So much of life, unavoidably, is just maintenance. Things need upkeep or they fall apart. We spend most of our days and much of our energy simply staving off inevitable entropy and decay.
This is especially true of our bodies.
Our lives are taken up with the care and maintenance of our bodies — we have to clean them, feed them, deal with their wastes, exercise them, and give them rest, again and again, every day. And that’s when we are well and things are running smoothly. Even with all that care, our bodies eventually break down and we get sick, which requires even more care. Having a body is a lot of work.
This morning I brushed my teeth — a mindless habit ingrained in me since before I can remember. I do so morning and night almost every day. I say “almost” because, at times, the sheer necessity of daily teeth brushing leaves me feeling resentful and, like a defiant teenager, I rebel against the system. I do not like having to do anything every day. There are days, every six months or so, where I go to bed without brushing my teeth. Just to prove I can. Just to prove that I am not a slave to my molars. It’s ridiculous and possibly a little unhinged. But the needs of my body are so relentless that they feel burdensome and demanding. Teeth. So needy.
Yet, of course, the relationship I have with my body is not just one of slavish caregiving. The pleasures I get from having a body are manifest. Warm water on my skin in the shower, the texture of ripe apple, the feeling of my legs stretching on a long walk, the smell of garlic simmering in olive oil. So I brush my teeth morning and night (almost) every day, because I want to be able to crunch chips and eat tacos as long as God gives me breath.
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We can believe that the cumulative hours and years spent on the incessant care of our bodies are meaningless, an insignificant necessity on the way to the important parts of our day. But in orthodox Christianity, our bodies matter profoundly.
Christians are often accused of two wrong-headed views of the body. One is that we ignore the body in favor of a disembodied, spirits-floating-on-clouds spirituality. The other is that we are obsessed with bodies, focusing all our attention on policing sexual conduct and denigrating the body as a dirty source of evil. In certain communities at certain moments in history these accusations may have been legitimate. But the Christianity we find in Scripture values and honors the body.
At root, Christianity is a thoroughly embodied faith. We believe in the incarnation — Christ came in a body. And while he may not have brushed his teeth with a pink Colgate brush like mine, he spent his days in the same kind of bodily maintenance that we do. He slept. He ate. He groomed. He took naps, got his feet dirty and had them washed, and likely enjoyed a good, long dinner, since he was derided by his more ascetic critics as a drunkard and a glutton.
In the Scriptures we find that the body is not incidental to our faith, but integral to our worship. We were made to be embodied — to experience life, pleasure, and limits in our bodies. When Jesus redeems us, that redemption occurs in our bodies. And when we die, we will not float away to heaven and leave our bodies behind but will experience the resurrection of our bodies. Christ himself appeared after his resurrection in a mysteriously changed but fleshy, eating and drinking body. Even now, he remains in his body.
The biblical call to an embodied morality — to sexual purity, for instance, or moderation in food and drink — comes not out of a disdain for the body and its appetites, but out of the understanding that our bodies are central to our life in Christ. Our bodies and souls are inseparable, and therefore what we do with our bodies and what we do with our souls is always entwined.
It’s no wonder that one of the first heresies passionately opposed by the apostles was Gnosticism, which shunned the embodied life to embrace a higher spiritual reality. In Gnosticism, teeth brushing and shower taking and nail clipping would simply be burdensome hindrances to the soul’s pure engagement with the spiritual life. But in Christ, these bodily tasks are a response to God’s creative goodness. These teeth I’m brushing, this body I’m bathing, these nails I’m clipping were made by a loving Creator who does not reject the human body. Instead he declared us — holistically — “very good.” He himself shockingly took on flesh in order to redeem us in our bodies, and in so doing he redeemed embodiment itself.
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Each day our bodies are aimed toward a particular end, a telos. The way we use our bodies teaches us what our bodies are for. There are plenty of messages in our culture about what our bodies are for. The proliferation of pornography and sexually driven advertising trains us to understand bodies (ours and other people’s) primarily as a means of conquest or pleasure. We are told that our bodies are meant to be used and abused or, on the other hand, that our bodies are meant to be worshiped.
If the church does not teach us what our bodies are for, our culture certainly will. If we don’t learn to live the Christian life as embodied beings, worshiping God and stewarding the good gift of our bodies, we will learn a false gospel, an alternative liturgy of the body. Instead of temples of the Holy Spirit, we will come to see our bodies primarily as a tool for meeting our needs and desires. Or we might believe that our bodies should be flawless and spend endless amounts of time and money on creams or Botox or surgery to stave off the reality of our frail and aging bodies. Or we may attempt to ignore embodiment altogether, eating and drinking what we will, with no regard for the way our choices violate a call to steward our bodies as gifts.
Through the practice of an embodied liturgy we learn the true telos of embodiment: Our bodies are instruments of worship.
The scandal of misusing our bodies through, for instance, sexual sin is not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy our bodies or our sexuality. Instead, it is that our bodies — sacred objects intended for worship of the living God — can become a place of sacrilege.
When we use our bodies to rebel against God or to worship the false gods of sex, youth, or personal autonomy, we are not simply breaking an archaic and arbitrary commandment. We are using a sacred object — in fact, the most sacred object on earth—in a way that denigrates its beautiful and high purpose.
Sexual sin is a scandal in the Scriptures not because the apostles were blushing prigs — they were, in reality, a rather salty bunch — or because the body is dirty or evil, but because our skin and muscles and feet and hands are more sacred than any communion chalice or baptismal font. Ignoring Scripture’s teaching about the proper use of the body and using our bodies for our own false worship is a misuse of the sacred akin to using consecrated bread and wine in a Wiccan goddess ceremony.
Similarly, when we denigrate our bodies — whether through neglect or staring at our faces and counting up our flaws — we are belittling a sacred site, a worship space more wondrous than the most glorious, ancient cathedral. We are standing before the Grand Canyon or the Sistine Chapel and rolling our eyes.
But when we use our bodies for their intended purpose — in gathered worship, raising our hands or singing or kneeling, or, in our average day, sleeping or savoring a meal or jumping or hiking or running or having sex with our spouse or kneeling in prayer or nursing a baby or digging a garden — it is glorious, as glorious as a great cathedral being used just as its architect had dreamt it would be.
In my tradition, when a chalice is broken or an altar cloth is torn, we don’t throw it in the trash; it must be buried or burned. Leftover consecrated wine is either drunk or poured into the ground; never down the drain. We do this because these objects are sacred, set apart, and worthy of care. In the same way, care for the body — even these small, daily tasks of maintenance — are ways we honor our bodies as sacred parts of worship.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Lutitia Harrison Warren. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com