“Take and eat, this is my body which is given for you.”
“Take and eat, this is my body which is given for you.”
This direct, unnerving call to eat our god the Christ, invoked hundreds of thousands of times a day across the planet earth for the past 2,000+ years, is our primary and primal Christian ritual. Its ceremonial incantatory words aim to enhance the intakers’ wellbeing, fertility and immortality through this most important human-exclusive feast: the physical consumption of our God; of our slain brother and son and sacrificial young man-god; of the shared transubstantiated bread and wine that is the given flesh and blood of the 33-year-old crucified and risen Jesus in an unsymbolic, primeval way.
The shock and awe and antiquity of it, performed daily across time zones and cultures, keeps the fire of our communal faith burning potent. Because humans need gods.
St. Thomas observed that Christ didn’t say, “This bread is my body”; Christ said, “This is my body” indicating that “this” is not bread any more. Every Eucharistic loaf is Christ’s Body in his bloody passion, cut up and dispersed into the open, eager mouths of our faithful brethren. The Eucharist — from the Greek word “Eucharistia” which means “giving thanks” — is an edible manifestation of the very body he gave up, in the prime of his charisma, for the sake of the perennially hungry believer. Believers need to be fed in order to keep on believing: it is the first tenet of every religious practice. Holy communion is the central act of Christian worship.
“Take this.. and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood.”
The alchemical double consecration of our bread and wine into Christ’s body as it was in his terrible dying, during the separation of blood from his body, engages our natural senses and our emotional empathies and in this awesome exchange of giving God the best of us we thank God and earn protection. We commit a grave act of spiritual trade as we swallow the physical knowledge of our vegetation God. “This” act of self-protection at the cost of Christ’s panhuman self-sacrifice brings us believers together and transports us, united, outside our socio-economic utilitarian roles and into the rare opportunity to share a sensual and spiritual high: to be a society. And we call it “holy communion.”
The springtime sacrifice of a young male vegetation god has been the focal point of sacred mysteries that bind humans into societies since the dawn of (historical) time. Wine has been the binding fuel at such blessings, festivals, invocations and consecrations. Drinking fermented, aged, sweetened fruit juices is our earliest civilizational glue. Libations and sacrifices served as our mystical trade off with every God that represents Nature. We humans need to give mother nature tokens of our most valuable resources in thanks for her generosity, since all our resources come from Nature. Osiris, Hathor, Dionysus Bacchus, Elijah, Noah and many other gods and prophets work with wine. Shinto, Hindu, Chinese, Jewish rites incorporate wine and even the Quran associates it with God. We humans need to please and appease what we don’t understand. For this reason the shared consumption among strangers is a religious universal that knows no cultural or temporal bounds. Since time immemorial — before humans recorded rules and memories — we acknowledged the mysterious bonding energy of eating and drinking together as essential, as communion with the cosmos, and we attached a cultic power to it. The age-old ritual of the feast reconfirms our bond to the physical world: we emerge from nature and we return to it, and for the short time when we are a conscious part of nature, we live by taking what Nature offers and assimilating it into ourselves. We transmogrify Nature. Jesus’ miracles exemplified this fact. Turning water to wine was Christ’s first public miracle. His final one was naming his last cup of wine as his new covenant and turning it into his own blood. This he asked his dining disciples to imbibe at the last supper and to pass it along so generations of us would continue to drink it in remembrance of him.
The Eucharist, the most sensual of the sacraments, establishes sacramentality in our bodily senses and functions. It evokes in the celebrant the intimacy of the Last Supper, that precedes the lamb’s Martyrdom. It dissolves our personal boundaries so we may become one another. Only when we meld into each other can we profit from Christ’s loss. By swallowing the Eucharist, we become united with each other via the vessel and active mediation of Christ, and we become resurrected with him. This is the shortcut afforded by all ritual sacrifice: Christ’s suffering saves us from having to suffer and to sacrifice ourselves. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up”(John 6:54). Christ’s physical death brings physical life, health and deliverance to the rest of us, with every consumption, through the empathic transference that is agape. The terms of the agape service reveal this: “eat me, drink me, believe me, celebrate me, I raise you up.” In the devotion, inside his bride the Church of us, the Logos is incarnate, present, penetrating and all-consuming as he is being forever consumed. Jesus Christ is making agape to us. Amen.
As a child, I went through many profound reactions to my weekly Communion: at first I felt sheer indiscriminate gratification by the unique taste and temperature at a time when any oral stimulation was welcome and a public one was unprecedented. Pure pleasure became a giddy joy — because the alcohol was aged and sweet and gave me a light head, the bread was soft and sweet and preciously rationed, unlike other bread, the feeding spoon was miniature and gold and shared amongst all, the server stood sheathed in red and gold gowns and crowns in a cloud of aromatic incense, unlike any other man, and my taking it seemed a mature accomplishment because the adults waited in line after me to receive their spoonful after which they lifted me up watching me swallow in plain sight and cheered me and embraced me when I gulped it down. Later I felt enormous awe towards the contents of the Communion — I feared I wasn’t big enough to contain the Godly morsel, to retransmogrify God into my spirit and soul, to not poop him out but forever hold him within my mortal coil. I spent the rest of Sunday mentally tracing the burning course of that tiny bite down my esophagus through every niche and cranny of my intestines small and long, anxious to avoid the unavoidable blasphemy of peeing out my own God which mortified me. Later still, I ran into logical inconsistencies I couldn’t swallow. I had trouble processing the paradox that was condensed in the distributed mouthful of crumb and wine. I understood the use of simile and metaphor and grasped the symbolic meaning of the weekly rite. But my grandfather, who was our priest, insisted that it was not a metaphor. He told me that I should not imagine that the wine from the cedar barrel in our musty cellar became Christ’s blood after he blessed it and raised the chalice inside the altar whose entrance was forbidden to my gender. It was blood. Imagining was wrong. Since my grandfather had never gone swimming or singing or fishing or dancing or sightseeing, and fasted twice a week and built churches, monasteries and museums and intoned Byzantine psalms to himself all day, his self-denial made him an authority in matters of faith. He lent his voice and his hand to Christ, not as an actor but an incarnate in the service of the people who assembled around the altar as the apostles had around the dinner table when Christ said: “Take this, all of you, and eat it.” I loved him so much that I tried to believe at face value without any leap of faith. But later still, I began to feel a spark of hypochondria about the ornate spoon I had once idealized, as I waited in a long line of communicants worrying about the germs in the ad hoc mouths that licked it clean before my turn came. I knew the body and blood of Christ were pure but what about the spoon? I entreated my grandfather to give me the first spoonful and for a time he obliged until it became obvious to the entire congregation that I had special privileges because I was squeamish. I realized I had lost my ability to believe in full, direct incarnation under the rational influence of my schooling. I was left, at prepubescence, face to face with the bottomline reality of it: the barbarism. I asked permission to skip church, and homeric fights ensued between my parents and myself, pitting their sense of honor against mine and my tradition against my education. The fights spread and tore apart our family fabric until I had no anchor left that was strongly hooked in our core. At fifteen I ran away from home and went to America where I did not receive Communion again until I became a Mom and felt compelled to introduce my daughter to the joy of the Mysteries, to the importance of rituals, and to the precultural traditions of our people. Entering Motherhood weakened the hold of modernity on me. With her hand in mine, I returned to church.
All these years later, I have come full circle: now I savor that tiny aromatic drop of body-and-blood, the warm, sweet and tangy mix of wine-and-crumb that connects me to my island, my ancestors, my dead grandDad, my living tongue, my fertility, my euphoria, my body, and, I dare use the word again, my soul.
