Discerning the body

The earliest text which tells us about the body of Christ is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. And what he tells us there is that Christ’s body is a) a diverse group of people, and b) bread and wine. Right away, we are on confusing ground. Obviously, the historical body of Jesus of Nazareth underlies these transformations, but it is notable that the church produced (or at least preserved) texts which kept this unnatural body at the foreground, in advance of those texts which treat Jesus as an individual body in time.

It is, of course, absolutely essential to Christian orthodoxy that the body of Jesus of Nazareth was a real and fully human body, that he experienced birth, growth, maturation and death, felt hunger, thirst, pleasure, exhaustion, and pain, had human emotions and underwent human temptations — although his body was one which apparently came to existence in an unconventional and theologically significant way, which hallows our physicality while calling into doubt some of our gendered social structures, as I have discussed earlier.

This is highlighted by the several places in the gospels where Jesus is identified as the son, not only of Mary or Joseph, but of God. I spoke briefly, in my previous post, about God as Father, and especially about the need to define that word, not by turning to the characteristics, actions, or status of human fathers, but to allow the word to be self-defining, and consequently to redefine our relationship to human fatherhood. If we understand that God’s fatherhood is simultaneous absolute existential freedom and absolute relationality (which does not require a male body – in fact, Gregory of Nyssa saw the closest human comparison to divine fatherhood as Mary of Nazareth – and is probably faintly reflected not so much even in good human fatherhood, for which we have Joseph as a model, but in human creativity, in our ability to speak meaning into the void), a fatherhood which empties out and displaces the power relations we have associated with human fatherhood, then our understanding of what it is to be a son derives from Jesus’s relationship with God, and is made through deep responsiveness and shared desire. It is this relationship into which we are adopted, and must emulate as we can, an inheritance granted us which, again, does not depend upon the sex or gender of our human bodies, but enfolds them all.

Jesus’s body was also – and this is one of the clearer themes in the gospels – a transgressive body. His violations of religious codes, at least in the Synoptic versions of the story, were not primarily verbal. The words are important, but the words – even the words of the much more discursive and verbally challenging Johannine Jesus — can only be properly interpreted in the framework of his physical activities, touching lepers, corpses and Gentiles, being touched by inappropriate women, eating and drinking in ways seen as immoderate and impure, feeding large crowds of random strangers, driving moneychangers out of the Temple, holding children, washing feet. Some of this is, aside from other eccentricities and provocations, distinctly gender-nonconforming behaviour for a first century man. We are too distant in time to be entirely sure just how unusual much of Jesus’s behaviour was, but his opponents seem to have taken exception to pretty much everything mentioned above, and John records even the disciples being surprised to find him talking to an unaccompanied woman (the fact that she was a Samaritan seems less of an issue), and deeply shocked by the footwashing, a task that would normally be performed by a slave, perhaps a female slave, and which is associated already in gospel imagery with women. It is also important to note that, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus describes his purpose in coming to the human world as an intent to diakonein, “serve”, a word used for domestic labour, and a word which, in the gospels, is applied exclusively to women, except when Jesus applies it to himself.

But most of all, the human body of Jesus is “killable flesh.” J. Kameron Carter, in his essential book Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008), reminds us that black flesh, especially black female flesh, has for most of human history been the paradigmatic killable flesh, and that in Christ’s dark flesh, taken from a female body, which “took on the form of a slave”, and suffered torture and a particularly degrading public death, we find the disclosure of the divine — “the poverty of dark flesh is where one finds the wealthy God” (Carter, p 341). Since this blog is currently focussing on the theology of gender, and without denying the centrality of dark flesh, or the extent to which “whiteness” has warped and colonized Christian thought and practice, we may also note that queer bodies have also been, through much of human history, paradigmatically killable – trans bodies in particular, at our particular social moment, but also transgressively gay and lesbian bodies. In the crucified body of Jesus, we see God’s disclosure as mortal flesh, but especially as that flesh marked by the powers for society for allowable death.

The body of Jesus returns, of course, at Easter, both the same body and profoundly different – a strange body which is and is not recognizable by close friends, which eats food but also walks through closed doors; and a body with wounds. In the gospel resurrection accounts, the wounds serve primarily to stress the identity of the resurrection body with Jesus’s earthly body, to affirm his physicality, and, in all probability, to stress his ongoing solidarity with the wounded and killed of the earth. But the wound in Jesus’s side was already becoming more elaborately theologized in John’s account of the passion, as water and blood pour from it in a manner physically impossible for a body already dead, but figuring for us baptism, eucharist, and, crucially, also childbirth – Jesus’s body continues to confound gendered imagery even in death. The resurrection body still bears this wound, and the way in which it is figured will become, especially in the late medieval period, just about the queerest thing ever in the Christian imagination, especially once it becomes linked with Christ-as-food eucharistic concepts; a suggestively-shaped, sometimes bloody, opening through which we are born, in which we shelter, which we touch and kiss, and from which we drink blood and/or milk (Caroline Walker Bynum and Amy Hollywood have assembled and analyzed much of this imagery, with Hollywood concentrating especially on Beguine writings, and Graham Ward has looked at Caravaggio’s painting of St Thomas from a gay male perspective).

