Theology of Human Body

Christianity is a faith that affirms the dignity and sanctity of human body. We believe in an embodied God; a God who chose to take flesh and dwell among us. We do not perceive God in metaphysical categories but very specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. For Christianity, the truth is not an abstract ideology but an enfleshed reality. Deification is not something that concerns only the soul but the body as well. To think otherwise would be to mock the Incarnation of Christ. Thus we sing in the Qolo of Tuesday Ninth hour of West Syriac Sh’himo illustrating the reality of death and resurrection; “The body does not mourn the soul, the soul mourns over the body; Lord have mercy on both at the resurrection.” Human body is so prominent in Christian theological and liturgical tradition that we begin with acknowledging the sanctity of human body through the Sacrament of Chrismation.

Chrismation

Chrismation is a post-baptismal rite. Chrism (myron) symbolizes the sweet fragrance of Christ, the mark and sign of true faith and the perfection of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Dionysius Bar Salibi comments on Christ as the Myron;

“We say that as the Myron possesses fragrance, the Word also has holiness and fragrance naturally. Whenever the Myron is hidden in a vase and not revealed and not known, it does not give out fragrance. But when it is revealed and seen, it gives out fragrance. Similarly, when God the Word was hidden in His Father, He was concealed and hidden. When He was ‘poured out’ into the Virgin, it was known that He is the God incarnate.”[1]

The Myron is Christ Himself. ‘Anointing’ is the very name of Christ for the Syriac Fathers. As St. Ephrem puts it; “The name of the oil indeed is His symbol and the shadow of the name, the Anointed. The shadow of His name indeed fell upon their sick, and they were cured, as the shadow of Simon fell upon the ailing and they recovered.”[2] The Chrism typifies our primordial robe of glory with which we were adorned before the Fall. In baptism we regain this robe of glory in potential. For we pray in the West Syriac Fenqitho;

“That which Adam lost in Paradise he went down and found again in the baptismal font: he stripped of his glory amid the trees and put on glory once again in the waters of baptism. The Spirit of God wove a garment – the raiment of glory – for Adam who had been made naked. Blessed is He who descended and showed Adam the water so that by bathing in it his children might be made holy. In this water is a garment that never wears out, for the Spirit of God has woven it…. Go down and clothe yourselves in a raiment of glory that is worthy of the Kingdom. From Water, Fire and Spirit you have discovered your true beauty.”[3]

The most fascinating feature of Chrismation for me personally is when the celebrant anoints the entire body of the baptismal candidate with the Holy Chrism. This act communicates how significant our body is for our salvation. In the West Syriac tradition the hymn sung while the celebrant anoints the candidate reveals two prominent imageries; “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are anointed that you may wear the garment of glory from water O spiritual lamb.” This hymn not only emphasizes the reception of the robe of glory but also equates the candidate to a lamb (bearing the connotation of slaughter)[4] thereby reminding us the exhortation of St. Paul i.e. “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1). We shall now very briefly look upon few of the important implications of human body in Christian theology.

1. Christianity: A Body-Centered Faith

The principal axis around which the Christian faith revolves is its primary confession that “God became flesh.” (John 1:14). This very confession not only accentuates the profound sanctity of human body but also elevates the human body as the very means of the revelation of God. This is why we may speak of the theology of human body in its purest sense for human body is indeed theological as in and through the Incarnation of Christ it is transfigured as a means of Theophany. Christ chose a human body to reveal God the Father; “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Therefore “the body of Jesus is a revelation of glory, the Invisible made visible, the narration of God among humankind.”[5] Thus Christianity is most intrinsically a body-centered faith. As Jean-Claude Larchet remarks;

“Christianity is, by its very nature, the one religion that values the body most of all. This is seen in its doctrine of creation, whereby the body too is deemed to be in the image of God. Similarly, Christianity’s portrayal of future life is one in which the body is also called to participate. Indeed, it is seen in its conception of the human person as composed inextricably of soul and body, and who thus does not simply have a body but in part is a body, marked by all its spiritual qualities. Without question, such exceptional value and significance accorded the body is linked to the very basis of Christianity – namely, the incarnation. It is a consequence of the fact that the Son of God became man, assuming not simply a human soul but a human body; that in this body he experienced what we experience.”[6]