My ancestral Orthodox Church celebrates a pagan Christianity which is born of our awe of the same hurricanes and earthquakes and accidents that have haunted humanity. It gives people hope to go on when life seems futile and death looms at the end of every effort. The local Maries carry on the epithets and attributes of extinct indigenous nymphs. The churches of locally martyred angels stand on the ruins of Apollonian and Hermetic temples. In my native village our priest sacrifices a flower-garlanded bull to Christ after he has toured the village streets to a merry accompaniment of singing, lyre playing and praying all the way to the church courtyard, where the bull is briskly decapitated, adroitly skinned and cut into meat that volunteer women cook in large pots on log fires and serve to the congregation after mass. The shepherds donate the meat, the farmers donate the accompanying greens, the wealthy donate the tables and cutlery and drinks and flower arrangements. Each recipe is unique to each saint’s day, meaning that the meat, which may be goat or cow or sheep, is served with chickpeas or potatoes or basil leaves, but the feast repeats dozens of times in our Christian calendar commemorating the martyrdom of different saints on their namedays. The feasts, advertised by bullhorn and word of mouth, mark the social life of the community, bind the people to each other and to the culture, afford free food and a day of civic equality and class interaction. Christ upholds our democratic customs by asking us to eat and drink. Even more than the magical reassurance, this has been the primary function of religion from the dawn of (historical) time: communal partaking.
This is why the Church need not rob us of our senses and resources in order to keep us under control. When the Church becomes “the body of Christ” it turns it into a desexualized, flagellated, pierced body. As “the bride of Christ,” the Church enters an unconsummated union of the kind that left Mary pregnant. Though the Gospels give more attention to the miracles, parables, aphorisms, symbolic acts and human relations of Jesus than his martyrdom, his Church has gorily capitalized on the masochistic suffering of his crucifixion and used it to hold us in fear and in thrall of all suffering.
Jesus viewed the spirit as inextricably linked with the body. He taught everything on the body, his own and others’. He healed and resurrected human flesh. He understood the pain, pleasure and pressure our bodies feel. That was his gift: physical compassion. He broke the Jewish levitical taboos of cleanness and filth, and ignored the forbidding laws of purity of his official faith, which regulated all dealings with the living and dead, food and gender. He touched the lepers, the blind, the whores, the bleeding women, the low castes. It is still shocking how soon after his deification, the body-restraining intimacy-regulating taboos he had abhorred were reinstated by his own Church and enforced more fiercely than they had been before.
As Jesus the iconoclast turned into Jesus the icon, his charisma was castrated and his social criticism defanged. Even the most cursory history of Christianity reveals the irrelevance of his flock’s religious repression to Christ’s teaching of Heaven on Earth. In its beginning, the Jesus movement arose as a freedom-loving and agape-evoking reform, drawing strength from communal unity. As it grew in numbers, the Emperors reluctantly saw its use in placating the unsatisfied masses and allowed professional church fathers to take it over, fanaticize and at the same time legitimize it. When Christianity became Constantine’s official imperial faith, replacing the worship of the emperor, its power was so substantial that it had to be controlled, manipulated and “normalized” by the ruling bureaucracy. This task was undertaken by practical and philosophical methods.
The establishment of the monarchic bishop system and the three-tiered structure that included the presbyterium and the deacons was the Church’s first major deviation from Christ’s radically egalitarian teachings. Its timid precursor had been the Christian elder-presbyter system in Jerusalem which had absorbed the Judaic priestly caste. The state set up an army of permanently hired priests endowed with disciplinary powers over the laity, whose rankings copied the imperial court ranks. This inaugurated the weakening of the laity which until then had stayed fused and central. The desecularization of education reinforced the laity’s oppression. As knowledge came under theocratic control, the trend that had pulled the upper classes and intellectuals to Christ’s Church was reversed: the laity was now educated by its priests. Intellectuals had to convert and become either monks or heretics.
Monasticism was a pagan invention. Already practiced by Orphic and Pythagorean seekers, it was popularized by charismatic prophets like Anthony of the Egyptian desert, and had become an option for the second and third sons of large families, or men who could not afford to marry because of poverty or debt or ill health, or men and women of privileged classes who disdained the forced dislocations of social marriage and found honorable social escape in asceticism. Rome’s Vestal Virgins, the Essene Jews, the Encratite and Gnostic thinkers, were all practicing abstinence, preaching for the end of the “corrupt age” via the “boycott of the womb.” They viewed sexuality as humanity’s bondage that contributed to the animal cycle of mortality. Doomsday scenarios were so de rigueur that, in order to gain philosophical prestige, Christian leaders felt pressure to legitimate their faith by emulating these pagan forebodings into it. Christian monasticism flourished.
