It is Lent, and we draw closer to the cross.
I’m something of a rebel at heart—not because I seek to overthrow anything, but because at the core of my heart’s understanding of the way this world has turned out, it is already overthrown. There is something grossly amiss with the world, and I think it only appropriate that those who call themselves servants of a breathing, dying, rising God adopt a perspective of rebellion against the rule of death, not by denying it wholesale, covering it over in the platitudes of Mickey Mouse religion, or worse, constructing a simulated reality out of the duck-faced, over-filtered, symbols that float through Western society divorced from meaning.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Andrew Root’s book The Promise of Despair, the essential premise of which is that the darkness of death against which we rail is the very context in which we see the ultimate reality of what holds the universe together, the Crucified God, the One whose heart bleeds and dies over a world in thrall to death. The One whose death swallows up death forever.
One of my understandings of the sacrament of the Eucharist is that it is an affirmation of and participation in the overthrowal of the world by the death of Christ, the final defeat of the darkness that persists in those dark corners of the world. I harp on this at length but it is something worth harping upon because in the Eucharist we taste the crucified, dead God and welcome him into our bodies to raise us with him. The taste of dry bread and tawny port is the taste of death that’s been turned inside out–it’s a flavor that cries, “life!”
There is nothing more real than the Eucharistic meal, as far as I understand it. By that I mean there is nothing so closely connected with the founding and final order of things as a perfect love poured out into the most basic of human functions–breathing, eating, and drinking. But as basic as those functions are, there is something else that makes the Eucharist real: it acknowledges despair, that force which bakes and breaks us, presses and pours us. The liturgy of the Eucharist encompasses the whole of human experience.
Could it be that in consuming the bread and wine we become more real because of our participation in these symbols? I think so–and what a reality it is, a reality that is more real than the death-bent world around us, a reality in which victims and oppressors are reconciled to God and thereby to one another.
But there’s something to be said for the desire to continue living in deathly fantasy. As much as I know my reality, my destiny, is to be bound up and reconciled in the body of Christ to my wrongdoers and the ones whom I have wronged, there is yet a desire to allow the wall of hostility to linger just a little longer. That deathly pull makes me say, “no, I don’t want to dine with those people.”
If I am to accept the reality of my belovedness, I must accept that I will ultimately have to be reconciled to the people who pulled their World Vision sponsorships because of people like me. I will have to be reconciled to the single-issue voters and toxic pundits that continue to see folks like me as a blight on society, unworthy of the name “beloved.” I don’t want to embrace those people right now. I want to shield my heart from being ground further into a pulp, and so I resist reconciliation. In those moments I want the specter of death to keep me apart from those people.
Holding on to deathly fantasies may give me some sense of protection now, but as with everything, that protection is false; it too is burned away by the warmth of Real Food, along with everything else that Love destroys in the process of saving us from falsehood. But the good news is that our wounded memories will, in the presence of reality-shaping love, become a source for a wildly hopeful future in which my heart will be changed–and their hearts, too–so that at long last I can embrace my estranged brothers and sisters as Esau did Jacob.
And out of that wild fountain of hope comes this, a hope down in my bones: when at the last Death and Hell are swallowed up, hatred and bigotry will go with them, and we will finally live.
Let’s talk about bodies. I was reflecting this weekend with a colleague of mine on this issue via Twitter; I stated to my friend that I wanted to focus my lenten discipline on honoring my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit this year. In that moment something struck me: the Christian story has at its core the salvation of humanity through work done in a human body, and the human bodies through which we spend our days are the means by which we work out our salvation.
And so I want to spend the next few weeks writing about my body. And your body. And all the bodies with and through which we touch, feel, weep, dance, ache, make love, and pray. Through all of this I want to keep in focus the idea that I stated above: that salvation is ultimately an embodied experience, and that our bodily movements through the dance of life are enfleshed theology–or rather, that we can read our bodies with an eye to the way God works with them and in them to bring about God’s demesne.
Body positivity is something that I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I grew up as a fat kid and, while childhood obesity is in some spheres a thing to be laughed at and treated as adorable and endearing (Chunk and Honey Boo Boo come to mind immediately), the reality is that for many kids the issue of body negativity is a spectre that rises at too young of an age. Yes, there are systemic issues that keep young bodies addicted to processed sugar and fat, extreme portion sizes, and a sedentary life. I look back on my own childhood and realize that I would have smacked myself had I known what I was doing to my body.
But the reality is that my body is what I have made it, imperfections and all. And I am all for taking care of myself by the time-tested means of eating right and exercising, and to be sure this is self care that we can and should all be engaging in. However, the issue is that those of us who have subpar bodies are told that our bodies are subpar by a culture that idealizes one particular type of body with some bizarre narrative that suggests that we can have a different body. Even if I did eat flawlessly and exercise every day, I will never have the body of Ryan Reynolds because I am not Ryan Reynolds. I am Nate Craddock, and the only body I will ever have–regardless of its composition–is that of Nate Craddock. We can change our body composition but we cannot change our body, because we have been given this one incredible gift through which to experience the wonders of creation.
