"The Work of the Body" (A Good Friday sermon)

Audio: "The Work of the Body"

Throughout the 9 long months of pregnancy in which my sweet daughter was formed, more attention was paid to my body than ever before. Midwives, friends, and strangers alike would touch my belly and inquire as to how I was feeling, and the truth was, I was generally feeling terrible. Some women glow during pregnancy and take stunning maternity pictures perched atop kayaks afloat on a lake. I wore a lot of sweat pants and searched in vain to find a pair of shoes that could contain my swollen ankles. I battled nausea and fatigue, and I watched in amazement as my belly stretched further outward despite my sincere belief that certainly it had reached its limit. Even as I bemoaned the discomfort of my pregnant body, I celebrated the fact that so long as I was still pregnant, I was not giving birth, and suddenly the ache in my back seemed to ease slightly.

For the first 6 or 7 months of my pregnancy I tried to avoid thinking too much about the pending process of labor and delivery. I told myself and others that I didn’t yet have the time or energy to give it much thought or begin preparation, and this was true. I had papers to grade and lectures to write and nausea to keep at bay. But I also wanted very much to delay the point when finally I would have to face the reality that there was only one way this whole thing could end, and this baby eventually would have to make her way out. Our labor and delivery coach, bless her heart, sought to disrupt my suppression. Seconds after my having wiped away tears of panic before stepping into our first labor class, she zeroed in on me. She leveled benign and even sweet questions to the other pregnant women in our get-to-know-you exercise: “Where are you from?” “When are you due?” “What color are you painting the nursery?” For me, she went for the jugular: “What do you fear most about labor?”

Her question, and my subsequent preparation for childbirth, forced me out of my head—where I tend to live—and into my body, the vessel that was miraculously creating life within and soon would be called upon to bravely deliver that life into the world. This shift proved essential, for there is perhaps no more body-centric experience than childbirth. We can—and often do—live our lives seeking to escape our bodies, to spiritualize reality and divide the world into categories of spirit and matter, sacred and secular. But when that first contraction hits and descends on your body like a painful wave of electric energy, all of the spiritualizing in the world cannot move a baby one inch through the birth canal. This is the body’s work, and there is no room for abstraction in it. There is only the body, and movement, and blood, and groans, and pain, and beauty. Laboring life into the world is the work of the body.

From my first pangs of childbirth up until this very day, my body has been called upon to give and nurture life. I am now in a season where I do not back away from a baby’s vomit but cup my hand in hopes of catching it. I wipe noses and butts and do not shutter at either. And each day and each night, my body is broken like a Eucharistic feast, where through cracked nipples and exhausted frame I say to my little girl, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.” There is no room for abstraction here, no time for romanticizing love or even reflecting on what I feel for my daughter. There is only a precious little baby who is hungry, a body that needs to be fed and a body that must do the feeding.

We as Christians have never been very good with bodies. From the earliest church fathers up until today, we have never quite known what to do with the body. Some have called it evil. Some have attempted to punish and constrain it. Others have sought somehow to escape it, to deny embodiment and attain a more superior, spiritual plane of existence. And all the while, the central feature of our faith is God in flesh, a naked Jesus strung up on a cross. We don’t know what to do with it. Crosses are ubiquitous in the sanctuaries and decorum of many churches, yet most do not feature a body. Beyond a mere desire to emphasize resurrection, I am convinced that the absence of the body on the cross is due at least in part to our inability or unwillingness to make sense of embodiment. And so we spiritualize the cross, we think about concepts like salvation in abstract terms, and we never have to face the flesh-and-blood realities of a body on a cross. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen enough movies about the passion of Jesus to know that we have long emphasized his suffering. But too often, these depictions have served to engender guilt as we face the cross of Christ with shamed heads and shoulders hung low, sorry for our sinful flesh. And far too often, these reactions have compelled us away from our bodies, which we believe to be inherently sinful, and into our heads which feels much safer. But it was the flesh of Christ that was broken, the blood that was poured out. And these were not spiritual abstractions; they were the means of bodily punishment inflicted by an idolatrous empire that sought to make clear what would happen to anyone who dare challenge its power. Jesus knew well the power dynamics at play in his world. He knew what happened to the bodies of those who quietly submitted to unjust structures, how their shoulders stooped from despair and hopelessness. And he knew what happened to the bodies of those who sought to overthrow unjust structures by force; they were strewn about lifeless on hillsides of battle. In the midst of this, Jesus—through his voice, his actions, his body—spoke of God’s kingdom, of the news that was truly good for all of the hungry and broken and wounded and oppressed and frightened bodies. And in his own body, he took on all of the deathblows that define and threaten our fragile, anxious lives and from it brought forth new life. Laboring life into the world was the work of his body.

This is the body whose death we both mourn and celebrate, the body whom we gather in the name of. We are the body of Christ. And friends, we are no less vulnerable than was Jesus to all of the many threats from every death-wielding power. We know the kinds of trouble we might face if we choose to use our voices, our resources, our bodies to seek justice and live into God’s kingdom. In the face of our vulnerability we may quietly want to retreat into our minds where safely we can spiritualize love and salvation and think of the cross in an abstract way, distancing ourselves from what we fear most. But if labor taught me anything it is that when we are afraid, we close off our bodies, we disrupt the life force that is inside of us ready to burst forth into the world.

Laboring life into the world is the work of this body. And much like I was some 6 months ago, church, we are a body that miraculously cultivates life and is being called upon bravely to deliver that life into the world, a world that so desperately needs life. For it is not abstractions but bodies that wash up lifeless on the shores of Greece, bodies that are gunned down in elementary schools, bodies that are lynched on magnolia trees, bodies that are the target of bombs, bodies that face starvation in Sudan, bodies that are exploited for profit, bodies that are gassed in their sleep, bodies that are deported, bodies that are snuffed out before their first breath is taken, bodies that are battling cancer, bodies that need resurrection.

Let us not fear the life that God is growing within us, nor be afraid when we are called on to bring it forth. For just as we eat of Christ’s flesh and drink of his blood, we are being asked to pour forth our own lives as a Eucharistic offering to a world that, like a newborn baby, is hungry and desperately in search of a meal. Come now to the table, beloved body of Christ. Let us offer of our bodies to nourish life in the world as we feast on Christ’s body to sustain our own.