The laity had always looked for holy persons it could consult and were attracted by the strangeness of ferocious ascetic shamans who lived outside human enclaves and had no fear of death or need for continuity through procreation. Christians upheld the practice. Numerous relics of massacred virgins were preserved in the foundations of churches to spread fertility, health and longevity to the living. Their spiritual power did not encroach on the profane private life of the community or its collective enjoyment of the theater, the public baths, the hippodrome, at a time when sexual shame was unknown among most classes.
All through the late antique period, Christians viewed the flesh of Christ as continuous with human flesh. That was the original genius of the Christian faith: In the conception, birth, nurturing and death of Christ, every human physiological process was reaffirmed. Christ’s incarnation expunged the “disorder” introduced into the human body by Adam’s fall. The Christian religion prevailed primarily because it preached Everyman and Everywoman’s salvation, equality, freedom. That Revolution was much more important to its believers than their allegorical victory over death.
But when Emperor Constantine ushered Christians into power, using them to rescue his rule and found his new Rome, the Church got co-opted, its message distorted by converting apologists keen to help the paying powers-that-be continue to control the masses. Archaic pagan rites were reorganized into Christian customs, saints succeeded demigods, the Christian codes of behavior were adapted to customs developed long before the advent of Christianity. Roman administration was moved into the bishop’s palace. Bishops assumed the duties, tiaras and ritualized tasks of courtiers. Civic laws were deemed irrelevant to the preservation and dispensation of God’s word which became the clergy’s only task and were replaced by religious laws though secular power was what the Popes and Patriarchs sought.
One of the easiest ways to deflate the insurgent democratic ethos of the Christian faith was to switch its emphasis away from life toward the Gnostic obsession with the democracy of death. In synods and encyclicals, bishops placed emphasis on the Christian worship of the dead, reminding the flock of its inevitable destination. The pellucid effeminate dying male martyr whose pitiable likeness graces millions of churches has no historical or theological justification. His image was selected by Church authorities who would rather we worship Christ on the Cross as he lies wilted, a helpless defeated mournful corpse, than Christ at the Last Supper, the generous, fearless, inclusive host. Christ’s evangelists purposely did not describe him so that he could be universal. The early Christians could not have foreseen that their new Church would become a death cult akin to the ancient Egyptian religions. But young brutal death evokes fear and awe, emotions that assured the authorities control over the faithful. Fear and dependency were not Christ’s message of agape.
The second step toward Christianity’s autocratic progression was the declaration of the primacy of the Roman bishop, who replaced the collective leadership of the bishops as the supreme head of the Church, absorbing the imperial trappings and arrogant pomp of Roman rule into the praxis of the Church. In time, the Roman bishop acquired the singular power to exempt himself from his own moral rulings which allowed Popes to father illegitimate sons and be succeeded by them, like Emperors.
The Sermon on the Mount had made clear what Jesus thought of those old dominant hierarchies: “In the Kingdom [the society of the future], there shall be none.” But the Church transposed Christ’s vision of a non-authoritarian translucent society out of real life and onto the promised society of Heaven, which ironically justified suffering in this world. Christians lived now for the rewards of Heaven. Even entry to that egalitarian afterlife was restricted, tightly controlled by the hierarchy who bartered it for personal power or profit. The Popes even sold sin dispensation to the rich in direct contradiction to Christ’s condemnation of the rich. In short, organized Christendom’s Heaven did not improve life on Earth but worsened it. People wanted to believe because Christ’s message was irresistible. The Churches that managed it were not. People left the church and started other churches but money collection ruined them. In my country, the Orthodox Church is supported by the state through our taxes, not donations, which has enabled its stability and longevity.
