Put Christ Back Into Christianity: The Body of Christ

Absolutely fundamental to the Christian religion is the belief that God, as the second person of the Trinity, took on human form and became man. Jesus Christ, whose incarnation we celebrate at this time, was fully divine – and also fully human.

I want to stress here that word “incarnation”, not just the nativity, so familiar from Christmas cards and Nativity plays. Yes, like all other humans he began life as an infant – but he lived and ministered as a man, a real man, fully human, with all that entails. We celebrate the incarnation explicitly at Christmas, but also constantly in the life of the Church, and especially in the Mass. At the consecration, we hear the words, “This is my body”, and on receiving communion, “Body of Christ”, to which we reply, “Amen”. But like so much in tradition, this response has shifted subtly over the millenia.The original response carried rather more punch.

In the early church, when the presbyter administered the holy communion to the faithful, saying “Corpus Christi”, the body of Christ, the response was not “Amen”, as we now have it, but “I am”. Do you see how radical that is? You -I- we- are the body of God, in our humanity.

Fr Bernard Lynch, in From Queer to Eternity


There is another, fundamentally important implication that must follow from Christ’s fully human nature – his sexuality. Outside the realm of speculation, we have no specific knowledge of the nature of his sexual feelings and responses, but as an adult human male, we can be certain that they were there, even if we do not know what they were.

At the heart of Christianity is the astonishing claim that God became fully human in Jesus Christ a nd took on human flesh. With a body, circumcision, erections, ejaculations, sexual attractions. With eyes that noticed beauty, skin sensitive to the massage of oil and the touch of a woman’s hair.  Spittle that he rubbed on the eyes of a man born blind. A taste for good wine and feet that could dance the night away at Cana….Is this not what Jesus took on in the Incarnation?

-Michael Sean Paterson, in From Queer to Eternity

Does it matter that he was male? Well. Catholic tradition certainly thinks so. That is a major part of the insistence on an exclusively male clergy.  How do we know that Christ had erections and ejaculations? That follows from his male biology. As any man knows, especially young men (and Christ died while still young) the male genital responses can be completely involuntary (even being used in some research studies and government programs to identify orientation).

So why is the Christian Church, and especially the Catholics, so afraid of the body, and of sexuality in particular? Other religions do not fear sex: many celebrate it to some degree  (some religions have even identified divine patrons of homosexual love). The Christian antipathy to the body and sexuality do not come from the Gospel and from Christ himself. The likeliest explanation I have found is that it arises from a combination of a distortion of Greek Stoic philosophy and a belief in the imminent parousia – but as my concern here is specifically with Christology, I will not explore that question further here.

The modern Catholic Church’s extreme resistance to the body has not even been a constant part of its tradition. We know for instance that many of the most celebrated saints and teachers in the mystical tradition of the church used starkly erotic, bodily imagery (including obviously homoerotic imagery).  The same attention to Christ’s physical body was also once evident in the visual arts.

Today, we are so accustomed to the sanitised images of the white male in a flowing white robe, familiar from children’s Illustrated Bible Stories and the like, that it is easy to lose sight of the real, human man behind these images.  The representations we commonly see, whether as pictures or as crucifixes, would typically suggest that he had no genitals at all – and completely obscure the fact that he was crucified, and carried the cross, entirely naked. It was not always so – as the art historian Leo Steinberg has demonstrated, Renaissance artists in their depictions of Christ’s body did not shirk from indicating the genitals, and even the erections he would surely have experienced.  Mark Jordan describes this misrepresentation of Christ’s body as a “corpse” of Jesus created by official Christology.

Much Christian theology claims to be about a divine incarnation. It is also, and perhaps more emphatically, a speech or managing that incarnation by controlling its awkward implications. Some particularly awkward consequences can only be managed by passing over members of the body of God in prudish silence.  Looked at in this way, the history of Christian theology can be seen as a long flight from the full consequences of its central profession. The big business of theology has been to construct alternate bodies for Jesus Christ – tidier bodies, bodies better conformed to institutional needs.  I think of these artificial bodies as Jesus’ corpses, and I consider large parts of official Christology as their mortuary.

In stressing the overwhelming probability that in his humanity, Jesus Christ would have experienced sexual feelings and physical, genital  responses, I do not want to argue that these were homoerotic responses to other men – but they may have been, as some scholars surmise. However, it would also be wrong to assume that his responses were either asexual or necessarily heterosexual.

What does this mean, in practical terms, for our religious practice as gay men (in particular)? I suggest that there are two hugely important consequences. The first is in our practice of spirituality, and our spiritual growth in personal relationship with Jesus. Recognizing his full bodily, male humanity, we should feel free to incorporate this into our prayer. Following the advice of Chris Glaser, we must allow our sexuality to complement our spirituality, not restrict it  – and vice versa. Unlike the official theologians of the Catholic Church, we must not run away from the full truth of Christ’s body. For Catholics, this also means we must take seriously the nature of the Eucharist itself. On this, I close with some words from Gerard Loughlin, in his introduction to “Queer Theology“:

The consecrated bread and wine are not metaphors for the body and blood of Christ, but really God’s body and blood, given for us to eat.  Pope Benedict XVI does not shy away from this when when he acknowledges that the “marriage between God and Israel” is now realized as union with God through sharing in Jesus’ body and blood. Certainly the Eucharist is as intimate as sex – taking another’s body into one’s own – and just insofar as it unites men and women with Jesus, it is gay sex as well as straight sex, gay marriage and straight marriage.

It is thus not possible for Christians schooled in the gospels and traditions to believe that gay people are ordered to an “intrinsic evil,” since all are ordered to God, and those ordered to God through their own sex are ordered as were the two Johns – the beloved and the baptist – who were ordered to Jesus ; a lover who does not discinguish between the sex of his brides, who welcomes all alike. Christ is the lover of both St theresa of Avila and St John of the cross.  …. It is not possible to place gay people outside Christ’s eucharistic embrace, the very space where we learn “the concrete practice of love.” For eucharstic communion “includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn”.


Crucifixion, Knippers

 

Recommended Books:

Loughlin, Gerard (ed): Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body

Rambuss, Richard: Closet Devotions

Steinberg, Leo: The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

Sweasey, Peter: From Queer to Eternity: Spirituality in the Lives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People


Advertisements

2 Responses to “Put Christ Back Into Christianity: The Body of Christ”

  1. cub1985 Says:

    I don’t think Christianity, particulary Catholicism has any objections to the body or to matter…for that matter (pun not intended). The irony is that Christianity was one of the few religions and spiritual traditions (particularly the Catholic Chruch) which thoroughly approved of the body and in fact, as you state, admits that God himself once took on a human body. It was the Gnostics and others who distrusted not only the body, but all matter and instead preferred to worship the ethereal. Even other great religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism in their own ways, ultimately end up denying not only the body but all personal existence itself, including matter and mind. Perhaps you are confusing a notion of being “anti-bodily minded” with the Christian notion of decency and self-respect? IMHO Christianity is one of the few religions that approves of the body and regards it as something intrinsical and innately personal, something that makes each individual a totally unique reflection of God.

  2. Ken's Cushion » Belief – The Path Has A Beginning. Says:

    […] Put Christ Back Into Christianity: The Body of Christ (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: