For many contemporary speakers, telling the truth about Jesus means finding the "real" or "historical" Jesus underneath the stories and theologies constructed around him. The truth about Jesus, they affirm, is the truth about what he really said and did as over against what various Christian communities made of him. So telling the truth about Jesus' body would mean reminding listeners that he was a Jewish peasant who did manual labor rather than an Anglo-Saxon movie star surrounded by a constant halo tweaked by a diffusion filter. The best way to represent the "historical" truth about Jesus' body would be to reconstruct a composite or typical portrait of a Nazarene who was born around the beginning of the Common Era. Just that kind of portrait was constructed for a recent television series, and the composite image circulated widely in the press.1
Much can be said for and against truths about Jesus of this sort. On the one hand, they challenge easy suppositions about how we got from Jesus to the churches. Jesus was not a blond screen idol, and he did not go about preaching treatises on the union of divine and human natures in himself. On the other hand, the present search for the historical Jesus supposes both that the experience of an incarnate God must be like any other experience and that texts recording that experience must be like any other texts. It also supposes, at least in some of its versions, that no god could become human in the way theological traditions have supposed. These are curious suppositions and commitments, but my concern at the moment is not to engage them. I want to ask another sort of question - a question based on a hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: whoever Jesus was "in reality," the most important fact about him is that he was a good and perhaps the best way for God to become human. The question follows: If Jesus' body was God's body, how do we begin to tell truths about it?
A devotee of the current pursuit of the historical Jesus might object immediately that my question simply repeats the deviation of the Christian tradition. By hypothesizing that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, I am superimposing the "high Christology" of the Gospel of John onto the much different facts about Jesus that we can discover in hypothesized proto-Gospels or reconstructed oral traditions. My reply is to repeat more fully what I said above: My aim here is not to pit assumption against assumption or method against method. I am asking a question on the basis of a hypothesis. If you want, you can think of it as a thought-experiment. At the very least, the thought-experiment will clarify difficulties of speech in contemporary churches - because in fact the churches find it awkward to talk fully about the implications of the high Christology, that is, of the affirmation of incarnation. Truth telling is not the same as reconstructing facts according to the reigning "common sense." Certainly telling the truth about Jesus requires at least talking about the disconcerting consequences of the traditional affirmations that God took flesh.2
The most familiar Christian creeds or confessions, for all of their polemical contingency and philosophical complication, profess the religion of an incarnate God. Their words are repeated in so many Christian liturgies that it seems silly to refer to them. Hear in your memory's ear at least some phrases from an English "Nicene Creed": "Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven; and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man." Or, in a less aggressively masculinist translation: "Who for us human beings, and for our salvation, descended from heaven, and was put into flesh by the holy spirit from the virgin, Mary, and became human." "Incarnate," "put into flesh." Some Christians kneel or bow their heads at the words. Most know them by rote. Christianity as the religion of God in human flesh - it is almost too trite to say and yet still too disconcerting to think.3
Roman Catholicism in particular prides itself on being a strongly incarnational practice of Christianity. The sacramental theater of Catholic liturgy culminates when God becomes flesh in bread and wine. We Catholics profess to believe that it is the actual body of Jesus, back among us. Indeed, we preserve unconsumed pieces in tabernacles. Images of the Catholic Jesus are its lesser manifestations. The image-body hovers over our churches in graphic crucifixes, in prints of the Sacred Heart, in scourged statues of the Man of Sorrows. Then the body of Jesus raised from the dead: "Do not touch me," he says to Mary Magdalene, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20.17). That single sentence has inspired or provoked dozens of master paintings. The body of Jesus is mirrored in the bodies of his saints, whose relics are venerated and whose martyrdoms or miracles take contours in church art. The events around Jesus' body are also re-performed more straightforwardly When I was a boy in central Mexico, a young man was chosen to take on the role of Christ during Holy Week. His body became the image of Christ's body. It rode into the dusty recreation of Jerusalem, there to celebrate the meal, to be arrested and scourged, to be tried and condemned. On the afternoon of Good Friday, the young man's body was tied up on a cross.
Alongside these rites and artifacts, Roman Catholics have also cultivated certain ways of meditating on the incarnate God. The meditations picture the body of Jesus at many moments and under different aspects. We have from famous theologians sustained reflections on Jesus as an infant or at the age of twelve, Jesus in desert retreat or preaching on the mount. Ignatius of Loyola asks us to imagine Jesus as a noble commander so that we will respond by joining up.4 Most famously, theologians and spiritual masters write of Jesus in the days of his Passion: the body of Jesus going down to death. The "Stations of the Cross" is only one of hundreds of texts that picture Jesus' body in order to produce compunction through compassion.
Doctrines, liturgies, icons, and meditations about Christ's body teach many things about it, but hardly everything. There are ambiguities and absences. Indeed, the absences are marked by ambiguities. Consider the ambiguities around the "simple fact" that Jesus' body was male. God incarnate as a human being has to fall somewhere within the range of human sex-differentiation, and that range is often reduced by our societies to a dichotomy: male or female. So we know about Jesus' body that it must have had some sex and we accept it as historical fact that the sex was (unambiguously!) male. We also know that it has been very important for most Christian churches that his body was male. Jesus' maleness has been used to justify a number of theological conclusions, as it is still used by some churches to exclude women from ministry. For these churches, it is not trivial that Jesus was marked as male from his birth.
Christian traditions consider it important that Jesus was a male, both because he needed some sex/gender and because he had the sex/gender that claims particular privileges and powers. Christian traditions haven't often considered it important to reflect on what made
Jesus male - that is, on the fact that the incarnate God had genitals of a certain configuration. Indeed, and as you may have felt in reading that last sentence, the genitals of Jesus are typically and normatively excluded from speech. To talk about them is indecent or provocative or blasphemous. To meditate on them would be obscene. We are urged to meditate on Jesus' acts and sufferings. We are asked to gaze on imaginary portraits of him and picture for ourselves his height and weight, the color of his skin or the length of his hair. But if our meditation should drift downward towards his pelvis, we are immediately rebuked and then condemned as perverted or pornographic.
Reflect on the vehemence of those rebukes and condemnations. Reflect on it and then push back against it. Our meditations on Jesus are incomplete without his sex. Telling the truth about him, we ought to try to tell it whole. But there is more: a vehement refusal to think Jesus' sex while insisting on his masculinity suggests that we have yet to tell an anxious truth about ourselves in relation to Jesus' body. We are not able even to speak about some parts of it. Why is that?
There follows a meditation on the body of the incarnate God. It meditates on the part of that body that is both necessary and unspeakable, that is fetishized and hidden. So it becomes a meditation on our needs in relation to that body. The aim of the meditation is to make us more capable of telling a truth that we cannot. We need the truth, and we are afraid of it.
Meditations on Christ take many forms, but they often permit themselves graphic and impassioned speech. I have given myself that permission here. Please do not confuse it with the presumption of propositional language that imagines itself capturing God.
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