The glory of human body can be inferred from the deliberation God involved in before creating human beings. Gregory of Nyssa expounds; “God did not say, as He did when creating other things, ‘Let there be a human.’ See how worthy you are! Your origins are not in an imperative. Instead, God deliberated about the best way to bring to life a creation worthy of honour.”[7] Another fascinating feature to be noticed in the creation account of human beings is that our identity is established as soon as our body was created; “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen 2:7). “Thus from the very beginning, the body is regarded as being human, as being an essential part of the human being, as a reality that is already ‘man’.”[8] It is on this premise that the common axiom “the body reveals the person” is derived from. As Sam Torode puts it; “This phrase (the body reveals the person) tells us all there is to know about the body. Science can examine our flesh in minute detail, down to our cells and even our DNA. But no amount of scientific exploration can replace the truth that our bodies reveal us, giving form to our innermost being and unique personality. Our bodies are sacramental – they make the invisible visible.”[9]  

2. Theology of Disability: A Critique of Able-bodied Theology

Theology in our times has crept into the vicious circle of elitism. It has become a domain wherein which ‘normal’ cognitive faculties and ‘able-body’ discourses serve as prerequisites. K.C. Abraham critiques; “Theology is a discourse carried out by able bodied people for the able bodied.”[10] Disability and its various facets seem to have no space in this realm. Theology still continues to be an academic discipline where discursive reason gains precedence and dominance over experience. Disability and people with disabilities are objectified. To the most they are considered to be a resource for theology but not a source. Thus it is to challenge this ‘able-bodied’ homogenization of theology that a new strand of theology emerged viz. Disability Theology. John Swinton describes Disability Theology as; “Disability theology is the attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experiences of people with disabilities. It has come to refer to a variety of perspectives and methods designed to give voice to the rich and diverse theological meanings of the human experience of disability.”[11]

Rather than acknowledging the reality of disabilities we tend to sanitize disabilities through various euphemisms like ‘differently abled’, ‘special child’ etc. This itself is a clarion call that there is no space in this world for something which is not ‘normal.’ Nancy Eiesland, one of the pioneers of the Theology of Disability opines; “Euphemisms for persons with disabilities have abounded in recent years, including ‘differently abled’……These people maintain that euphemisms deny the fact that disabilities do exist and reinforce the idea that disabilities must be camouflaged to make them acceptable for public.”[12]

It is not the benevolence of the ‘abled’ but the fundamental right of the disabled to feel inclusion tangible. The disability of the ‘abled’ to see the ability of the ‘disabled’ is the root cause of all the existing misconceptions. Theology of disability is a theology that affirms the dignity of the body of people with disability and perceives a “disabled God” on the Cross. Burton Cooper expatiates on the conception of a disabled God;

“Our tendency is to think of divine power in the same terms as our power, except to extend God’s power unlimitedly. That is, there are limits to our power; there are no limits to God’s power. If we can do some things, God is able to do anything. Thus, human ‘ableness’ provides us with the image to think about God’s power. In this context, the image of a disabled God is not simply a shocker but also a theological reminder that we are not to think of God’s powers or abilities as simply an unlimited extension of our powers or abilities.”[13]

In a nutshell theology of disability calls for a re-imagination of the power of powerlessness and the ability of disability, as St. Paul reminds us; “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (1 Cor. 12:22).

3. Human Body: The Temple of God

Human body is the temple of God. This Pauline expression (1Cor. 6:19) due to its prodigious usage has seemed to have lost its cogency. Today we do disgraceful things without taking into consideration the fact that human body is the most ancient and sacred temple of God. The Bo’utho of Mor Ephrem of Monday Compline in the West Syriac Sh’himo illustrates the sacredness of human body; “May your body be a church; your mind a sanctuary; may your mouth be a censer, your lips like a smoke of incense; and your tongue a minister which pleases the Trinity.” Modernity has deprived human body of all its glory and reduced it to just a mass of flesh; an object of pleasure. It is highly disconcerting to see human bodies being commercialized and sexualized.

“Christian conception is opposed just radically to other portrayals of the body that our society has developed, in which it is both objectified and thoroughly fragmented. The advertisements that are everywhere in our streets and on our television screens cunningly foist on us a representation of the body in which it is deprived of any spiritual or personal dimension at all, and is instead reduced to being nothing more than its physical appearance. In a world left at the mercy of commercial forces, the body – especially the naked body – has become simply a means of arousing covetousness, by displacement onto the objects with which it is associated and from which it seems to benefit, being entirely placed at the service of the products whose sales it is being used to promote.”[14]

I am in particular vexed by the desecration of human body because I belong to a country (India) where every fifteen minutes a woman gets raped.[15] Sexual abuse of women has even impelled few Christian theologians (particularly during the “Me too” movement[16]) to reinterpret the Crucifixion of Christ – especially the stripping of Christ – from a sexual hermeneutics considering Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse[17] so that it may shatter the complacency of the Church and propel it to impassionedly intervene in this societal vice which violates the personhood of a human being. Theosis forms the bedrock of Orthodox anthropology. We are not deified without our body. Deification entails both our body and soul. As St. Irenaeus remarks; “Spirits without bodies will never be spiritual men and women. It is our entire being, that is to say, the soul and the flesh combined, which by receiving the Spirit of God constitutes the spiritual man.”[18]

4. Church amidst Pandemic: The Infected Body of Christ

There is not only a personal but also a corporate dimension of body. We know and are known prima facie through our body. Our identity is relational and that is what makes us a person[19] rather than an individual. When Eve was brought before Adam, even without a verbal form of communication from Eve, just by looking at her body, Adam was able to identify Eve as the “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:21). Rowan Williams – paraphrasing the argument of Edith Stein – expatiates this concept;

“There is something the other knows that I absolutely can’t; that is, what the back of my head looks like ‘head on’, so to speak. Expand that in various ways and you see how it applies in the construction of a physical picture of myself – but also in certain aspects of the construction of a mental or psychological picture of myself. I cannot know myself alone. I cannot invent language for myself: I have to be spoken to. I cannot picture myself as a body or a self unless I am seen and engaged with.”[20]

Church being the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) for such a time as this is existentially infected with the COVID-19 pandemic for “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” (1 Cor. 12: 26). As Paul Moses puts it;

“Now it can be said that the body of Christ has COVID-19. Biology is renewing the lesson that there is neither Jew nor Greek, but rather one body that is only as healthy as its most ailing parts. Or, as St. Paul put it to the “nothings” of a diverse, messy, commercial-crossroads city called Corinth: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ Indeed, the parts of the body that seem weaker are all the more necessary.”[21]     

Bodies long to touch and to be touched. Touch is the greatest form of intimacy human beings have known to express. This pandemic has deprived us of this most essential form of expression. We have learnt that we should not have taken a hug or even a mere handshake for granted. May this be the greatest lesson this pandemic imparts;

“The need for touch exists below the horizon of consciousness. Before birth, when the amniotic fluid in the womb swirls around us and the foetal nervous system can distinguish our own body from our mother’s, our entire concept of self is rooted in touch. Dr Katerina Fotopoulou, a professor of psychodynamic neuroscience at University College London writes; ‘The human body has built all its models based on touch received from caregivers. We’re utterly reliant on the caregiver to satisfy the body’s core needs. Little can be done without touch.’[22]

To conclude, we have an Incarnated God who so greatly upheld the value of human body that He made our salvation contingent upon the consumption of His body and blood. The prominence Christ gave to human body can also be particularly inferred from the healing Christ offered – during His earthly sojourn – to those suffering with physical ailments. He never glorified their bodily suffering but chose to redeem them by healing. Christ never patronized anyone on the basis of bodily appearance. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich remarked; “Christ never made a single comment about the human body. He did not say to Zacchaeus, “How short you are!” He did not say to Judas, “How ugly you are!” He did not say to the paralytic, “How paralytic you are!” He did not say to the leper, “You smell bad!”[23] This is what we ourselves must inculcate too i.e. to perceive the deified body of Christ in all human bodies irrespective of its outward forms.

In Christ

Dn. Basil Paul


[1] Baby Varghese, Moran Etho Dionysius Bar Salibi: Commentaries on Myron and Baptism, 20, 22.

[2] St. Ephrem, Hymn on Virginity 4.7-8

[3] As cited in Sebastian Brock, “The Robe of Glory: A Biblical Image in the Syriac Tradition” https://www.theway.org.uk/Back/39Brock.pdf.

