Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 21, 2005
The Resurrection of the body
Bring old truths into fresh new forms
By FR. THOMAS RYAN, csp
Special to the WCR
In the celebration of Easter, we rejoice in Christ's triumph over death and what that means for our long-term future. But there is also cause for rejoicing in what his bodily resurrection means for our lives here and now. Christianity, among all the religions of the world, has the highest theological evaluation of our embodied nature, but it also has one of the lowest levels of practice in actually according a significant role to the body in our spiritual lives.
To see the high theological evaluation, one need look no further than the major Christian feast days. In looking at them, one gets the impression that the evaluation of the body in Christian teaching, on a scale of one to 10, is an 11.
At Christmas, it is precisely God's becoming flesh in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, that is celebrated. At Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. And 40 days later, on the feast of Jesus' bodily Ascension into heaven, we see him take our own embodied nature into the intimate embrace of God's trinitarian life. Ten days after the Ascension comes Pentecost: the Holy Spirit, God's own life, is given to vessels of clay, given in this mortal flesh.
Your body is a temple
In short, salvation does not mean getting out of this skin, but being transfigured and glorified in it. A spiritual body, yes, but a body. No wonder, then, that the apostle Paul wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? So glorify God in your bodies!" (1 Corinthians 6:20).
In its own way, resurrection is a teaching about the meaning of the human body. Christian faith in the resurrection says the body itself is not a product, not a consumable. Though biodegradable, it is not disposable. Though broken, flawed, worn out, each human body continues to be precious to its designer.
God does not plan to throw my body away like a banana peel or a polyvinyl chloride bottle. God plans to keep the whole thing, the whole me. So for Christians to engage in spiritual life practices that care for human bodies is a natural.
Historically, Christianity has had difficulty accepting the radical nature of it's own good news where the body is concerned. In our present interfaith context, many Westerners and Easterners are sharing notes on the spiritual journey and engaging in an exchange of spiritual gifts from their respective traditions.
Through this dialogue, Christians are discovering things like yoga and tai chi that help them put their own theological convictions into practice. Given the absence of such disciplines within Christianity, Time magazine's report should come as no surprise that there are now 15 million Americans who practice yoga.
That these practices are now part of world spirituality and not wed to any particular religion is amply demonstrated by the fact that Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and those who claim no particular religious adherence, all use them. Obviously, they are a "hardware" to which all can bring their "software," that is, their own faith understanding. The Church has been slow, however, to help the many Christians engaging in these practices to connect them to and root them in their own faith.
People are voting with their feet, exhibiting a desire to live a holistic spirituality and benefit from practices that contribute to it. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist community, challenged his followers to be missionaries to the culture, to look in every era at the forms that have cultural currency and to "bring the old truths in fresh, new forms."
The truth here is that Christian faith is profoundly incarnational. We have a body. The question is: How will it open us up to God in the full range of our living? Prayer is but one example. Westerners have been conditioned to think that prayer is mostly a mental activity, largely located in the brain. But prayer is an experience of the whole person.
It was out of this kind of experience of prayer in and from the body that the Jewish mystic and rabbi Abraham Heschel said of his experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama, "My feet were praying."
The more attuned we become to the flesh God embraced and in which God dwells, exulting in its harmony, strength, and flexibility, learning how to bear its tensions and sufferings gracefully, the more we glorify our Saviour who rose from the dead, wounds and all, and chose to call it "home."
Paulist Father Thomas Ryan's two most recent publications are Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality (www.paulistpress.com) and the DVD Yoga Prayer (www.soundstrue.com).
- Abraham Heschel
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