The question at the time caught me off guard. As a student of theology and religion, I was used to being asked to defend and explain my theology, but this was something different. I had been talking to someone about some old fears, a battle with disordered eating and a hauntingly skewed image of body. I was explaining that what had helped me to move past some of these fears was a faith that gave me hope in a world far beyond them, where wounds would be healed and tears would be no more. His response pulled me down from my seemingly hopeful, ascended place: “What is your theology of the body?” he asked. “How does God speak to your physical existence right now?” I didn’t know how to respond. How had my body accompanied me in life and in faith? I wasn’t quite sure that it had.
The physical isn’t a matter the spiritual always consider. But for the Christian, they are severely and mercifully united, and there is a world of hope in considering this. What does it mean that Christ came in the flesh, with sinew and marrow? What does it mean that the Incarnation, the crucifixion, and the ascension were each historical events enacted in a body? Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for us today that Jesus is vicariously human, the risen Son of God a corporal being who now sits at the right hand of the Father? What does Christ’s wounded body have to do with our own? These are the questions the church holds physically and attentively close, though the modern divorce of the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, what is now and what will be, has made them difficult questions to consider.
But consider we must, for the promise of Christianity is union with none other than the human Christ himself. In faith and by the Spirit, we are united to the same body that was on the cross and was in the tomb, and which is now also in heaven. We are united with a body that was wounded and humiliated, dead and buried, a body that is very much a human and physical promise: “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”(1) Among religions, it is a most unique hope: God in a body.
The biblical depiction of God’s recreating of all things is far more “earthy” than some of us regularly entertain, whether its critics or lauders. No matter how privatized and irrelevant or removed and other-worldly we might describe Christianity, it is unavoidably a faith that intends us to encounter and experience God in flesh redeeming in the here-and-now, everyday, hand-dirtying occurrences of life in bodies.
In an unapologetically corporeal account, the book of Acts describes Jesus miraculously among his disciples after the harrowing events of the crucifixion and burial: “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While eating with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father… And when he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” When two men in white robes then appeared and interrupted the disciples’ stupor, their question was as pointed as the one that stumped me in seminary: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you, will return in the same way as you saw him live and go forth.”(2)
It is no small promise that Christ came as a vicariously living body. He walked empathetically near the material world he came to recreate; he suffered and died in a body; and he remains a real and living body that will return to wipe every real tear from our real eyes. The body of Christ that the church holds up to the world represents something more fully human, more real than ourselves, and it is this reality that he lifts us toward, transforms us into, and advocates for on our behalf. Our union with Christ and communion with the Trinity add a certain and heavenly dimension to our lives to be sure, but to describe this as anything other than a dimension that profoundly orients us here and now, in real bodies to the world around us, is to profoundly misunderstand the gift.
Beyond a subject for another time or place, how might God speak to your physical existence now? How does your body accompany you into encounters with God? In these weeks from the physical shock of Easter to the corporal gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, consider Christ who walked among the world as a human body, who invited Thomas to physically put his hands in scars that still mark pain, who ascended as one fully human after sharing a meal with those he loved, and who sent the Holy Spirit to live powerfully among us today. Consider the body of Christ, who walked through the torment of Holy Week and now sits at the right hand of the Father as advocate, offering his body for the sake of yours, calling you to physically come further into the kingdom even now.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.
(2) Story told in Acts 1:3-11, emphasis mine.