Furthermore, when we begin to work on our bodies, we subtly begin to treat our bodies as our enemies–this is especially prevalent in the gay male culture with which I’m familiar, but I’m aware of this issue across social distinctions. We seem to dissociate our idealized future bodies, the bodies which those so inclined among us can craft after a long season of hard work and perseverance, from the bodies in which we must do that hard work–almost as if we get to turn our old body in for a new one when we’ve worked hard enough. And we fight with our present body, continually beating it down and treating it with disdain, when in reality it is this same body that we are cultivating. When we run into the difficulties of living an enfleshed existence as we work on getting healthy (and the struggle is real, believe you me), we begin to blame our bodies for their own inefficiencies.
Body positivity doesn’t mean baptizing unhealthy lifestyle habits and dietary choices as good, because mistreating our bodies by such means seems antithetical treating the temple of the Spirit with its requisite dignity. For me, body positivity means loving the body I have in this present moment. As I sit on my couch writing this I notice everything I hate about my body–my chest, my knock knees, my gut. But I also realize I am using this body with all its imperfections to process and to write about itself, and I accept the body that I have as a beautiful creation, one which can be disciplined and changed through hard work and attention but nevertheless the one body in which my soul will ever dwell.
Are there things I would change about it given the opportunity? Absolutely. But before I can begin to change anything about it in good conscience I must first recognize that my body as it is in this moment is a holy icon of the presence of God, a God who exists not in the future or the past but in the present moment expanded to eternity. Because this flesh is the flesh through which I have been given the opportunity to work out my salvation; this body is what was baptized, this body is what consumes the Mysteries, this body is what will bless and pray and weep and dance, and this body is what will be raised on the eighth day.
Postscript: I admit that I am writing from a cis-male perspective, and I know that my experience is not going to be the same as the experiences of my trans and genderqueer friends. For those who don’t share my experience, I want to know: what does body positivity mean for you?
“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Thus says St. Paul in the epistle for this Sunday, the first in Lent; in this same melange of texts we’ve also read about Jesus’ temptation by the Accuser in the midst of his desert time, and we’ve been reminded of the magnificent promises made to our Hebrew ancestors. How interesting it is that our Lord’s sojourn in the desert is placed right next to the reminder to the Hebrew people that their own sojourn in the desert was for a purpose: the salvation of a people, and what more, the salvation of the whole world.
But the epistle–what do we do with this? In the southern United States this is an oft-emblazoned slogan on billboards and automobiles, needlework and banners, tracts and tattoos. There’s something curious about this message that St. Paul gives us, that those who simply confess belief in the Lord and in his resurrection will be saved. It’s simple to draw a reduced message of salvation from this passage, like a wine sauce with all of the alcohol cooked off. That’s what gives shape to the evangelistic programs of so many of the ecclesial communities here: professions of faith leading to believer’s baptisms with no follow-up discipleship. You get your card punched, and you’re in the kingdom, no sweat.
Of course the gospel of easy-believism has been rightly criticized on all sides by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, and on. We acknowledge that salvation is not simply a free pass to heaven. We affirm that salvation entails a radical change, something that fundamentally reorients us in the direction of the Kingdom. It’s easy enough to say what salvation isn’t. But how can we understand salvation in light of the desert time of Jesus and the sojourn of Israel? I think understanding these texts rightly is key to understanding what salvation is over against the false American gospel.
Let’s turn our attention first to the Israelites. Nigh five centuries of bondage, without a place to call home, they are suddenly delivered from captivity through a bizarre and historically improbable series of events whose veracity is attested to by the very existence of the Jewish people today. They are brought home, but home is not the promised land. Indeed, the climax of the Exodus is not at all the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan; the climax of Exodus is an undoing of the alienation from God wrought in the first chapters of Genesis. The Exodus is a story about God taking up residence among God’s people. God doesn’t leave them in the lurch until they enter Canaan; indeed, God has traveled with them throughout their desert sojourn, being led onward by the pillars of flame and cloud. And in one glorious moment after years of journeying towards a home that no one knew, the glory of YHWH fills the tabernacle and they are brought home, right there in the desert. The text from Deuteronomy this week is shaped by the presence of God dwelling among his people, and the desert shapes them for this.
What then, of our Lord’s desert time? Of course, God is with him there as well. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and the communion of his Father sustains him through that desert time. He is never abandoned. He is never left to wander without a sense of belonging. No, indeed for Jesus the desert time is a time of preparation, a time of sharpening, a time of dogged focus on the task at hand.
I believe that when we as Christians come into faith (whether we have been baptized as infants or not), we begin walking in the desert of salvation. God takes up residence in our hearts and fills us with the glory of God-presence: we receive a new name, a new identity, a new mark on our souls as part of the people of God. And then God’s Spirit drives us into the wilderness to shape us, to give us cause to work out our salvation, to give us an opportunity to grow into an identity of a people marked to bring about the inversion of the world in love and life. In a sense at our salvation we cross over into the Promised Land and are bade to conquer it–not with sword or bloodshed, but with words of life and acts of love as the avant garde of the Kingdom of Heaven, to “shed abroad the love of God” among all peoples and nations, as Wesley would say.
And as we walk through the wilderness, as we travel in our sojourn on earth, God prepares us for our home in the kingdom that we are helping him to establish, where every soul may at last find home in a land flowing with milk and honey.
So, salvation is freedom from bondage to sin and death. Salvation is the embracing of the promise: “you are my people, and I am your God.” Salvation is the hope of a future. Salvation is the overabundant, teeming, writhing life-giving love that makes us hale and whole in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Salvation is the new heart of flesh that beats and bleeds for a broken people. And salvation is for all people: may God’s will be done.