[4] In the West Syriac tradition, we sing in the Kukilion of Friday Vespers (Sh’himo); “For your sake we are slain everyday; we are counted as sheep for slaughter.” Fr Aidan Kimel elaborates well on this; “In baptism the Eucharist begins and in the Eucharist baptism is sustained…The Church is a blood-filled corps of those who have been plunged into Christ’s death and who live his eerie resurrection—life around a sacrificial table. To these nothing human or divine is alien. They are the living battlefield where heaven and earth, life and death, spirit and flesh slam together and fuse. Baptism is nothing less than Christ’s own passion, death, and resur­rec­tion thrown open to all: it is the Church’s constant birth, fresh and new.”  https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/baptized-into-the-eschatological-in-between/?fbclid=IwAR35E7uikGgQo3tUjPV42WZeF8aSmL6eDYvaZ6jsYxWfDM7XKBiHvhpMKx8.

[5] Carlo Maria Martini, On the Body: A Contemporary Theology of the Person (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 39.

[6] Jean Calude Larchet, Theology of the Body, Michael Donley trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2016), 11.

[7] As cited in Andrew Louth ed. Genesis 1-11: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 28.

[8] Jean Calude Larchet, Theology of the Body, 14. Having said this, the Fathers have assured that human beings are not reduced to mere physical or biological entities denying the existence of the soul or “limit it to a being a mere epiphenomenon of the body, derived from it and determined by it.” As Irenaeus writes; “that flesh which has been moulded is not a perfect man in itself, but the body of a man, and part of a man. Neither is the soul itself, considered apart by itself, the man; but it is the soul of a man, and part of a man.” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 5.6.1). Cited in Jean Calude Larchet, Theology of the Body, 14.  

[9] Sam Torode, Body and Gift: Reflections on Creation (South Wayne: Philokalia Books, 2003), 13.

[10] K.C. Abraham, “Theology and Disability” in Christopher Rajkumar ed. Sprouts of Disability Theology (Nagpur: NCCI, 2012), 4.

[11] As cited in John Swinton, “Who is the God we Worship? Theologies of Disability; Challenges and New Possibilities.” in International Journal of Practical Theology 14/ 2, 2010, 274.

[12] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 26-27.

[13] Burton Cooper, “The Disabled God” in Theology Today 49/2 (1992), 173.

[14] Jean Calude Larchet, Theology of the Body, 26.

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-crime-women/one-woman-reports-a-rape-every-15-minutes-in-india-idUSKBN1Z821W.

[16] “Me too” was a movement initiated by a survivor and activist Tarana Burke in 2006 with a vision to build a community that would disrupt sexual violence. https://metoomvmt.org/get-to-know-us/history-inception/.

[17] “Sexual abuse doesn’t form part of the narrative of masculinity inherent in representations of Jesus. Naked women, however, are immediately identified as sexual objects. Seeing a woman being forcibly stripped, then, might be more recognisable as sexual abuse than the stripping of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. If Christ was a female figure we wouldn’t hesitate to recognise her ordeal as sexual abuse.” https://theconversation.com/himtoo-why-jesus-should-be-recognised-as-a-victim-of-sexual-violence-93677?fbclid=IwAR0-gjNRa4s9R3706sxuhDG7ZJvOGleB_kaQZRR30qu2xHTyEtvmh4JixZw.

[18] As cited in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1995), 83.

[19] “Yet, being essentially historical, Christianity is, by that very reason, a personal religion. We, Christians, do not believe in ideas, but in a person. To be Christian means exactly to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, and Him Crucified and Risen.” Georges Florovsky, “The Lamb of God” in Brandon Gallaher and Paul Ladouceur eds. The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Theological Writings (New York: T&T Clark, 2019), 82.

[20] Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2018), 58.

[21] Paul Moses, “All One Body: COVID-19 and Care for Immigrants” https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/all-one-body?utm_content=buffere4490&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer&fbclid=IwAR0BgDqFBwXHI8LpRbsjzgEkDoP8D898DZNFxIadlx1ZealDImrFNgSo0CE.

[22] Eleanor Morgan, “Lost Touch: How a Year without Hugs Affects our Mental Health” https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jan/24/lost-touch-how-a-year-without-hugs-affects-our-mental-health?fbclid=IwAR146m_LiVCk0lpB1n43W4-HfvcW0-tOoUOlz6vINL1FABcQISBrdTNmzOc.

[23] https://cassianus.tumblr.com/post/618639981703053312/christ-never-made-a-single-comment-about-the-human.

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