The third step toward the Church’s unprecedented iron rule by theocracy, was the obligatory celibacy of the all-male clergy enforced in the 11th century with the Gregorian reforms. This process reversed Christ’s vision that all the members of his Church were members of the priesthood. Perpetual priestly celibacy served to solidify geopolitical power in the hands of the Pope and his selected bishops and set apart his representatives as morally superior beings. It prevented second sons of nobles from claiming positions as local bishops without papal consent, as they had till then, and stopped married priests’ families from inheriting and selling ecclesiastical properties or offices. Power was as concentrated as it had been in the most ancient brutal empires.
The final step in the spiritual sclerosis of the Church was the infallibility of the Pope, proclaimed in 1870 with the stroke of a Pope’s pen which turned him into God. The sovereign Pope became the only subject in the Church.
Today the Pope is the temporal ruler for 1.3 billion Christians who are excluded from active religious function as a priori inessential members of the Church. Likewise the Patriarch rules over 300 million Christians. The Church Fathers manage our souls and bodies both. After 2,000 years of continuous institutionalization, having survived every revolution, the Church believes it can endure without change.
The early Christians could not have foreseen how fast and overwhelmingly their own Church would come to restrict their private physical pleasures in the name of their new God.
In Paul’s time, the resurrection of the dead was still understood “as taking place through the nature of the human body, and accomplished every day.. [via] the succession of children born from us” (Polybius, Vita Thecla 5). Paul himself wrote in Galatians that “in Christ there is neither male nor female…, neither slave nor free” (3:28). Then Christian values shifted as the misogynism of the Greek Gnostics crept into the Christian exegesis. Paul later cautioned: “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35). Next, Thomas Acquinas defined women as “misbegotten men.” The idea of the woman as a “vessel for man,” whose primacy was represented by the holy trinity, took hold. Soon after, procreation struck Christian theologians as a central logical contradiction to be resolved.
As Christianity came under the influence of the dominant GraecoRoman worldview that espoused the dichotomy between body and soul, it exchanged the totality of the Jesus movement for the fashionable Stoic ethic, which reacted to the self-destructive Roman moral decadence by advocating a sexuality devoid of pleasure and used solely for procreation. Porphyry’s old phrase about Plotinus, “Shame at being in the body,” somehow came to represent Christian piety, modesty, humility. Jesus’ message of civic unrest and personal responsibility now meant “freedom from the body,” particularly the sensual body.
Until Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity in the 4th century, Christians had understood the story of Adam and Eve as a story about responsibility and free will, noting that as Adam and Eve left Paradise, God encouraged them to give names to things and rule the world. But Augustine had belonged to the Manichean sect who believed that the earth was the futile kingdom of the devil and all procreation was diabolical. The sect demanded continence from its members and the use of contraception or abortion from its sympathizers. Augustine felt grave guilt for keeping a longtime mistress and fathering a son with her, then banishing her for a suitable wife, while being a Manichean. The Manicheans saw the sexual instinct not as a merciful gift by God to help Adam overcome death, but a demonic possession of humanity — a permanent evil, present in all humans, responsible for the continuation of a degenerate humanity through intercourse; if sexual activity would only cease, the tumultuously repeated constraints of birth and death would be broken. Like other Gnostics, the Manicheans preached the imminent end of the age and of civilization.
When he converted to Christianity, Augustine passed these old-world fatalisms into the emergent Christian society by defining the natural sex drive as poena reciproca, punishment on Adam’s descendants for his crime in Eden. He preached that the sexual act infected the conceived child with original sin — i.e., with eternal damnation. Sex and the grave stood at each end of every human life, delineating the two poles between which roared a cascade of misery, ignorance, malice and violence for ever after.
