Last summer a friend of mine told me that she had written a book that had just been published under the title Losing Sight, Gaining Vision. Sheridan Gates has a form of macular degeneration the onset of which happened when she was quite young. Her adult life has been a progressive adjustment to the gradual loss of sight.
I immediately got and read her book. In recounting her steady loss of vision, she writes about how she learned to listen to her body. Little by little she learned to shift from seeing her loss of vision as a liability to seeing it as a gift. Sheridan began to see herself not as a victim of illness, but rather as a healer. And healing for her and through her for others has taken the form of learning how to embrace her body, learning that though it was losing the capacity to see, the body was learning a new way to have vision. The body has its own wisdom.
For the last three years I have been on a pilgrimage to explore ever more deeply what the resurrection of the body actually means. Sheridan’s book, and more recently Sheridan herself, have helped me in a process of what she and I call “spiritual coaching” to grasp that resurrection of the body is a way of life. It is a way of embracing the body, of listening to it, of taking seriously that it may be not an impediment to spiritual life but indeed the key to it.
I believe that affirming the body is the central point Luke wants us to get in the gospel for today. The risen Jesus has appeared on the road to Emmaus to two disciples who are discussing the events that ended his life—and the strange tale that some women of their group had told about going to the tomb and learning that his body was missing. The wayfaring stranger proceeds to explain all the things concerning himself that the scriptures had foretold. Still the two disciples do not recognize him. They invite him in to dine with them when they have reached Emmaus. While he is at table with them, he—the guest—takes bread and blesses and breaks it. Then their eyes are opened, and they recognize him just before he vanishes. They rush back to Jerusalem and tell the Eleven and their companions what they have experienced and hear from them that it is true: the Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon Peter. Suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They are terrified, thinking they are seeing a ghost. He invites them to look at his hands and feet, saying that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as he does. While they are still wondering and disbelieving for sheer joy, he asks them for something to eat. They give him a piece of broiled fish, which he takes and eats right before them.
Whatever else may be said of this story, it quite clearly establishes four things. One is that the resurrection body of Jesus is not to be confused with his spirit in a non-physical appearance: he is not a ghost. Second, the resurrection body is not a resuscitated corpse, because he is able to appear and vanish at will, regardless of space, time, and circumstances. Third, there is continuity between Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and the risen Jesus, inasmuch as the resurrection body bears the scars of his passion and death. Fourth, a transformation has taken place, because, though the body belongs to Jesus, it has changed to the point that he is not readily recognizable.
Now we will never know until we get to the great seminar in the skies exactly what happened to Jesus between his death on Friday and sunup on Sunday. But one thing is for certain. Something happened to the physical body of Jesus. And thus any resurrection we want to talk about has to do with the physical body, our physical bodies. And we know well enough what is going to happen to them, don’t we? They are going to die; and one way or the other they are going to return to the stuff out of which they came: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the church has been letting itself off the hook of talking about the physical body for too long by transmuting resurrection into immortality. The issue of what happens after death might be of great importance, but the more important thing is what the resurrection means for this life, here and now. Even the most devoted believer in an afterlife, of whatever kind, will tell you that what happens there is directly tied to what we do here. From that I conclude that it is wise to make a short list of things not to worry about and put afterlife first on that list. Concentrate on living life joyfully, lovingly, gratefully, kindly, and the afterlife, whatever shape it takes, will take care of itself. You have my word on that.
So what does the resurrection have to do with this body, yours and mine? Well, first, remember your baptism. What do we remember when we forget everything else about baptism? It is “down under and back up again.” It is a ritual death and resurrection. (We are in the land of metaphor and symbol here.) When we are, as it were, pulled up out of the water we are united with the Risen Lord in the resurrection. Yes, it has a future, that resurrection life, beyond our mortal death. But it certainly does not wait for death in order to begin. So whatever we do with our life in Christ we do in the very body that is speaking and listening to these words right now.
Let’s be honest. For centuries Christians have distrusted the body, sidelined it, repressed it, despised it, all on the theory that the body is a great big problem for anybody wanting to live a spiritual life. So we have been quite good at developing rationales for asceticism, denying our physical selves for the sake of becoming spiritually disciplined. We have a whole gallery of people whom we honor and pretend we want to emulate—virgin mothers and other virgins, desert fathers and mothers, saints of one kind or another who practically lived as if the physical body was of no importance whatsoever. None of that, by the way, do we see reflected in Jesus, who by his own admission came, “eating and drinking” with all manner of folk, to the point that people accused him of being a glutton and a winebibber. Yes, he fasted and prayed, but we have no record that he spurned the body that he lived in. That body prayed, fed, healed, taught, walked, loved, ate, drank, sweated, slept, dreamed, and all the other things (you know what they are) that bodies do, and finally died. And all of it, all of it, was life as God, in God, with God, and for God. So what gets in the way of our living like that?
We have not only some Christian history to reckon with, but a good deal of secular history as well. And generally that has led us in two directions, sometimes almost indistinguishable. One is to believe in the exaggerated importance of the body. The other is to repress it and all that is associated with it, especially its sexual dimensions. And here is where resurrection can actually help us. Resurrection is the radical affirmation of the physical, the assertion that the Creator knew exactly what the Creator was doing by making a universe where matter and spirit (energy) are not opposed, but indeed two different manifestations of the same reality. We do not have to repress the body, even as we are disciplining it. You can diet, exercise, do yoga, martial arts, and engage in a host of other beneficial disciplines, all without disparaging your body. More than that, you can actually keep the second of the two great commandments—you can love yourself as you love your neighbor. And you do not have to be ashamed of or embarrassed about doing so; for in loving your body you are loving the greatest gift that your Creator has given you. At its best, it can be the portal of delight you can only describe as divine.
And you can affirm your body as mortal. Wherever you are in life right now, your body is on its way to the grave. That has been true all your life. Get used to it. On that list of things not to worry about, add “my death.” Doing away with anxiety and fear of death is not so easily done as said, but it can be done. It takes practice. Take a tip from Sheridan. Don’t imagine that your body’s loss means your own diminishment. You may very well gain vision as you lose eyesight, or gain comprehension as you lose the faculty of hearing.
Ironically, the more we accept and honor our physical, mortal bodies, the more we are free to let go of the useless and neurotic effort to stave off their death. And the more we let go, the more ready are we to move into the joy of a life unencumbered by fear, powered only by love. Living that way is living the resurrection. Life powered by love is the Kingdom of God, where there is no more sorrow nor sighing nor repression, because the sting of death is gone, and there is no need to repress anything anymore.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015