Sermon - 2nd September 2012
Bodies and Embodiment
Scripture - Song of Songs 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-23
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Introduction – Bodies
Christianity has a difficult time with bodies. This is a little odd as every Christian who has ever lived and every Christian who will ever live has, in fact, had a body! Traditionally Christians were told to beware of the “the world, the flesh, and the devil” – nicely linking all three and medieval Christianity was quite concerned with mortifying – literally putting to death – the flesh. People were encouraged to punish and subdue the body. Thomas More was famous – aside from being murdered by Henry VIII and murdering heretics himself – for wearing a hair shirt. Medieval mystics used to scourge themselves and everyone was encouraged to fast to show penitence for sins – indeed one of the controversies at the Reformation was around whether Christians had to abstain from meat during Lent. However, these are not just archaic areas of interest, contemporary evangelicalism is interested in fasting as a spiritual discipline, the Catholics are re-discovering this part of their spirituality and people are encouraged to abstain from meat on Fridays again. Opus Dei – a very conservative Catholic organisation is famed for encouraging its members to scourge themselves.
But the Church shouldn’t just be singled out for odd views on bodies – society has too. I think society can’t quite work out what it thinks about the body. One the one hand some newspapers sell on the strength of showing off beautiful young bodies and the so-called public interest in showing the pictures of Prince Harry was really pandering to a public that was interested, and so increasing sales, rather than actually because there was a legitimate public interest. At the gay pride festival last weekend many people (despite the weather) were showing off the results of many hours of work in the gym to parade pristine bodies down the rain soaked streets of Manchester. Gym membership is the order of the day, the dieting industry makes millions out of those of us who struggle to keep to the right weight and fun is provoked at celebrities who are big yet, at the same time, obesity is a real problem for our society.
And then we have mixed views about our own bodies. We may love them or hate them, we may feel something in between, but we all realise that our bodies are aging. Some of us may work hard to deny the reality of aging, but our bodies are changing all the time. We may have mixed reactions to the advances of age – greater experience often leads to a better perspective on things than we had when we were a bit younger, but we’re not as fast or fit as we used to be. Whilst we may need glasses or hearing aids at any age – the chances are that, the older we get, the more we may need them. Some of us may need some “spare part” surgery as knees and hips give out. All this can make us a bit resentful or distrustful of our bodies.
And then, even if we don’t go for the extremes of medieval or contemporary views on bodies, we often are disconnected from them in our faith. We can be quite gnostic…
One of the things the early Christians had to counter was a whole philosophy and spirituality which we now called Gnosticism. Gnostics believed lots of different things but generally they felt that the body was evil and the spirit was good. People could be released from their bodies in the next life through special, secret, knowledge which helped them leave bodily limitations behind. Some Gnostic groups strived to be celibate as it was sinful to bring new embodied beings into the world, whilst others felt that as the flesh was passing and the spirit eternal they could do what they liked with their bodies- and often did.
These ideas influenced Christianity and some early Christian writings were influenced by these ideas. I think the traditional suspicion of our bodies is influenced more by these Gnostic ideas – that the flesh is evil – than they are by the Biblical sources for our faith.
What we feel about our bodies can affect how we feel with our bodies. We’re used to physical feelings. We hear, we see, we touch, taste and smell but we often think our spirituality is disjointed from our bodies. Most Protestant traditions don’t try to use all the senses in worship whereas, the Orthodox and traditional Catholic traditions would stimulate all five senses in the richness of their worship which stimulates the sense of sight through candles and visual images like icons, the sense of sound through the music, taste through the weekly reception of Holy Communion, touch through the lighting of candles and the touching of icons and smell through the use of incense.
But even if we use all our senses in worship, there is still a tendency in Christianity to separate out spirituality from our bodies. We contrast body and soul, we often believe that when we die our souls go to heaven whilst our bodies remain here. This is a common idea despite the Biblical view of a New Heaven and a New Earth, and a general resurrection. One of the reasons I like Spencer’s Resurrection at Cookham Wood is the fact that he gives a rather nice contemporary take on the resurrection – and he is quite playful with who is getting out of which grave (he puts people together who weren’t officially together in life) – but he does capture the idea of us being raised to new life which, to me, is a more compelling Biblical vision than the popular cultural idea that heaven is somehow up in the clouds.
