By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Over two millennia of Church history, several standards of orthodoxy have served as the pillars on which a correct understanding of the Christian mysteries must be built. One of them is what I would call the incarnational principle: a proper acknowledgement of the goodness of the material world and the human body.
Many ancient heresies were adjudged to be such because their promoters devalued the body and despised the created order. The Docetists asserted that Jesus only appeared to have a human body and denied that he suffered a humiliating death by crucifixion; according to them, God would never deign to desecrate the divine essence by stooping to such a low level as our flesh. Marcion rejected the Old Testament entirely, claiming that it depicted the work of an evil god who created the defiled cosmos, and argued that Jesus’ secret gnosis, or knowledge, imparted only to an elect few, allowed them to transcend the dirty world of matter. Saint Augustine was duped for several years by the Manichees, who scorned the realm of flesh even as they (conveniently) held that no one could be responsible for their sins, since all is governed by fate. Complicated theological debates about Mary’s status as the Theotokos (“Mother of God”), the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, and the controversy about icons, were extensions of this battle for the proper reverence due to the Creator’s handiwork.
Some contemporary trends, even in theology, repackage this constant temptation to belittle the body in subtle and novel ways. One often encounters the claim, treated with increasing insistence as a dogma of secular psychology, that one’s “true” or “authentic” self is determined by a subjective will totally independent of biological expression. This claim is then employed to justify the alteration or removal of perfectly healthy body parts and organs to arrive at the expression of one’s true interior self. The incarnational principle critiques this idea for its stark separation of soul and body, assuming that a true self could be fundamentally severed from its external, sexed expression. It also critiques the implicit reduction of the body to a physical shackle from which one must be liberated. To assert the true or authentic identity of the purely spiritual or emotional self, the body can be made to suffer and to be treated as discardable raw material. Such a view of the human person correctly acknowledges that the material does indeed reveal the spiritual dimension of the person created in God’s image; but creation, represented here by the human body, cannot be fundamentally “good” (as Genesis 1 asserts repeatedly) if personal choice, rather than true medical necessity, treats the mutilation of the flesh as a good, or as a guaranteed release from artificial constrictions.
The incarnation of God is the refutation of all such distorted understandings of the body and the material world. Contained in the flesh of Jesus Christ, when he lies as the unspeaking Word in a manger and when he breathes his last on the cross, is the sanctification of all human flesh by its loving Creator. Good Friday is our opportunity to remember that your/my/our flesh, embodied existence, and human nature, though wounded by sin and tainted by mortality, are nevertheless redeemable; are, despite everything, loveable. Far from being a sadistic exhibit of God’s wrath for humanity concentrated upon Jesus, as some regard his crucifixion, the crucifixion of Christ is the ultimate declaration that our humanity, with all its imperfections, is precious enough to be saved and elevated to communion with the eternal Lord. The incarnation, says Pascal, shows us the greatness of our misery by the greatness of the remedy which God prescribed for us. It also reminds us that our embodied existence is a noble one, bearing a wounded goodness that God found worthy of rescuing from its own mortal and selfish traps.
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.