Another celebrity disrobes in front of the camera. There’s a flurry of opinions, some shaming and some praising. Is it something to celebrate that a woman “bares all” for the camera? Does this make her empowered? There’s debate about whether she’s even beautiful. Does it matter?
It makes me think about our flesh. What is the purpose of these fleshly bodies–the bodies we inhabit while we see in a glass darkly?
Theologians of the past tried to get beyond the flesh, explaining that it was something to conquer. Carnal sins, pain, fleshly desires–these were all likely to distract from the Christian life.
Their ideas may seem archaic, but we still vacillate between glorifying these fleshly bodies and trying to ignore them. We’re still striving to find that elusive balance. We gorge on food or starve ourselves. We focus too much–or too little–on our physical appearance. We try to exercise enough but not too much. Mostly we talk and talk and talk. And sometimes, disease comes and all the things we do to postpone our age, our pain, our lives fail.
My dad had hip replacement surgery last week. Before joint replacement surgery, people had to live in pain or use a wheelchair once their joints became too weak. My dad’s surgery took less than an hour, and he’s already walking better–and feeling less pain–than he was before the surgery. I marvel at the surgeon’s hands, the physical therapist’s knowledge, and the incision that will become just a scar before too long.
Near the hospital, there’s a sign for a plastic surgery group. It advertises the “mommy makeover.” I look it up online and find that for between $8,000 and $16,000 they can repair any part of my body affected by pregnancy (and I mean any part).
While I’m not usually offended by society’s pressure to look a certain way, this “mommy makeover” causes my anger to flare up. I analyze the offense I feel at this.
We have decided that there is something wrong with a body that’s been stretched and torn by a baby.After all, unless a kernel falls to the ground and dies, it won’t bear wheat. The creation of new life–whether it’s a child, a classroom, or a book–pulls some life from us. Are these changes something to accept or, like a broken hip, are they things to fix?
That same scalpel that works to make my dad whole can be used to enhance things that might not need to be enhanced, to perpetuate standards that don’t need to be perpetuated. When do we celebrate the advances made and when do they go too far? What does it mean to restore and bind up and heal? What is worth restoring?
Ultimately, our mortal bodies–and fleshly limitations–force us to ask: What does it meant to be human?
Our physical and spiritual are tightly intertwined, and there’s no separating this. They have been bound together since the spiritual feeling of shame was first tied to physical nakedness. Clothing seems to remind us that there’s a shame–a frailty–to our nakedness.
In front of a camera, a woman tries to get past this. She takes off her clothes and poses, full of life and vigor. Not far away, on a hospital floor, bodies devoid of their clothes and clad in stiff gowns seem wraithlike and weak. I’m happy to get back to the world of blue jeans and scarves and unhindered walking to hide that side of my humanity–the nakedness, the fragility, the shame.
Though they are weak and imperfect, God never says that our fleshly bodies are bad. He provides for the physical needs that seem to limit us–the need to eat and drink and rest. He’s tied the physical and spiritual together from the beginning. For the Israelites, physical events could make them unclean–unable to join the spiritual community. God often sent physical affliction to teach spiritual truth.
And this fusion is seen even in his plan to redeem. In the Incarnation, God puts on flesh to rescue humanity from spiritual sin, to suffer as a human, to live with temptations of the flesh. And when he conquers, Jesus has a resurrection body and wounds that can be touched.
Jesus spends much of his ministry trying to connect the physical and the spiritual–to show us how our attempts to compartmentalize are foolish. He restores to society a woman whose physical condition has made her an outcast in the spiritual community. He makes the lame walk and raises the dead. He heals those who believe, and talks of a thirst even deeper than physical thirst. In fact, the purpose of fasting is to remind us of our deeper hunger–our soul hunger–and make us more mindful of our spiritual selves.
If we are bringing healing to the brokenness, we must ask “what is worth restoring?” Giving someone the ability to walk pain-free again seems to parallel Jesus’ own ministry. But is appearance something worthy of restoring or enhancing? Should we fight the wrinkles and the gray hair?
I don’t have answers. Two weeks ago, I relished the physical side of this life. I drank in the beauty of days that can best be described with autumnal metaphors and cliches. But the cold has come. Things are barren and dark. The strawberry leaves have turned black. And I long for perfection and restoration.
These fleshly thoughts have been more tangible to me this week. Last Saturday, I fell on our bottom step and sprained my ankle. Every year that I age, these things become slower to heal. As I grapple with mobility that won’t return as fast as I need it to, I’m confronted again with the weakness of this mortal body.
After another day that makes me feel old and bone-weary, I see the back of a magazine lying on my bed. The advertisement is for a skin cream, and it reads: I will not let age change me. Its foolishness strikes me as comical.
For all of us, the skeleton will start to show through maybe sooner, maybe later. The strength we may feel can be gone as quickly as it came. Our time in these bodies–at least for now–is short. But our souls–those will remain when the skin becomes transparent and the eyes become watery.
I want to know what it means to love and cherish my own flesh so I can do the same for others. I will keep trying to connect this vessel for my soul to my soul itself. And I will keep hoping for the beauty of the day when we see fully and are fully known, when the sufferings of now can’t even be compared to his glory–even if that suffering is just a sprained ankle.