We forget that all we perceive and experience about the world, others and God we do with our bodies – we pray with our bodies, we worship with our bodies, we have spiritual experiences with our bodies, we receive the Lord into our bodies when we receive Holy Communion. So it’s strange that Christianity has become so suspicious about them.
Comment on Song of Songs
It’s particularly odd when we consider that our first reading today, from the Song of Songs, is from an erotic love song in Scripture, the Song of Songs, which delights in the beauty of the lovers’ bodies. It is a highly charged erotic book where sexual love and desire between partners is celebrated. It’s a book that many Christians felt, and feel, profoundly uncomfortable with because of its raw celebration of sexuality. For years it was dressed up as an allegory of God’s love for His people or Christ’s love for His Church, then (when these interpretations really didn’t work) it was seen as the erotic love between husband and wife. The problem with the latter interpretation is that nowhere does the book mention the fact they are married! It’s also an interesting book in that the woman’s voice is loudest and most prevalent.
Today’s passage, like the larger work, celebrates human sexuality as part of God's good creation; the garden setting may well be intended to evoke the Garden of Eden. In the Song, the woman and man are in harmony with one another and with the natural world; the brokenness of relationships between humans and between humans and the earth is healed. The woman and man are in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship of equality. In today’s reading the lovers articulate their love for each other's physical bodies. This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies. The reading begins with the woman extolling the way the man moves in verse 8. Then she exclaims over the way he stands still and looks out the window in verse 9; she is besotted with every little thing he does. The natural world evokes all of the senses as does the love between the couple. The very physicality of this text as scripture is its gift. The woman, man, their love and their world are all God's good, very good, creation. There is no division between body and soul.
Comment on St Mark
The Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples as they weren’t obeying some customs around ritual purity – some Jews followed customs calling for the ritual washing of hands before eating – even though the Law itself didn’t require this. Judaism takes the human body rather more seriously than does many forms of Christianity. Recognising the importance of ritual purity means that the washing of the body becomes part of worship. Jesus isn’t interested in the narrow restrictions on the Law that the Pharisees tried to introduce, but he doesn’t reject the idea that our bodies can be defiled – he is, however, more interested in that defilement coming from within and not from external rituals – or failing to follow such external rituals. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is interested in the physical needs of people – he heals those who are sick, raises some to life, provides food for crowds, calms his disciples in a storm and, at times, uses earthy physical things like spit, mud, and touch to effect his healings. The body is important for Jesus – not least because he chose to become incarnate, to take on human flesh for himself.
Drawing Strings Together
Despite the Bible being positive about bodies, the Christian tradition has been deeply suspicious of bodies – seeing them as things which can betray us and lead us into sin and also suspicious of bodily pleasures. The reading from Song of Songs, in particular, is a good reminder to us of the God-given nature of our bodies. Jesus’ incarnation reminds us too that God became flesh and so sanctified humanity. So what can we learn from this?
First, I think we need to be thankful for our bodies – in all their complexity, in all their frailty and glory. At the weekend I was speaking to someone who was moaning about being single – he’s been single for most of the time I’ve known him. He said, out of the blue, that he doesn’t like his own body. I said that he would struggle to find a partner, or believe that a partner would find him attractive, if he didn’t see anything attractive about himself. So be thankful for the body you have and accept it as God’s gift to you.
Second, work out how best to take care of your body. There is a huge industry based around losing weight, firming up bodies, getting fit. I’m not necessarily suggesting we all need to do that, but are there things we can do which will look after our bodies better? Do we need a bit more exercise, do we need to moderate our diet a bit? Do we need to cut back on the booze, or reduce the cigarettes? What can we do to look after our God-given bodies a bit better?
Third, we need to remember that it’s in our bodies that we experience God. Our bodies are the location and context for our spiritual experiences. This is obvious when we think about it but is often something that we ignore. We use our bodies to pray, to sing, to read, to be still, to speak and to listen. It is in our own flesh that the Word-made-flesh speaks to us, inspires us, encourages us, heals us, re-creates us and meets us.