This is, however, to jump forward in time, and we still have not looked at the two meanings which Paul proposes for Christ’s body in the time after Easter. That Christ’s body now is the church is a familiar theological concept, nearly a cliché, but it is worth at least pausing to notice that the two points which Paul is making here, in this very first attempt to explain the body, are that diversity is an essential quality, and that there should not be hierarchy within that diversity, save the single distinction between humanity and God. The body of Christ is necessarily multi-gendered, open, complex, and relational, holding a multitude of connections, identities and distinctions, within the somehow singular, yet infinitely “transposable” (to borrow Graham Ward’s term) body.

The potential of this meaning becomes even more radical if we follow Gregory of Nyssa’s lead in seeing the Body as made up, not only of the human bodies within the church, but of all human bodies, each of them made in the image of God, and that only the world’s power has divided human bodies into rulers and ruled, killable flesh and those permitted to kill; only power has transformed the infinite differentiation of human bodies into relationships of overt or hidden violence, based on race, sex, gender, or any other construct.

That transposable nature of the body of Christ is even more obvious in the second meaning of the body given in Corinthians – that the body is bread and wine, that the body is sufficiently boundary-violating to be food, to be made generally available to human persons, to be consumed, to be the body which feeds the body, a startlingly unstable presence, which is made by human intervention with some qualities of violence (crushing, grinding, breaking), which is eaten or decays, which involves the marginally unclean image of fermentation, which mingles indifferently with human bodies of all ages, genders, abilities, and identities.

A body which provides food from its own substance is almost inescapably a female-coded body. And once the language of food, of eating, has been released into human discourse about the divine, it cannot be contained. We consume the Bridegroom who is bread, and our physicality mingles with his, indifferent to our human sex or gender. The offering of wine as Christ’s blood merges with the ancient belief that breastmilk was derived from the blood of the nursing body, with the milk imagery of First Peter, and with the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs and its delicate fluctuations of voice, to produce the breastfeeding Christ/Bridegroom, who is possibly first suggested in Revelation 13, where the Son of Man is described as having mastois, a word elsewhere in the Septuagint only used to speak of female breasts, who returns in Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the Song of Songs feeding his bride the church from his own breasts, and who is a familiar presence in late medieval mystical writing.

Gregory’s imagery – and some of the medieval uses as well – have yet another twist. Ekklesia, church, is a feminine noun in Greek, and the church is frequently figured as the Bride of Christ (an identification which begins, in fact, in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians). And yet, the church is also the Body of Christ the Bridegroom.

There are significant problems with this imagery, which may have taken on meanings quite different from what Jesus, in his use of bridegroom language, actually intended – this will be the subject of a future post. But the mystics and the poets have seized this problematic image, and made it into another complex instrument for illuminating something about the unknowable God and our barely knowable selves. Bride and Bridegroom, in this pattern of imagery as in the Song of Songs, are not clearly separable figures; the male and female bodies, the divine and human identities, the human being and Christ, the lover and the beloved, flow into and out of each other. That there is, running through scripture and tradition, a consistent stream in which the Bridegroom and the Bride are in some sense the same (there are depictions of the Wedding at Cana, too, where the pair to be married are more or less identical), and the body’s identity is unfixed as to gender and nature, in the union which has often been used, if perhaps incorrectly, to figure human union, really ought to have had a more destabilizing effect than it seems to have had up to this point.

We are brought into transformation and interconnection. We, made once from the earth as the human creature, are now made part of the body of the Son of an unnameable Father, one whose life and teachings systematically undermine the power of biological connection and social hierarchy, and who is reproduced now in perishable elements made by the subversive action of ritually unclean yeast, a body which contains, while remaining singular, all the possibilities and potentials of diverse and differentiated human bodies, and within whom all bodies are both distinct and equal; a body identified male but deriving entirely from a woman and willing to assume both male and female coding; a body which is both a bridegroom who breastfeeds, and that bridegroom’s own bride, who is child and mother, killable slave and resurrected freedom, and in whom we each assume all these identities in our ever-moving spiritual growth. It is in this framework, and this framework only, that we should even try to think about the human possibilities of gender and personal relationship.

And having reached this point, it seems like this is a good place to take a break while I’m travelling.

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