The last few weeks my introduction to Catholicism class has been exploring our being embodied. We’ve been talking about worship and formation, about eating and drinking, about Stations of the Cross and sacramental signs.
But before that (and so as to get to all that) I asked my students about the markers of their own identity. “What makes you you? And, where do you get these markers?” Conspicuous by its absence was a recognition of their bodies. Certainly, there was some discussion of what we look like—but we weren’t really talking about being embodied. Rather, the discussion described us as characterized by our appearance in the same way we are characterized by our clothing style. Our faces and forms are things we wear, not intrinsic to who we are.
It is for tendencies like this that make articles like Joe Fassler’s ‘“We Sweat, Crave, and Itch All Day’: Why Writing About Bodies in Vital” (The Atlantic) all the more important to our theological conversation. God’s incarnation assumed a humanity certainly marked by, (in the words of Virginia Woolf: an “unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe.” Catholics are good at recognizing the catastrophic end of the incarnation—Good Friday’s veneration of the cross reminds us well of God’s broken body.
But if the cross is paradigmatic of God’s incarnation, it is not exhaustive of it. To think of God sharing in the vulnerability, the “posing questions,” the “mess and nerve,” the “pus or tears or blood”—this, indeed, is to encounter the reality of the incarnation and the goodness of our being created as embodied. Goodness and being here, as elsewhere, are mutually affirming. “The surface of the body isn’t poverty,” Fassler writes, “it isn’t lack.” The body of Jesus, then, is not so much a veil of divinity but the very marker of God’s own identity. It is the “self” with which God experienced the world.
It is because of this that Christians hope that as embodied—and indeed, in the way that we encounter the embodied nature of others—we might come to experience God, who in turn mysteriously shares in this “daily drama of the body, charged with force and longing.”
Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.