presence in the world is through his indwelling with us, and so we are his embodiment – we are in part the Christ continuing to be made incarnate. We consent to this, in the same way as Mary consented – with confusion and uncertainty at times – and with rejoicing that we have this privilege of embodying the love of God.

As Christ lived, gave himself, made himself available in time, listening, sitting with, blessing and restoring, feeding, comforting – so must we. And as he was misunderstood, suffered, was hurt and humiliated, his body broken and damaged – so likely will we. As Paul says in I Cor 12:27:

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Roman Catholics believe that in the bread and wine at Communion, Christ’s body is broken and sacrificed again for us, allowing us access to redemption and forgiveness as we eat and drink. I believe this in part too – but that in us, as we suffer and wrestle and lay down our life in service to others’ needs, to let go of our own will and vanity, and manifest love to others – we incarnate his life and death over and over again.

The obedience of Mary and of the Christ expressed bodily are what allowed the plan of God for humanity to be enacted, their willingness to give themselves fully and physically to that plan. We are called to do likewise, and it will be a painful and joyful privilege that will yield transformation. Matthew 25 is our manifesto for this; in it, Christ tells us to care, feed, clothe, visit, to show love in the ways that it is needed, through physical and practical care to those he loves – humanity!

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