by Ed Mackenzie.
During this Advent, many of us will spend time reflecting on God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus. We’ll no doubt hear again the words of John 1:14 – ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ – and sing carols celebrating God’s presence in the manger at Bethlehem. Over against docetic approaches to Jesus which deny his embodiment, we might recall that the incarnation affirms the goodness of the body of Jesus; ‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’ (1 John 4:2b).
The incarnation also has implications for our approach to human nature. If Jesus’ body is good, we can extrapolate that bodies as such are good, created by God as the form in which our humanity exists. Such a theme resonates with the beginning of the biblical story in which creation is declared ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31) as well as end of the biblical story with its anticipation of resurrection, that is, future embodied existence (1 Cor 15). How might such a biblical view on humanity shape our approach to the body today?
Firstly, affirming the goodness of the body can lead us to be grateful for the wonder of creation and how God has made us. In today’s context, we are especially privileged in having a huge amount of insight into the inner and outer workings of the body, with Bill Bryson’s recent work on the Body offering one recent reflection on its amazing nature.[i] As the Psalmist says, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14), knit together by God’s own hand.
While it’s possible to be grateful for bodies as such, it can be harder to be grateful for the bodies we inhabit – or rather, the bodies we are. Many of us look down on our own bodies and our gratitude for embodiment is certainly curtailed when illness, pain or ailments afflict us. But despite the weaknesses of the ‘jars of clay’ we inhabit, it’s through these vessels that God’s light and goodness can be made known (2 Cor 4:7-12). Perhaps thanking God for our bodies is a small way of honouring the God who has made us.
Secondly, the goodness of the body might lead us to spend time looking after our bodies. Such a posture is not selfish or self-centred, but rather a matter of rightly stewarding our lives. We know too that much ill-health – physical and mental – can be attributed to ways we use or misuse our bodies, and so finding ways to eat or exercise more healthily are ways to attend to our bodies. This is not a matter of pursuing a particular look or a specific size, but rather of moving and living in ways that lead us to flourish for the sake of God our service in the world.
While focusing on bodily wellbeing might form a part of many New Year’s resolutions, it’s something that we can return to as part of the rhythm of our life in every season. It might also feature as part of our conversations with others, certainly not to bring guilt or shame but rather to frame caring for the body as a way of caring for the self and so encompassed too by the love of God.
Thirdly, the goodness of the body means that it is as bodies that we seek to love God and love others. In Jesus’ reworking of the traditional Jewish practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matt 6:1-18), each practice requires bodily involvement – stepping inside our ‘closets’, resisting our desire to eat, and reaching out to help those in need. At a key juncture in Romans, Paul also invites Christians to offer ‘bodies as living sacrifices’ to God (Rom 12:1), with each of our individual bodies playing a role in the larger body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8).
Our bodies, then, are the means through which we move towards God and others in love. We are not our own, we’ve been brought with a price – and so Paul calls us to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). Just as Jesus gave up his body in love of God and the world, so too our bodies can be shaped in service in and for the kingdom.
[i] Bryson, Bill, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday: 2019)