"An Embodied Savior," by Claire Helton
“While they were still talking about this, Jesus actually stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” In their panic and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is I, really. Touch me and see—a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as I do.” After saying this, Jesus showed them the wounds. They were still incredulous for sheer joy and wonder, so Jesus said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” After being given a piece of cooked fish, the savior ate in their presence. Then Jesus said to them, “Remember the words I spoke when I was still with you: everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled.” Then Jesus opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures, saying, “That is why the scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In the Messiah’s name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of all this.
What does it mean that we have a story in the gospels of the risen Christ who has conquered the grave showing up out of nowhere like a ghost and then asking if anyone has any fish he could eat?
It’s kind of an odd scene, seemingly caught up in irrelevant details. Of course, context is everything, and one way of reading the context around this story is that this gospel writer was concerned with combating one particular heresy when he framed the story this way – and whatever comes to mind when you think of ‘heresy,’ it’s probably not this one. There was a school of thought in the century or so following Jesus’ death called “Docetism,” primarily found in Gnostic communities, that emphasized and embraced the idea that Jesus was fully divine so much so that they struggled with the idea that Jesus could also be fully human. So there are some who say that Luke tells this story about Jesus inviting the disciples to physically touch his skin and lay eyes on his wounds, and eating and drinking in their presence, because it was important to him to demonstrate that Jesus was (believe it or not) fully human – digestive tract and all.
When I encounter people struggling with faith and doubt in our world today, most often it’s not precisely located in the question of whether or not Jesus had intestines. So what does this text mean for us? Is it meaningful that the gospel emphasizes the “bodily-ness” of the risen Christ?
To answer that we may need to begin with the ways in which Christian tradition has often de-emphasized the body for the sake of the soul. There are many millions of practicing Christians today who have been taught and have believed that Christianity is primarily about souls, and when that is the case, the body is, necessarily, an afterthought. In a theology that emphasizes salvation as only or primarily about the afterlife, it is (sometimes) considered virtuous or Christlike to care for the physical needs of the bodies in this world – but according to the logic of that theology, it’s only virtuous if it doesn’t get in the way of saving souls. After all, the moral weight of an eternal soul in the afterlife is certainly greater than the weight of, say, a poverty-stricken body in this one.
But when the story of Jesus of Nazareth is heard and understood as a call to radical presence to the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our midst, here and now; when we truly have eyes to see and ears to hear the ways that Jesus interacted with the masses of hurting and broken bodies that surrounded him throughout his ministry – not ministering to them as an afterthought, an excursion on the way toward the cross, but as the beating heart of his ministry, a ministry cut short by a Roman execution – then we begin to understand why it is that a gospel writer might have wanted to emphasize the embodied nature of this savior.
In these last several years, we have learned all too painfully the truth that theology has no home if not in our bodies. It’s where theology begins: If it weren’t for these tender brains inside these flesh-and-bone skulls of ours, how would we even have the capacity to engage with the divine? Theology has its beginnings in our bodies. And, theology has its end in the bodies of those who receive the lived effects of the things we believe. If we believe in a domineering and judgmental God who structures the world in a hierarchy and demands submission of all those who weren’t born on top, then our theology will have an effect on the bodies of those on the bottom rungs of that hierarchy. If we believe harmful theological messages about women, about people of color, about LGBTQ bodies – about the poor, about those who struggle to feed and clothe and shelter their own bodies – those beliefs that began in our brains will manifest in the unjust treatment of the bodies of the very ones Christ held closest to his own body during his life on earth.
When we listen to the theology Jesus lived, it becomes clear that we are called, as St. Teresa of Avila wrote centuries ago, to embody the love of the one who lived out an embodied salvation. “Christ has no body now but yours,” she wrote. “No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”
The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was one that was intimately involved in the bodily-ness of human life, the bodily need for salvation – the need to be saved from all that afflicts and ails us. This embrace of the body is also a way of grounding ourselves in humility – for from dust we have all come, and to dust we will all return. It is so easy to forget that we share so very much in common with every other living, breathing body in this world.
