Living in a Material World: Lent and Our Bodies
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Photo by John (mtsofan)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sA 2.0
Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return.
The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent — the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent has called Christians to through the centuries.
Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from — even as it continues to endorse — the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”
Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or — forgive the pun — onto solid ground. When we Christians receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future — to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. We could even say: "remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!"
The season of Lent also reveals how relentlessly incarnational is the faith we confess. When Jesus sojourns for 40 days in the wilderness, it is physical hunger (“he was famished”) that the gospel writers make special note of — except in Mark’s version, this year’s lectionary gospel, which is characteristically spare with the particulars. Fasting from food and its physiological consequences are part of Jesus’ quest for wisdom, understanding, and clarity of purpose.
There is an essential unity among body, soul, and the material world. Jesus is not “freed” of his body — nor of his bodily needs and desires — for the sake of his soul. And his soul is not disengaged from the material realm. As Berry notes about scriptural religion generally: “The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.”
In our own time, a relentlessly incarnational Christianity invites reflection on a host of ways that body, spirit, and world interact — ways in which our whole lives and our whole selves are either enriched or impoverished by situations of our own making or circumstances beyond our control. What does it mean, for example, to observe a Lenten fast in the context of social and economic realities like starvation among the poor, increasing food insecurity among the middle class, and growing obesity rates for all of us? How has the formative rhythm of feasting and fasting been obscured, overridden, undone by a culture of excess in which increasingly every meal is a mindless, hastily consumed feast, lacking in both nutrition and conviviality?
Or this: When late in Lent we regard the body of Jesus on the cross, can we see him as he is?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Can we share in poet Mary Karr’s unflinching gaze of a human body abandoned and broken? Can the “sack of flesh” disabuse us of our tendencies to sanitize the scene, fetishize the cross, and spiritualize the meaning of this first-century revolutionary’s death at the hands of the imperial authorities? With theologian James Cone can we see the reciprocity between the crucified Christ and “the lynched black body” of America’s shameful past? A past, Cone reminds us, that is not so past: one-third of all young black men are in prison or somewhere in the “system.” Bodies, again, alas, abandoned and broken.
The ashes we Christians will receive on Wednesday may not convey enough of our connection to soil and stars and our sisters and brothers, but they do have deep associations with sorrow and repentance. The charcoal smudge across the forehead is a public sign that says to all I meet: I have sins to confess, wrongs to right. The challenge is to take this penitence seriously but to “wear” it lightly. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” warns Jesus in the gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. The task of repentance grounds us in the work of serving our neighbors, not ourselves.
The materiality of the faith we confess is most evident in a simple meal shared with friends. Christ’s body — taken, blessed, broken, and shared — makes of his followers a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others, including the earth from which we came and to which we will return. In Lent, we journey with Jesus to the place where his own “sack of flesh” redeems a broken world, revealing God’s love for all of creation, and forever conjoining body and soul, matter and spirit, earth and heaven.
Inset photo by Mandy Jansen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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What Does Forgiveness Mean in Buddhism and Christianity
Trent Gilliss, online editor
In the wake of Brit Hume’s comments about Tiger Woods’ religious beliefs on Fox News Sunday on January 3rd,
WNYC’s Brian Lehrer invited Krista to flesh out the concepts of forgiveness and redemption in Christianity and Buddhism. Although it’s rather difficult to gain a decent understanding of these complex theological concepts in 13 minutes, several callers make some fine points — including the Buddhist idea of “letting go.”
Acting on a Dream
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There is much to cherish in the latest contribution to the The New York Times’ Modern Love column. And, even as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to commit to a single idea or quote from Kim Barnes’ "That Delicate Membrane, the Heart."
"At the end of our four-hour conversation, he said, ‘Do I want you to publish this book? No, I don’t. Do I think that you should? Yes, I do.’ It was an incredible gift, a moment of grace I had not foreseen."
At first glance, these two sentences are the sweet hook — gripping and intimate, paradoxical and human. You see, I gravitate toward deeply flawed characters who are difficult and unwieldy. Characters who are hard to like, impenetrable, with a complexity and depth that surfaces in rare moments of redemption.
But, it’s the following passage about Barnes’ father that reminded me of our mission here, that life-altering moments are often informed through faith and a conviction and willingness to submit to that faith. The lesson and true empathy can be learned in the lead-up to these revealing moments:
"We were living in the woods he loved, in the small, isolated community where he worked as a logger and where our family was deeply involved in Pentecostal fundamentalism. As surely as we believed in God and his Heavenly Host, we believed in Lucifer and his legion.
It was during a time of conflict in the congregation that my father was awakened one night by the suddenly cooling air. What he saw in the doorway, he later claimed, was a demon: darkly cloaked, green eyes gleaming, filling the room with its stench.
It was my father’s violent trembling that woke my mother, his quest for enlightenment that led him to lock himself in our makeshift tool shed, fasting and praying, until he heard the voice of God telling him we must leave the woods and never return. And so we did.”
Her father’s decision to move, based on a dream, lays the groundwork for all the events to come and the development of their relationship.
This narrative reminds me of a conversation Krista had with Mel Robeck in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles a few years ago. He’s a practicing Pentecostal and church historian who told his own version of a vision that came to him in the night:
Prof. Robeck: Well, at that particular time, I had been elected president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It was in 1982. And I was really struggling with what to talk about. I was concerned about a particular split between an older group and a younger group of scholars and how they didn’t value one another. And I had been praying and asking God, “Please help me to give a word that will bring some sense of healing in this rift within the society.” And, you know, I was awakened in the middle of the night with Jesus standing at the end of my bed saying to me, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.” And I said, you know, “Lord, I …
Ms. Tippett: Which is reaching out to other churches.
Prof. Robeck: Yeah. I don’t know anything about this and how is this relevant? You know, I went back to sleep. And He woke me up again with the same words on the same night, saying, “I want you to speak about ecumenism.” And I said, “Lord, you know what our bylaws say. Here I am in the Assemblies of God, and I’m going to get in trouble if I do what You’re asking me to do.” And I went back to sleep. And He woke me up a third time with the same words. And I finally thought, you know what? Here I call myself a minister of the gospel, and if Jesus is asking me to do something, I’d better do it. I mean, this is what I’m supposed to do, huh? And so I said, “Yes.” And I went back to sleep.
I witnessed this exchange in the hotel room and remembering feeling slightly uncomfortable. Why? Mostly my own failings. Being trained to distrust unverifiable narratives like this with supernatural elements, dismiss them as crazy talk.
But we had an editorial discussion about including this story, a deliberation that has had a tremendous impact on me as a professional journalist and a caring being. In this context, it doesn’t matter whether I can verify his story or whether I even believe it to be true. What matters is that Mel Robeck had this experience. Karen Barnes’ father had his experience. And their unique visions were catalysts that prompted them to act, to move forward in a new direction.
These men acted on their instincts and a willingness to step into the breach of the unknown. They set aside a life of certainty and proceeded without a road map, without the knowledge that things would get better, but with hope that circumstances would change. Those are traits I can admire.
(illustration: Christopher Silas Neal/NYT)