Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second Sunday before Lent: Becoming Flesh

There are some wonderful words in today’s readings; delight, rejoicing, pleased, glory. And what links them all is that they are all words which are being used in the context of material creation, of physical existence, of the flesh and blood reality of human life.

There’s been a persistent trend in Christian history to shunt the focus of faith from the realm of the physical to the realm of the spiritual, from this earth which we know and inhabit to some sort of hazy ethereal place in a distant heaven, as if the world to come is the only world that really counts. “Pie in the sky when you die”, is the caricature. It’s a temptation that dates right back to the early days of the church, when the Jewish faith of Jesus’ first Galilean followers was embraced by the Greek-speaking and, more importantly, Greek-thinking people of the Eastern Mediterranean nations beyond Israel. Many schools of Greek influenced philosophy at the time of Christ were very ambivalent about bodies and physical stuff generally. Some held that the world was really the botched initiative of a lesser god, others that the material creation was just a shadow of a better, purer ideal which was beyond our grasp. Many ancient Creation myths viewed men and women as a nuisance to the Gods, or as playthings to be used for divine convenience.

And while Greek sculptors gave us some of the most glorious statues of the human body, like those from the Parthenon, they were very definitely of the body at its most beautiful, youthful and strong. We may think that the obsession with body image is a modern one, but if the Greeks had had Photoshop, you can bet they would have used it to the full. The Greeks may have celebrated the body, but only at its best, and let’s face it, for most of us that’s a fairly unreachable ideal.  Perhaps I just speak for myself here, but it seems to me that most people don’t look like Greek Gods and Goddesses. Human bodies sag and bulge and creak and wrinkle. They don’t work the way we want them to. They let us down at vital moments, and ultimately they let us down completely in death.  It’s no wonder that people have so often preferred to believe that we are really just waiting for the moment when we can cast off this clayey prison and waft up into the air as an incorporeal spirit.

But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what traditional Jewish theology says. It’s not what our readings today tell us. Instead, they talk about creation, all of it, including our fallible human bodies, as something to delight in, to rejoice in, a glory and a wonder. Material creation, this stuff which we, and everything else around us, is made of isn’t a second-best, botched job, a ghastly mistake on the part of the creator. It is God’s pride and joy.

In the first reading, from the book of Proverbs, the figure of Wisdom works with God to create the world and then rejoices with him in his “inhabited world” “delighting in the human race.”  The Psalm is another joyful celebration of the world its writer lived in. “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.” God meant us to be as we are, saggy bits and wrinkles and all, growing, changing, stumbling, aging, not in some state of static, botoxed perfection.

The Bible doesn’t downplay or ignore the problems of physical living – its pains and struggles – or the reality of the sins we commit which mar and damage the world. It doesn’t pretend that everything is always as we, or God, would like it to be But that doesn’t mean that God has rejected his creation. I have never been able to get my head around a theology that believes that God has withdrawn from us in some kind of divine huff because, in his holiness, he is somehow allergic to human sin and unable to exist in its presence. Nor can I believe that there was an unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God until Jesus came. The reason that’s never made much sense to me is that when I read the Bible, that unbridgeable gulf doesn’t seem to be there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Again and again in the Old Testament, just at the point when human beings have screwed up completely and when all hope is lost God is there alongside them. He shows himself in a burning bush, in the vision of a ladder set up to heaven, in a still, small voice that comforts the prophet Elijah as he sits in despair in a mountain cave. He is present with slaves in Egypt and exiles in Babylon. They may not notice him. They may have turned their backs on him, but he is right there beside them all the time.

The famous Gospel reading we heard today rams that message home – “the Word became flesh and lived among us”  - among us! The people we meet in the Gospels – even those Jesus chose as his closest followers – weren’t plaster saints. They were vacillating, cowardly, sometimes treacherous people, people who squabbled among themselves and generally blundered around making things worse rather than better much of the time. They lived in an occupied land, often having to collaborate with the powers that oppressed them and make uneasy moral compromises in order to survive. Many of them had distinctly dubious backgrounds. They were tax-collectors and prostitutes, people whose lives were broken, who felt hopeless and helpless. Yet it was precisely to these people that Jesus came, God with us, God in the mess, God in the chaos, God in flesh and blood – real flesh and blood like theirs, like ours, which bleeds and hurts and dies. Why would God want to “become flesh” if this is what being flesh means?  Surely it was in order to convince us that, despite all this, flesh is still blessed, because his was flesh which also held and hugged, which knew the pleasure of a good meal at the end of a long day, which felt the silkiness of oil soothing rough skin. Jesus’ body is, quite literally, a tangible demonstration of what God thinks of human flesh, and of the world it inhabits. It is a place he wants to be.

The physical body of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, walking the roads of Galilee, sharing bread with the hungry, nailed to the cross, tells us that our bodies, all bodies, are God’s best idea, not some awful mistake. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” said our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. And “through him” – because of his earthly, physical life, his bodily death, his bodily resurrection  – “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven through the blood of his cross.” Human beings often feel estranged - from God, from one another, even from our own bodies - not because God has withdrawn from us but because we are hiding from him. And when we are estranged from our Creator we tend also to lose sight of the blessedness of what he has made, our fellow creatures and ourselves. Through Jesus, God deals with that sense of estrangement. He shows himself to be as close as he can get to us, in a human body. If he has so honoured human flesh and material creation, who are we to curse it, however troublesome or disappointing it can sometimes be?

I’m in the thick of writing our Lent course for this year at the moment. It’s called “Coming to our senses”, and it will focus on each of our five senses in turn over the five weeks of the course. There’ll also be daily reflections encouraging us to be aware of what we see, hear, smell, feel and taste. What I’ve realised as I’ve prepared it, though, is that you can’t think about senses without thinking about bodies. Without a body we’d have no senses. And that brings us up slap-bang against all our complicated feelings about being bodily people.

I’m very aware that for some, a course on the senses may mean thinking about a body which doesn’t work as we would like it to, or as it once did. We may delight in the beauty of the world, but feel frustrated that we can’t see it as well as we used to. We may celebrate the sounds of nature, but be painfully aware that we are missing out on some of them because our hearing has deteriorated. The sense of touch, of physical sensation, may be fraught with difficulty for us because we are in pain, or because we’ve been touched in ways that have hurt or frightened us. Smell and taste, so important to enjoying food, may have deserted us. Our bodies may not be a source of delight to us, but rather of anxiety, regret or shame.

We live in an age in which people seem increasingly anxious about their bodies and their appearance. Young people take endless selfies to share on social media, tyrannised by the need for others to “like” the images they post. Eating disorders and self-harm are rife, evidence of the profound difficulty many people have in being the people they are in the bodies they have. Older people desperately fight the signs of aging, buying into the lie that the only bodies worth having are young bodies. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the whole business of sex, with all the confusions that brings…No wonder bodies are often seen as problems.

If ever we needed to be reminded that flesh is good and that it is blessed by the presence of its Creator, however imperfect it feels to us, it is now.

God, in Christ, is “making peace”, says Paul to the Colossians. He makes peace between peoples. He makes peace between us and himself. But it seems to me that he also wants to help us make peace with ourselves, with our own bodies, to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all, as our flesh grows and changes, works and loves, hurts and heals, ages and dies.

So today, perhaps we should go home and look in the mirror and ask ourselves “how is my flesh, my fragile, imperfect flesh, blessed by God? How can I find God within this body, a body that isn’t some Greek sculptor’s ideal of beauty, but the only body I’ve got.” And as we look I pray that we will catch a glimpse of the God who dwells in us, who made us and loves us, just as we are, and that we will delight in his creation – ourselves - just as he does.


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