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Posted by on Dec 7, 2017

Liturgy Takes Place in the Body

Liturgy Takes Place in the Body

 

Your Glorious Body is On Order

Theologian Nathan Mitchell links Rahner’s view of the glorification of the human body with that of St. Paul. Both the human body and the human world are to be transfigured. “As Karl Rahner likes to say, we Christians are ‘the most sublime of materialists.’” [1] The end times, eschatology, requires the presence of the body since it involves the completion or fulfillment of humanity. It is anthropological in the sense of Christian theology’s view of the meaning and purpose of human existence.

This return to St Paul’s Jewish conception of the whole human person is at odds with the Greek philosopher Plato who lived about 500 years before Christ. This split view of the human person and the philosophy of Plato influenced the non-Jewish concept of Christianity in the first few centuries of the church. The modern mind body split was advocated by Rene Descartes (1596-1650).   The human being is a spirit in a physical, perishable, inglorious container – that mortal coil that we are to shed, to shrug off. Instead, According to St. Paul we are to be glorified in Christ. We will have a post-resurrection body, a post resurrection existence beyond the constraints of space-time.  “Rather, Jesus embodied humanity signifies that our flesh belongs forever to the very definition of the Divine.” [2]

However current neuroscience shows that we cannot separate the mind and the body. One cannot exist without the other. Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain [3] Damasio argues that human emotion is the source of human reason. Generally, emotion has been relegated to the domain of the physical body in the sense that it is subordinate to human reason. In classical Greek thinking, the daimon is that disordered divine fire that challenges the orderly function of society. The daimon is Socrates’ inner light.  Even in the modern Freudian construct, the id is a disruptive force that threatens the ego and must be overcome by the superego.

In traditional Christian asceticism (physical and spiritual practices that bring us closer to God), the flesh and its desires are something to be controlled, conquered, and ultimately, denied. Even the traditional Greek notion of contemplation, theorein is to see with the mind, to understand. These unseemly, emotionally, messy parts of our being will somehow be blotted out in our salvation according to this approach. If we are leaving behind the idea that mind and body can be split (dualism), how can our emotions which are key to our relationships be glorified? How can such unwieldy things move into that glorification of the body which is the seat of all relationships and the primary means of our entering into the life of the Trinity – a life that is pure relation?

In the ancient eastern churches, there is a screen between the people and the sanctuary. It is  a stand filled with icons. It is called an iconstasis. The doors of the iconstasis are the doors of heaven, how does our emotional physicality allow us to enter the Kingdom as truly human and divine? In the eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions people are saved by entering into the life of the Trinity. Like Christ we a become human and divine in our body and soul. The liturgy takes place in our bodies since we are present and active. How then are we glorified in this emotional physicality in the formal liturgy? Clearly, this is more evident in African and African-American liturgies as well as those of the Charismatic Renewal where there is singing, clapping, dancing, and joyous praise. However, our polite, suburban, middle class rituals are safely sanitized to avoid any possible messiness of profound human expression.  We call the Spirit down politely, so we can avoid Divine Fire. Our preaching is flat – a styrofoam balm upon the wounds and disappointment of the week and our lives. We sing hymns of praise, but they do not compare to the shouts of spectator sports or the glee of winning a game show.

When we die our bodies are washed by strangers and filled with liquid preservatives and returned to our loved ones pressed and dry-cleaned. This does not seem to be Rahner’s or St. Paul’s moment of glorification. This does look the climax of the Christian meaning of life and death which is called Christian anthropology. The challenge we face in worship is to bring tangible emotion rippling through our loins and sinews. We are challenged and graced to join the full, active, and conscious union of mind, body, and spirit in the dance of the Trinity. Let’s dance!

[1] Mitchell, N D, (2006) Meeting the Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 156

[2] Mitchell, Meeting Mystery, 156

[3] Damasio, Antonio (2008) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Random House

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