Studies show that girls who play sports delay their first sexual experiences, and when they do have sex, they are half as likely to become pregnant as girls who don’t play sports. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I wonder: do female athletes, strong and at home in their bodies, feel like they have less to prove than some of their peers? Might confidence learned on the field lead girls to exercise agency elsewhere, inclining a young woman to be more certain of her “yes” or her “no?” Would she feel less like an ornament and more an actor in her own skin?
Looking back, I felt most capable and myself not in my body at all but inside my head, which school and church both encouraged. My faith was something I believed fiercely and intellectualized, but it was not something I specifically learned to embody. Yes, Jesus wanted us to serve and follow with our whole selves, but there was a clearly implied dichotomy between flesh and spirit and a hierarchy of body to soul.
The stuff of spirit was holy and eternal and good.
The stuff of bodies, irrevocably tainted by sin, was lesser, fleeting, and ultimately passing away.
In the stories handed down around campfires, small groups, and lock-ins, Jesus’ perfect divinity trumped his dirt-under-the-fingernails humanity every time. If Christ’s own body didn’t matter much in the narrative of redemption, how in God’s name could mine?
I don’t recognize that Jesus anymore. (How could we have “a personal relationship” with One so pristine and removed from our shared human experience anyway?) And I no longer see wholeness or holiness in faith expressions divorcing spirituality from embodied existence or a person from her own self.
The shift was gradual. I studied religion (which was indeed a slippery slope). I put boots on the ground with activists of faith and set broad tables in community, with elders and teenagers and folks not like me. Somewhere along the way I became a feminist and a mother, and I began reading Scripture as if bodies mattered all along.
Blood and sweat. Laughter. Tears. Joy. Grief. Pleasure. Pain. Sickness. Sadness. Sex. Service. Social location! Ethnicity. Gender. Race. Disability. Age. Health. Birth. Death. Food. Family. Friendship. Resistance. Rest. Play. Work. Worship. Solitude. Community. Suffering. Celebration. Incarnation. Resurrection. God meets us—and works through us—within embodied experiences. I can meditate, pray, study, and love, but never apart from my own body. With physical bodies we practice our faith within a physical world, and it’s with bodies that Christians make up the Body of Christ together.
It’s perhaps my favorite metaphor, but the Body of Christ was never meant to exist solely as flat words on a dusty page. Together, here, now, WE are the very Word of God enfleshed, the diverse hands and feet of Jesus in an aching world.
Glossy magazines, movie trailers, and primetime television tell us that bodies matter, too, of course: White, thin, youthful, rich bodies, mostly. Black bodies matter, so long as they entertain a White gaze. Many bodies are rendered invisible in popular culture (and our own neighborhoods, too). Once the shiny layers are peeled back, it’s an oppressive, restrictive story: bodily mattering is exceptionally limited and painfully exclusive. The media’s emphasis on desirable, unattainable bodies is perhaps not unrelated to a Church’s hyper focus on “greater” things unseen, spiritual, and eternal. We desperately want to tell a better story than the airbrushed, whitewashed ones taunting us in the check-out lines, so Christians talk earnestly of hearts and heaven.
But we are still embodied creatures who thirst and hurt and desire. What has the gospel to say for imperfect bodies here and now?
While it’s true that sorrow finds each of us, it’s hard to argue against the insulation that class, whiteness, and money can afford. In public housing where I work, thick concrete walls may keep out fire, but specters of illness, addiction, violence, and death loom larger than life sometimes.
We say bodies matter, but what about elderly bodies? Sick bodies? Large bodies? Single bodies? Disabled bodies? Frail and crooked bodies? What about the bodies of noisy teens, young moms, or kids whose dads are in jail? Do poor bodies matter, too?
I don’t think Christians can counter gnostic “gospels,” dissolve inherited dichotomies between flesh and spirit, or adequately affirm our physical selves without also intentionally choosing to see all the ways our bodies and bodily experiences are not alike and how very differently our different bodies are valued, both interpersonally and systemically. To do that, we’ll need eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to comfort, hearts to understand, and feet to kick at the darkness of bad theology and bodily harm till daylight bleeds through, and together we are healed.
Emmanuel, God with us, pitched his tent in our messy midst. That’s what we anticipate this Advent: Christ showing up, his very presence hallowing all he touches. Jesus–washer of feet, healer of lepers, feeder of crowds, esteemer of women, releaser of captives, blesser of mourners, friend of sinners and outcasts–could not be defeated by violence or even death, and his deeply embodied gospel is good news for weary bodies now.
The Lord is with us. Take we heart and be not afraid.