Theology of the Body

SACRED & PROFANE LESSONS

The body is the only sign of who we are. That is why in canonical iconography God the Father is not depicted (because he cannot be imagined, which is to say imaged), and why the Son can (because he is the only image we can have of God’s relationship to us). In the halo above Jesus’ head in Orthodox icons we see the Greek words that mean “the existing one,” showing that he is at once the Lord who said to Moses, when asked his name, “I Am,” and the particular human being so haloed, a Jew who was with us for a few decades.

This is why the dignity we must bring to every human encounter matters, why we are formal in first meetings. Whether we are Christians or not, this sense of the holiness of encountering another living body is built into us, and every culture honors it with varying degrees of gracefulness, from the most formal bow to the high-five. Only robots would begin an encounter with no acknowledgement of the other as other, without a sign of respect for that otherness.

A lot of the Christian sense of embodiment has been taken up with questions of sexuality and the moral questions that sex leads us to. But the simple fact of being embodied-of being, because of our embodied character, both alike and radically unalike, the same and individual-has been less a matter of concern. We should have the sense, meeting any person, of one new world encountering another.

That sense of otherness and respect for the body continues beyond the body’s life. It is a mark of all human societies that we treat the bodies of the dead with care, and how we regard them says much about our feeling for the living-our sense of the value we give those we meet and interact with.

Two very different sets of images made me think of what the body means as a sign. One was heartbreaking, and that is a terribly inadequate word here. In the August 9, 2006, issue of the New York Times, there was a photograph by Joao Silva of the bodies of a mother and child after an Israeli air strike in Beirut. It showed a mound of rubble with scattered shards of concrete surrounding the uncovered brocade of the sleeve of a mother’s arm, at the back of a baby’s neck, the small dark head against her breast, the hand tenderly at the child’s back. It was like a defiled icon of Mary and Jesus. I hope they died instantly.

There is everything holy and evil about the world in this image-the trust of the child, the comforting embrace of the mother, both seen even in this terrible context, placed in a landscape that shows how little the power that rules this world cares about what should matter to us most.

The other was a set of photos of flayed plasticized bodies, opened up for our inspection, part of an exhibit of bodies (most of them Chinese, and there is some controversy about the consent required for their use) on exhibit at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. The bodies are posed in a number of ways that make them seem obscenely alive, doing athletic feats, running, doing everything but those things that make us really human, things like breathing, loving, being filled with doubt, joy, anxiety, caring. It is precisely because dead people are posed as if they were alive for the amusement or instruction of gawkers that I find this obscene. These are displayed, posed objects, stretched despite rigor mortis into sculptures made of the most inappropriate material. Human flesh is, in ways that should make us tremble, a sign of God’s presence, and when it has died it should be a sign of the hope of resurrection, or at the very least a veneration of the particular life that was lived there. These are generalized, generic corpses, doing Norman Rockwell things, a Dracula approach to Hummel figurines.

My point is not to generalize about our culture or our age. This obscenity-the killing of a mother and child, the making of bodies which should be reverenced into things on display-is everlasting. From the beginning of time we have known how to show the body a complete and contemptuous dishonor, a denial of its holiness, a way of making a thing of something that should be addressed as “You.” From ancient times to the present, one form of torment has been to force a father to watch the slow murder of a child, and then put his eyes out, so that the last thing he sees will be the worst sight imaginable. These are dreadful signs of a fallen world which needs redeeming, which needs waking up. As long as we continue to deny the reality of genuine evil-an evil that exists in every human heart, and can harden itself to perform whatever it sees as the necessary horrible task at hand by justifying itself politically, artistically, even religiously-we can’t begin to awaken.

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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