I snapped at my daughter the other night over something trivial. As I helped her get ready for bed, she said something that hit me just the wrong way at just the wrong moment and I stormed out of the room, streaming a lovely guilt trip of words behind me. (I'm sure none of the parents reading this have any idea what I'm talking about because this never happens in your house, right?!) After a few minutes, Crazy Ranting Mommy left the building, leaving behind Sorry Bummed-Out Mommy. I went into my daughter's room to apologize for overreacting; she was being ornery about doing what I had asked her to do approximately a zillion times (why oh why does the nightly bedtime ritual have to be so hard?), but my reaction was clearly out of proportion. I explained that I've had a cold, so was feeling particularly tired, which made it hard for me to be patient with any delay in her getting to bed so that I could go to bed.
We are physical beings whose bodies have an awful lot to do with how we live in the world. When I'm feeling tired or sick or achy, it's not just my body that suffers, but also my mood and my interactions with others. When I'm feeling well-rested, or when the weather is just right so I'm neither too cold or too hot, I have more energy, I feel more generous, I'm nicer to be around. This is true for all of us, although in our culture we sometimes like to pretend that we have utter control over our bodies (that anyone, with enough willpower, can have a perfectly sculpted ideal-weight body, for example), or that we should ignore bodily needs to pursue success and accomplishment (such as when those who are obviously sick insist on coming into work, when we routinely fail to get adequate sleep, or when an athlete vows to "push through" an injury).
Our bodies are humble, and humbling. Even the strictest whole-foods diet and exercise regimen provide no guarantee against illness or injury. Our bodies produce embarrassing and unpleasant sights, sounds, and smells. The beginning and end of life are both accompanied by sweat, blood, pain, elimination, groaning—all that messy stuff that we usually try to distance ourselves from in our remodeled bathrooms, fully stocked with soaps and creams and potions.
One of my favorite things about the Christian faith is that it is incarnational. Ours is a faith that takes bodies seriously. One of the heresies in early Christianity was Gnosticism, which claimed in part that the material world is inferior to the spiritual realm (even evil) and that bodies are essentially prisons from which our spirits need to escape. As for Jesus, he only appeared to be a real human being; he was actually pure spirit. Nope, said early church leaders. Nope nope nope. The creeds affirm Jesus's humanity as well as our bodily resurrection. Bodies are a sacred necessity in God's kingdom, not unpleasant afterthoughts.
The incarnational nature of Christianity as a faith that takes bodies seriously also offers a corrective to our own modern gnosticisms, to all those ways we fail to honor our bodies, with all their capabilities, needs, and limits—when we feed ourselves with processed food eaten on the run, in our cars, or alone in front of the TV; when we refuse to slow down and rest when we are exhausted, sick, or hurt (and end up more exhausted, sick, or hurt—or just yell at our kids when they don't deserve it); or when we exclude and distance ourselves from people with disabilities, the sick, and the dying because we don't like being reminded of our bodies' limits and vulnerability.
My favorite Biblical name for Jesus is "Emmanuel," which means "God with us." Dwelling in an actual humble and humbling human body is about as "with us" as God can get. Jesus wasn't some floaty spirit like the ghosts in the Harry Potter books. Jesus had a body like ours. Jesus slept and ate and sweated. He felt the need to retreat for prayer and rest. Jesus bled and suffocated and died, just the same as anyone who was nailed to a cross bled and suffocated and died.
Perhaps Jesus even snapped at his disciples when he was fighting a cold and they were, yet again, not doing what he had asked them to do approximately a zillion times.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.