With the Advent season underway I thought it would be nice to begin a few reflections in preparation for the Nativity of Christ. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the metaphysical questions surrounding Christianity, especially in relation to the other “major world religions.” I’ve also just been listening to Handel’s Messiah and so my mind is in gear for ruminating upon Old Testament prophecies of Christ. In this way (and I’m not sure why) a certain line from the Psalms struck me with peculiar force: “a body thou hast prepared for me” (Psalm 40:6). [Now, most English translations follow the Hebrew/Masoretic textual tradition (9th cent. AD) which has the word “ear” instead of “body.” But I’m going here with the much older (3d Cent. BC) Septuagint/LXX Greek tradition which says “body.” And, likewise, it is this Greek translation that the writer to the Hebrews follows (Heb. 10:5).]
Now, in philosophical and metaphysical terms, this emphatic prophecy regarding the preparation of a “body” for God is (to put it lightly) quite remarkable. And it highlights, I think very brightly, the radical particularity (what Emil Brunner called the “scandal of particularity”) and the general otherness of the Christian religion vis-a-vis all the others. Even this emphasis upon the significance or importance of the body (whether for God or man) strikes a chord that is very much at odds with the predominate impulse in most religious systems.
As a case in point let us just consider the “New Age” religions, which are generally based upon some form of eastern mysticism. Indeed, mysticism of all stripes generally encourages detachment from the body and its desires, pleasures, and pains. Within pantheism the transcendence and escape from the body is alway the ultimate goal. And in various Christian heresies a similar dualism was always quite popular (e.g. Gnosticism; Catharism; etc). Of course, relative aversion toward the body comes in various degrees and/or extremes. But it’s hard to deny that the consistent inertia of these ascetic belief-systems tends toward a relative devaluation of the body. The religious impulse is to transcend the physical senses as ultimately illusory, and eventually escape the fleshly form altogether toward a dis-incarnate union with the divine, beyond all form.
Now, I realize I’m generalizing. And certainly there are differences of degree amongst the various mystical streams within all the religions (including Christianity). But this central emphasis toward transcending the body I think is readily apparent.
With this in mind, note well the contrast with the Hebrew prophecy:
A body thou hast prepared for me…
Behold, I have come to do thy will, O God,
For it is written of me in the scroll of the book (Heb. 10:5b-7).
Here we enter upon the most central mystery of the Christian religion: the God-Man, and the union between Divinity and humanity; between Spirit and flesh. Minimally, I think it’s fair to say the Christian religion is revealing something different than the rest of the world religions. At this critical point we come across a “wisdom of God” which “the world did not know” (1 Cor. 1:20). And to put it more strongly, here is something that doesn’t exactly fit with the “perennial philosophy” (sophia perennis) of all traditional religions. Here is a point upon which we do not all “basically believe the same thing.”
Now I don’t say this to try to sound bigoted. Rather it is just to point out the uniqueness or distinctness of the Christian Faith. And of course, to be clear, I’m not saying anything new whatsoever. This is simply the Catholic dogma of the Incarnation which Christians celebrate every Christmas. The bodily birth of God the Son in the flesh from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [The other major Christian holiday, Easter/Pascha, similarly celebrates the divine body and flesh of Christ in its Resurrection.]
Nevertheless, the Incarnation (or “in-flesh-ment”) of the Son of God is truly a strange idea. And from a philosophical point view it was unprecedented, and was understandably greeted in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world as quite nearly ridiculous: Like the cross itself, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Of course, the Roman religion was falling apart, so Christianity soon became far more attractive to the entire western world. But to this day none of the other major religions (Judaism; Islam; Buddhism; Hinduism) have accepted this major tenant of Christianity. Nor do they really have anything comparable. So we might press the question further: what even is the point of the Incarnation? If it’s so unique, why?
The idea that the inexpressible divinity could take on and unite to human flesh, make it holy (sanctification), and then give it incomparable glory (deification) through the path of suffering, pain, and death is essentially the idea. It promises a lot. Indeed, a lot more than any other religion, hands down. New Age mysticism promises your soul/spirit nirvana via the annihilation of the self and by merging with the “one.” The Christian religion promises the resurrection and glorification of the body in an eternal renewed Creation. In fact they could hardly be more different nor can one easily overstate their difference. Nevertheless, this “scandalous particularity” over the human body is essential to the Christian Religion; it is at the heart of Christian faith; and it is central to Christian wisdom and philosophy.
Ultimately, the Christian “Gospel” (good-news; or even god-spell) is an invitation, a beckoning, “further up and further in” (as C.S. Lewis would say). But not as an escape from the body. Rather it is offering “the way” to follow Christ’s bodily path individually, via our own bodily suffering, death, and finally resurrection. Christian baptism of the body is only the beginning of this process which every Christian must undergo. St Paul makes this clear:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Later in his life Paul could say, “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). I’m also reminded of the words from Handel’s Messiah:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day
Upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall
I see God (Job 19:25-26).
Not only has God prepared a body for his Son, he has also given each one of us bodies with which to know and glorify Him. And of course this doesn’t only mean avoiding obvious bodily sins (impurity, gluttony, brawling, etc), but also honoring the body; you could say, ennobling the body. Watching one’s diet; exercising; strengthening and conditioning; even attending to posture, bearing and how one walks, are ways in which we can honor God with our bodies; using our bodily sense of sight to better learn God’s mind via the beauty, form, and order in the universe; listening attentively with our sense of hearing to the birds in the forest or our friend in the next chair; training our tongue to “taste and see” the endless variety of foods and flavors, seasonings and spices, which are all given by God for our enjoyment; applying our olfactory sensibilities by distinguishing the most nuanced and subtle fragrances; And finally, by paying conscious attention to our sense of touch across our entire flesh and its interaction with the material textures and their relatives qualities, wether the wooden cellar door or a silken fabric drape. All of this and more is implied in the words: “a body thou hast prepared.”
This is of course very much common sense, so much so that we generally overlook it and take it for granted. But that doesn’t mean God does. To think that God would prepare a body for us (and Christ) just that we might try our best to get away from it is, in the final analysis, entirely ridiculous. What’s more, it dishonors the body and its Divine Crafter.
Surely there is much more that can be said on this matter, but I will leave you with this general encouragement: Advent is upon us! And this is a very good time to delve that much deeper into one’s own faith; to consider more closely just how strange the Incarnation is; and to strive with real effort, and with the help of God’s grace, to continually sanctify one’s own body and soul in preparation for the reception of our Messiah at His Blessed Nativity. Amen.
* The Baptism of Clovis, oil painting by Grzegorz Rosinski (1949), Polish.
** Top Painting of the Ascension of Christ (1884) by Jan Matejko (1838–1893), also Polish.