Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brother Ass

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." -- Luke 24:36-48

Here it is the third Sunday of Easter and we’re still struggling with the question: what was Jesus’ resurrected body really like?

Clearly we’re not going to figure it out, not now, not in the Easter season, not ever. Not until we have our own resurrected bodies and can subject them to forensic analysis.

But we can’t get the question out of our minds because the Jesus we see moving in and out of the closing scenes of the Gospels is not the Jesus we thought we knew.

That Jesus was – how shall we put it? – a hale fellow well met. He was good company, a charismatic preacher and teller of tales, an imbiber of wines, a bon vivant. His enemies took advantage of his epicurean ways by calling him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19). When Jesus was offered the physical pleasures of a foot massage or a soothing anointing by a beautiful woman, he accepted. When a fruitless fig tree denied his impulse to nosh, he cursed it (Mark 11:20).

Jesus was so into the pleasures of the flesh that he made eating, drinking and foot washing the primary mnemonics of his mission, lest any of us forget.

There are other things we know about the pre-resurrected Jesus. When anguished, he wept. When struck, he bled. When he met an obstacle, he had to go around it.

But in his post-resurrection period, so much about him is different. The dark circles of overwork have disappeared from beneath his eyes. His face seems younger, more relaxed. He looks like the old Jesus but he can make himself unrecognizable when it suits him. He somehow manages to walk through walls, but his body is corporeal enough to eat broiled fish. Even odder, the nail wounds of his crucifixion are visible, observable, touchable. He isn’t a ghost. He isn’t a zombie. Jesus’ resurrected body, which he defines in his own words as “flesh and bones,” is an unprecedented manifestation, a new state of being not seen since the dawn of creation.

We can’t stop wondering about it. We’re overflowing with questions we can’t wait to put before God. And one of those questions is, why did Jesus need a body? Wasn’t his soul’s immortality enough? Wasn’t it supremely liberating to shed his body and allow his spirit to fly free and unfettered for all eternity?

Let’s face it. The human body can be an uncomfortable burden, especially when it ages or falls ill. St. Francis of Assisi referred to his own body as “Brother Ass,” an obstinate encumbrance that led him into unspeakable temptations and had to be beaten into submission. Both Francis and St. Benedict, another mystic, punished their insubordinate bodies by throwing themselves naked into patches of thorns and writhing until they were suitably chastised and bleeding. Toward the end of his life, Francis concluded such behavior was patently nuts and began to protect his body to keep it well enough to labor, as a humble ass, in the vineyard of the Lord.

These old saints are nothing if not interesting, but you’ve got to wonder: if God placed enough value on Jesus’ scourged body to raise him from the dead, does it make sense for the rest of us to pillory our bodies with briar patches and humiliation?

C.S. Lewis, in Letters to an American Lady, said he understood what St. Francis meant by calling his body, “Brother Ass.”

Not that you and I have now much reason to rejoice in having bodies! [Lewis wrote]. Like old automobiles, aren't they? where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size. No doubt it has often led me astray: but not half so often, I suspect, as my soul has led it astray. For the spiritual evils which we share with the devils (pride, spite) are far worse than what we share with the beasts: and sensuality really arises more from the imagination than from the appetites; which, if left merely to their own animal strength, and not elaborated by our imagination, would be fairly easily managed.

For Lewis, the human body is as likely to steer us toward faith as it is to lead us into temptation.

There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter [he wrote]. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus riz.’ This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.”

The pleasures of the flesh may the succubae that lead us to sin, but they are just as likely to lead us to a more intimate experience of God. Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell preached that sermon in a single line in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

There is no better instrument for detecting God than our bodies, even when they become old rattle traps. We feel God in the kiss of the sun on our backs, in the soothing caresses of a lover's hands on our shoulders, in the culinary pleasure of a good meal, in the relief of slaked thirst or the contentment of a good wine. As a lifelong Baptist, I like to fast before partaking in Episcopal or Lutheran Eucharist because the warmth of the wine fills my chest like a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And although our Baptist instincts tend to label rich, chocolaty desserts as “sinful,” I think of them as portals to heaven.

C.S. Lewis also believed that erotic pleasures were portals to heaven. Christianity’s embrace of sensuality – beginning with Jesus’ own fondness for food and drink – sets Christianity apart from other more ascetic religions and from  the heresies of Christians who believe God wants them to suffer, flagellate themselves or avoid earthly delights as a preparation for heavenly bliss. The body is a gateway, not a barrier to God, and the more people love one another, the better they will understand what heaven is like. “To love another person,” the chorus sings at the end of  Les Misérables, “is to see the face of God.”

But perhaps the definitive evidence that God created the body as a gateway rather than a temporary encumbrance is the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus’ soul, like ours, is immortal and indestructible, his eternal personality – like ours – was never in jeopardy. Mysterious as it is to us, God deemed that our bodies would be inseparable vessels for our souls and essential transoms for our insights into God’s truth.  The resurrection of Jesus seals the relationship between our body and our soul forever.

And just as important, the resurrection of Jesus seals God’s deal with us that we, too, will have the same experience.
Just how that will happen is unclear, and Christians have always wondered about it. Even in the beginning of the church, so many had doubts about it that Paul adopted a scolding tone:

How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain … For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:12-17)

I suspect the debate in Corinth was sparked by the same notions we have today. It’s easier to imagine our souls flitting around the firmament as disembodied spirits than it is to imagine our often infirm bodies raised to a new life. There are just so many unanswerable questions: what will our bodies look like? Will they be young again? Will they be better looking? And what about the bodies of persons who were dismembered at death? Will they, like Jesus, be resurrected with their scars intact? What about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose bodies were broken down into atoms that melded with molecules of dust? What about persons whose cremains are scattered in several locations? How is the resurrection to take place?

Beats me.

You can spend hours in theological libraries or on the Internet, reading tomes and sermons about each of these issues, and many of them are exceedingly clever. Some surmise that our resurrected bodies will have no gender and cite the Pauline declaration that “in Christ there is no male nor female,” while others conclude optimistically that our resurrected and improved bodies will find the sex to be spectacular. But no one really knows.

Those answers will have to wait and may depend on whether our resurrected bodies are still curious.

But what is clear today is that God created our bodies to fulfill the destinies of our immortal souls, and Jesus affirmed it when his sudden appearance scared the disciples out of their wits. It seemed ghostly enough, but he said, “It is I myself. Touch me and see.”

The resurrection of Jesus that was witnessed and proclaimed by his followers is, as Winston Churchill said in another context, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Even more so is your resurrection, and mine.

But amid all the speculation and puzzlement, one fact emerges clearly enough: God proved his love for us in “that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5: 8-10).

That’s the bottom line. The details will be revealed in the fullness of time.

1 comment:

  1. I'll drink to that. Thanks for fleshing out this important concept of body and soul.