Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I talk a lot about bodies.
I cannot overemphasize the inherently physical nature of our humanity and the importance of living into our human bodies as our essential selves. In this post I want to talk about how embodied spirituality is not an activity we perform apart from God but rather in the imitation of God. In other words, our physicality does not separate us from the Holy; it makes us more like it.
It is through the incarnation of Christ that we come to better understand not only the nature of God but also the nature of humanity. The Incarnation makes evident the reality that the essential nature of the human person is physical. In order to understand this we first need to think about the physical Universe as a whole.
Creation is a method of communication. God did not merely make individuals in Creation but also an entire communicative system. God collected and codified a measure of time and space within eternity so that finite beings could interact with the Infinite. Therefore, in order to effectively relate and communicate freely with the created realm, Jesus had to “speak the language” of Creation by becoming material. In order to identify with humanity, Christ had to be made into matter. It is the only language and context by which and within which we could ever understand.
Creation has always served as humanity’s foremost understanding of the nature of God. Paul understands this in his letter to the Romans in which he claims that all people have some sort of understanding of God insomuch that they are participating in his created work. In the book of Revelation we see that even our imaginative pictures of heaven or the “spiritual realm” involve adaptations from our physical condition. As theologian Olivier Clément writes, “the divine energies, reflected by creatures and objects, do not lead to anonymous divinity but to the face of the transfigured Christ."
The beauty and mystery of the incarnate Christ lies in his loyalty to and full realization of both the Spiritual and physical realms. As the Fourth Ecumenical Council discerned, within Christ God and humanity are united “without confusion or change” and without “division or separation." Therefore, the act of the Incarnation not only humbles our image of the divine, but it also exalts our view of the physical. This is made apparent at Christ’s conception. Within the womb of Mary slept the entirety of the Almighty, demonstrating that through Christ, physical matter has been made capable of containing infinity.
Ignatius of Antioch once wrote that Christ is, “his [God’s] word sprung up from the silence.” Without the physical, incarnate Christ, the word of God is as silence to us. Similarly, fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory Nazianzen writes that through the coming of Christ, “the immaterial becomes incarnate, the Word is made flesh, the invisible makes itself seen…” By becoming a tangible, finite, and physical being, Christ brings us the heart of the Intangible, the Infinite, and the Spiritual. However, not only did Christ bring the Trinity to flesh through the Incarnation, but in the Ascension Christ brought flesh to the Trinity, paving the way for all flesh to unite with the Trinity.
So what does this mean for us? Through the Incarnation we may delight to know that we not only mirror Christ in our spirituality but also in our physicality. This provides us with infinite reason to relish in our created forms and to love and care for our bodies. It is our joy for the taking that our bodies are not lowly, corrupted “flesh” but rather a means through which we reflect and relate to the Holy.
Thomas Ryan, Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 157.
Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary (London: New City, 2002), 35, 36, 41, 42.
July 6, 2018 | Denver, Colorado