Augustine had a talent for words and his pessimistic vision of life on earth suited Church authorities who found it a useful justification of the dire need for them to shepherd humanity more. Carnal sin now superseded all other sins. Subsequent theologians preached that isolation from sex was the reason Christ had come to earth. For the next 1,500 years the Church instilled the terror of sex in people. A woman’s body became unclean. A virgin body granted her relative respect as her untouched flesh mirrored the purity of the garden of Eden. So Christian women “saved themselves” from sin until their biological or spiritual fathers chose their destiny. Augustine’s extreme ideas changed the daily lives of billions. The circumstantiality of Augustine’s theology was predicated on one line from Genesis: “And the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew they were naked.” In contrast to his contemporary Greek and Syrian Christian writers, Augustine, the lowly African bishop of Hippo, read there an instant of sexual shame (perhaps influenced by his own sexual misgivings). In driven prose, Augustine narrowed Christian theology down to the paradigm of the summa voluptas of orgasm, which escaped man’s conscious control and which marked those limits of the conscious self that had stunned Adam and Eve. His interpretation of that crucial moment when Adam and Eve made their wills independent from God and felt their bodies alien and uncontrollable, gave the Church Fathers reason to warn against the risks of free will. His reading stuck: Disobedience was the cause of all evil, and sexuality was its everyday manifestation.
Augustine’s politically expedient belief in the moral impotence of human beings confirmed the need for universal government and helped the Popes consolidate their power by imposing celibacy or unnatural moral laws on the nations and governments of the world. The Church hierarchy realized that if it could dictate the innermost secret desires of kings, presidents and plebes, its power would be unparalleled by any previous religion. That is why the Christian Church, even in the most bloody centuries, has viewed humanity’s crimes as being committed primarily in people’s bedrooms. And that is how it plants the seed of its sadomasochistic dominance over our natural instincts, along with a plethora of neuroses and pathologies. Ever since Augustine, the sexual act has retained a negative role in our relationship with ourselves and our self worth; even in our postFreudian world, we fear the deranging effects of lust and seek our pleasure in dark places, associating natural bodily desire with an evil and ineffable transgression. Even today, and even those who think of Genesis only as literature or those who are not Christian, live in a culture indelibly shaped by Augustine’s reading of a text written down by Hebrew tribes thousands of years ago.
One of the most authoritative rebuttals of Augustine in his own time, came from a member of the monastic diaspora, John Cassian, who modified Augustine’s denial of the freedom of will implied in his notion of predestination. Cassian argued that sexual temptation was universal and thus “natural to man,” “congenital” and “planted by the will of the Lord not to injure us, but to help us.” He thought sexual drive led to compassion. Augustine’s most famous opponent was Julian, bishop of Eclanum, who defended the calor genitalis — that diffused heat of ecstasy which medical opinion then held necessary for reproduction (without it, they thought, the race would end). He argued that sexuality was indispensable to our species, having been offered to us by God in his mercy. Julian contradicted Augustine’s credo of sin and despair by demonstrating that sexual desire did not have to be renounced and was not corrupt. He thought it impious to suggest that the sexual urge was not what God had blessed in Adam and Eve, and what the priest consecrated during marriage. Julian preached that sex was what free choice made it. Human libido was amenable to the will and blameworthy only in harmful excess; its antisocial uses were social by-products that could be soothed by the study of the Gospels.
Both Julian of Eclanum and John Cassian ended up portrayed in history as heretics and Augustine was sainted. And the laity ended up sexually subjected to the harsh reformative orders of its Patriarchs and Popes. Christians who disagreed with Augustine’s credo were excommunicated, tortured and eradicated. Thousands were burned at the stake, condemned to “shunning,” sent on far-flung pilgrimages and agonizing penances, forced to confess and thrown in perpetual imprisonment, in the name of and for the sake of the God of Love. Guilt was presumed, suspicion of a crime constituted a crime, properties were confiscated, and the taint of the heretic fell on the accused’s family for generations. The hoc omnus gene was kept in fear just like in Roman Pharisean imperial times.