It is a well-known strategy in the world of advocacy work that we are much more likely to engage hearts and even change minds on politically or socially divisive subjects if we can ground all the talk about issues and ideas in one face, in one story of one real person whose life – whose body – is affected by the issues that divide us. As one theologian put it, this story with Jesus’ disciples reaching out to touch invites us to stretch out our arms toward one another as well, even and especially those who are not from our tribe, and to extend the invitation:
Shake my hand, and in that touch of flesh against flesh, remember that I am human, like you.
When we remember and are present to our own embodied-ness, when we can get out of our heads or put aside the grief, or shame, or fear that so often drive us to act unjustly toward others, and be fully present to our own bodies, to the reality that we are human, we are that much more awake to the reality that everyone else is too. And it opens the door to rediscover empathy.
This is a radical counter-narrative to the implicit messages in our culture that there is, somehow, a hierarchy of bodies that matter more than others. It pushes back against the idea that black and brown bodies aren’t worth as much, that queer bodies are somehow wrong, that our bodies are too big or too small, that able bodies are worth more than disabled ones, that women’s bodies take up too much space – no matter what size they are, if they’ve wandered outside of their prescribed domain. No one claims to believe those things. Almost no one owns them as right belief, not when you put it that bluntly. But we have all watched this week as the question has unfolded again on the national stage whether the pigment on the skin of the human beings George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo marked them as less than worthy of the breath in their lungs. We’ve seen it as we’ve watched the rising tide of homicides against trans women, black trans women especially as we saw in Charlotte just this week, and we’ve had to ask if the color of their skin, if their embodied sexuality, is the reason they’re gone now. And even to have to ask the question ought to be a sign to us that the embodied love of the saving Christ is nowhere in it.
Touch my flesh against your own and remember that I am human, like you.
Touch the wounds in my side, in my hands and my feet, and know that I carry with me the trauma of all that has been into the future that will be.
There’s one more layer of significance to the embodied nature of the risen Christ, and it’s one that touches deeply on our collective experience in this season. Just as theology has no home if not in our bodies; so, too, our histories have no home if not in the bodies that have lived them, the bodies that are truly the only constant between the wounds that are inflicted on us and the healing we may find in the present or in the future to come.
In a Netflix series Zach and I have been enjoying over the last several weeks, the main character, a woman, has both witnessed and caused some traumatic experiences that she hasn’t been able to share with anyone, she’s been holding them inside, unable to release them. She winds up with a back injury she sustained in this trauma, unable to move without feeling the pain, literally and metaphorically. And in a poignant scene with a chiropractor offering her an adjustment, after she initially refuses, she allows it, and with each shifting of her spine, and the physical release that it brings, there’s a visual flashback on the screen of the horror she’s been carrying inside her, as she releases it as well. That scene has been so much on my mind as I have pondered what it means for Jesus to hold out his nail-scarred hands and feet, to show his disciples that those wounds don’t go anywhere, even in a resurrected body.
There’s a book that came out a few years back called The Body Keeps the Score, and it tracks how psychological, mental, spiritual pain manifests in our physical bodies – sometimes in obvious and glaring ways like a paralyzing back injury, but more often in subtler ways: recurring headaches from sustained and unreleased tension or anxiety, neurological ticks, irritability, sleeplessness.
Friends, we are all in various stages of emerging out of a season that can aptly be described as a year of sustained trauma, one of the most traumatic years many of us have known, in all kinds of ways. And we will carry the history of this year forward in our bodies, because where else would it go? My prayer is that we will be mindful of that, and spend the time we need to spend locating it in our bodies, for our own sakes, and for the sake of the ones we love and interact with on a daily basis.
As we ease back out into the world, our bodies may be fearful – even if we don’t think we are, or think we should be. If we take anything from this story of the embodied, post-resurrection Jesus, let’s remember that trauma sticks with us, whether it’s a crucifixion or a global pandemic. And if it was ok for Jesus to want to be touched, or to feel hungry on the other side of Easter, it’s ok for us to feel whatever we feel too: hungry, tired, fearful, burnt-out, timid, angry; even feeling joyful when others around you don’t or it seems like you shouldn’t. We feel what we feel. May we commit to carrying in our bodies, alongside the trauma we’ve endured, a receptiveness to whatever feelings come in ourselves, and in those around us. May we embody the open arms of Christ, embracing what comes, embracing what has already been, embracing the hope of what will be.