Wisdom 1.13-15; 2.23-24
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Over the past eighteen months or so we’ve been thinking about the human body with perhaps a little more purpose and intensity than usual. Covid-19 has reminded us of the vulnerability of the human body; modern medicine has got pretty good at stopping us from being swept away by one microbe or another, but with Covid-19 we have found that a string of DNA that scientists don’t even properly consider to be alive, a string of DNA that can be destroyed by a little soap and water, this string of DNA once it gets into our bodies can cause serious sickness, even unto death. And so, in order to protect our bodies, and the life they hold, we have consented to really quite remarkable restrictions on our freedoms and what we consider to be our normal ways of life.
But whilst Covid-19 has made us hugely conscious of the vulnerability of our bodies, there is also a sense in which Covid-19 has shown us that thanks to technology we are far less spatially restricted by our bodies and their location that at any time in human history. Thanks to the miracles of the internet, we can be present at a meeting pretty much anywhere in the world without leaving our bedroom. We have begun to be able to transcend our bodily location in extraordinary ways, and we are becoming more and more used to doing it, so much so that there are elements in the Church of England who appear to think that physically gathering for worship is something quaint and old-fashioned, and all we really need to do is to log into Zoom.
And yet in a different way, and especially after so much time has elapsed, we are beginning once again to recognise the importance of our bodies and the spaces we occupy. We may not be in too much of a hurry about getting back to the office, but we are quite keen to go on holiday; we know that a wet weekend in Bognor is not the same thing as a Greek island, and we know too that looking at the Greek island on the internet is not at all the same thing as actually being there. And for those whose families are geographically spread, the whole business becomes much more serious. Online chat only gets you so far; the need to be physically present is increasingly keenly felt.
All very interesting, but what has any of this to do with today’s gospel? One of the striking things about today’s gospel is how much it has to do with the body. These healing miracles are about flesh and blood. Both stories are about physical illness, and both healings involve physical touch. Jesus cares profoundly about human bodies. He did not come only preaching and teaching, He did not come only proclaiming ideas, He came to heal and to feed our bodies, He came to offer redemption to the whole human being, the body included. At the end of today’s gospel Jesus orders the bewildered witnesses of the miracle to give the girl something to eat. There is a refreshing common sense humanity in these words. Jesus does not despise the human body. He takes a good deal of time and trouble over human bodies.
There is a widespread misconception that the Christian faith is somehow opposed to the human body. It’s a misconception that is found both inside and outside the church. As the Christian faith spread in the eastern Mediterranean region, it encountered the Greek philosophy that was popular among the educated class, especially ideas derived from Plato and from the writings of the Stoics. In fact these ideas had already been in dialogue with Judaism for some years before New Testament times. I am no scholar of philosophy, but I think it is fair to say that Plato had a working model of human psychology that elevated human reason to a very high place, and saw the desires of the body as dangerous if not carefully regulated by reason. And in some ways this is very sensible. We all know the urge to eat too many sweets or cream cakes or whatever our particular gastronomical weakness may be. But hopefully there comes a point where the rational, reasoning part of our mind overrules the appetite of the body and says to us “that’s enough, no more”. And it is easy enough to see the negative consequences if our reason is weaker than our appetite, whether we’re talking about food or sex or anything else.
Of course as a Christian I have a more sceptical view of human reason than Plato; a gift of God it certainly is, but human reason itself stands in need of guidance from the Holy Spirit in order to be a true guide to our bodies. But some of those who followed Plato pushed his ideas to extremes, and began to see the body and even matter itself as evil. And these sorts of ideas could be found on the fringes of early Christianity, and still resurface within the church from time-to-time, despite the fact that they are so obviously antithetical to the Christian doctrines of creation and the Incarnation.
The Christian faith is often misunderstood as being opposed to the body. This is particularly so when it comes to asceticism, as in practices of bodily self-discipline. It is widely thought that Christians hold to a strict discipline about sex because their faith teaches them to hate their body and punish it; it is commonly believed that Christians fast because their faith teaches them to hate their body and punish it. This is of course a lot of rubbish, although sadly many Christians through the centuries have acted in just the way it describes.
But it is precisely because we value our bodies that we should seek to discipline them. If we want to appreciate, to value, to understand, to fully inhabit our bodies, a moderate and prayerful use of self-denial has its place. To deny oneself the pleasure of a cream cake, to allow oneself to really feel and take note of the pang of hunger, this gives us an understanding and a sympathy for our body and its needs, and for that matter for the bodies of others and for their needs.
In fact it seems to me that secular society in the 21st century has an increasingly difficult relationship with the human body. The obesity epidemic, the rise of body image disorders among young men as much as among young women, the widespread use of pornography, the tendency to live out ever more of our lives in a disembodied online world: none of these things speak to me of a culture at ease with the human body, none of these things speak to me of a culture that loves and cherishes the human body. It is a part of the mission of the Church to show that faith in the Word made flesh is an affirmation of the dignity and the beauty of whole human being, the body included.
So love your bodies. Perhaps its easy for me to say, enjoying for now at least good health and mobility. But I say it still: love your bodies. Use prayerful discipline and restraint as a sign and expression of that love. Yes our bodies are weak and vulnerable, but God made them and God loves them. They are not simply an unimportant husk. They are temples of the Holy Spirit, they are the same flesh that the Word of God took on Himself when He came down from heaven and dwelt among us. Jesus knows and loves the human body with all its frailty and weakness. May we learn to rightly esteem and cherish them.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.