Wth the passage of time, revivalist sects were born in reaction to that repression. Many flourished in exile in the Americas: Anabaptists, Quakers, Jehovah witnesses, reborns. Once again, the moneymen, strongmen and moralizers organized these new sects into profitable institutions. Latin America espoused liberation theology, but the wealth and prestige of the competing Christian churches and the iron rule of the Popes diffused it. Most Churches still demonize the human body, in the determination to control it. Christ’s Church still focuses on his torment and death, traffics in guilt or atonement and spins our faith into cycles of fear and repentance. It is disorienting to pray to a bleeding dead man, naked but for a soiled loincloth, hanging off a cross. Pleading to a tortured God for strength produces an impregnable irony in us. When theologians speak about contemplating the beauty of the dying Christ, their word “beauty” reveals the semiotic distortion that occurred through our centuries of loving the Augustinian aesthetic of human misery. Our Church still worships the dead undead, glorifies the afterlife, reenacts the seasonal bloody sacrifice of the God of vegetation like the Egyptians, the Summerians and the Minoans before it. As the God of the abused, whose ruined body we ingest when we attend mass, this Christ appeals to our sense of despair.
It now seems improbable that we may ever return to our pre-Paulinian sexual innocence and natural unselfconsciousness, even as that sort of quest has become the dominant spiritual direction for many social groups in our society.
Fighting our nature is the byproduct of social vanity, not divine inspiration. The systemic clerical demonization of the living flesh is anti-life and anti-Christ. Disembodiment is a loveless, insecure human atrophy. So is elective bodily disfigurement as proof of faith. Christ preached not self-abuse but self-transformation: the embodiment of Heaven on earth.
The Biblical Jesus physically engaged with everyone he met. Like a politician on the campaign trail, he appealed to gentiles and tax collectors, housewives and prostitutes and reveled in public adoration. His compassionate touch raised the underprivileged from the shadows. There was, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, an “eternal now” to his life. He was fully present to the unknown woman in Bethany who anointed his head and to the street woman who interrupted his dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee to wash his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36). He trusted in body language so much that he chided his host the Pharisee for not having kissed and anointed him too. He invited intimacy with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7), with the woman whose only desire was to touch the hem of his garment (Luke 8:43), with the penitent thief and his grieving mother (John 19:26) and the soldiers who drove the nails of his crucifixion (Luke 23:34). He used his spittle, alone (Mark 8:23) or mixed with earth (John 9:1), to cure people. Christ sensually experienced Mary rubbing his feet with her fragrant hair and Judas kissing him on the lips and dying on the cross. There was a passionate largesse to him reminiscent of mother Nature. The Christ of the New Testament embodies an unabashed physical life, inclusive and unpredictable. He is so closely attuned with reality that he breaks out of our familiar human limitations. Being larger than life, he tears open the barrier of finitude by force of his uncensored irrepressible conviction. His resurrection is the ultimate experience of Being.
Christ is the Word made Flesh. Christ’s Passion would be meaningless if he had no mortal flesh. His Incarnation and Resurrection are both affirmations of the human body. He did not deify suffering but transcended it. He set his life, not his death, as the ultimate example for us.
That is the Christ of the Last Supper and if the miracles, the risen Lord who ate and drank and invited inspection of his wounds, the Teacher who grasped the hands of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:31) and of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41) and snatched them back from death, whose touch made the blind man see (Mark 8:23) and the bent woman stand upright (Luke 13:13).
The distinctive feature of Christianity is that God became body, and in so doing healed and empowered our bodily nature. Unlike Zeus or Yahweh, Christ was human. He used his body in manifold ways. His life was a social outrage from birth to death. God’s becoming flesh was scandalous, yet its significance was not worked out, mostly because Western Augustinian tradition has so vilified the human body.
In his farewell meal, Christ showed us that, as Parmenides first revealed, body and knowing are one. He made his teaching physical rather than metaphysical, acted it out in the world of food and drink and dress and skin. He lay his hands on the bread and wine as he had on lepers (Mark 1:41) or children (Mark 10:3), and his touch always created life, i.e., transformation, because Jesus’ living body was a tremendous source of intuition and strength. That is the strength that is passed on to us through the Eucharist.
We are all the body of Christ. That is Christ’s uncontainable democracy. The taking of the Eucharist is our ritual performance of this union: god and human meet each other in the body. That is the core of the New Testament. Our liberation takes place in the body. That is our salvation, and our freedom.