A Body You Have Given Me

by Maria Grizzetti

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy | 1606, Oil on Canvas | Private Collection,  Rome.

At the heart of Christian life is the Flesh of Christ. We adore Christ as God, in His flesh. This startling realization awakens in us an initial surprise. The condescension of the Savior, his taking on human finitude, shatters what we are conditioned to think of when we think of God as “I am”: He who is Existence itself, unchanging Being. 

The Old Testament speaks of the Temple as a place of worship; its adornments, its priestly sacrifices are fitting offerings to the God who dwelled there. The people of Israel in exile have no temple, no place of worship. Their lamentations in captivity reveal desolation and abandonment. Yet even as they sought to return to their homeland, to the place where they could worship God, the old Temple remained an earthly abode, a prefiguration of the corporeal tabernacle who is Christ: God come in the flesh among His people.  Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem reveals that the Temple as place becomes the Temple as Being. His birth is the beginning of an intimate divinity, where human flesh becomes the instrument of salvation.

What, then, does all this say to us about our frail, human bodies?

Each person is endowed with a body. In the normal course of childhood and youth, this body is a healthy body; agile, energetic, it grows in strength and capacity. At a certain point illness sets in, or injury, and the body begins to reveal its fragility, its complexity; it bears the scars of age and pain.

Here we have an analogy for the spiritual life. We are rendered new in Baptism: cleansed of the stain of Original Sin, we are made agile for holiness. Innocence is an early strength: the child learns right and wrong, but does so from the standpoint of guiltlessness. Only adults recognize evil as explicitly as it is manifested, and often choose to engage it willfully. So the spiritual life goes from infancy to old age, much like the human body does. Along the way it knows highs and lows, virtue and vice, health and illness, sin and grace, life and death.

From this standpoint we ascend even higher. The corporeity of the Christian life indicates what a marvelous unity we are: body and soul make us who we are as persons, specific persons, created by God and given a specific calling to beatitude. There is one goal: to “Glorify God by making [our] bodies the shrine of his presence” (1 Cor 6. 20), and it points us towards the ultimate destiny of every human life. All have a chance at living this calling fully, though some will opt otherwise. We live the spiritual life in the flesh, not in some disconnected, formless mode of being — and we live it to be come “like unto God”. That is, we live this life for heaven.  

So when the God comes in the flesh, He comes as a needy child with a frail infant’s body to not just to fulfill the promise of the Old Covenant, but also to complete a love story . The people of Israel bore the scars of longing; their body had aged bearing the burdens of exile and persecution, weighted down by infidelity and the prescriptions of a scrupulous observance of the Law. Among them rises the Christ, in whom the Law is transfigured and becomes the way of beatitude, and through whom the Temple is renewed: “Destroy the temple and in three days I will raise it up, and He was speaking about the Temple of his body.” (Jn 2:19) The Old Law takes on flesh and bone: it becomes the living Word. In His body Christ gives a new Law of love, and before He offers his body on the Cross, He prays for his beloved, that they “be one”  with the Father.

Much the same occurs to us. The old temple of our bodies are ravaged by age and sin. Exile alienates us from God and one another. Persecutions carve us apart as dividing loves compete for a place in the heart what was once whole. The burdens of the law — our own hypocrisy, our cynicism — weigh us down. We can look upon every human body and find branded upon it the marks of a former slavery. In each of the scars the interior becomes exterior, revealing the “inner man”. Yet, as we falter, as we confront a pervading futility, still the soul is purified, becoming a new temple. Grace and charity flow from sacramental fonts to revive us. Manna comes down from heaven, and as we pilgrimage in the desert, water flows from the rock.

‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Galatians 5:1.

St. Paul reveals a vision of freedom from bondage, a corporeal freedom from exile rooted precisely in the mark of the faithful of Israel: we are called to go from circumcision of the body to that of the spirit; from sin to grace. In this transformation we discover a definitive hope for a liberated life: we are led to a new and better Promised Land, “set free from the bondage to decay, we inherit the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (cf. Rom 8.21)

So the exile is spiritual and corporeal. We live yearning for freedom, for the Word who is Truth and Love, for the tenderness of the Savior who touched human flesh by taking it upon himself to restore it to liberty, to enflame it with renewed desire for life unending, and in the end, to raise it from the dead. 

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11. 29-30

From bondage we are invited to a new rest. Yet the freedom we seek must anchored in a stark and startling realism. There is a tension in play “for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent [us] from doing what [we] would.” (Gal 5:17)

There is one answer, then, to this division we experience, and it is that very “standing fast” —  that steadfast clinging onto the Body of One who is “like us in all ways but sin” (cf. Heb 4.15), whose spirit and flesh were not at war with one another, but perfectly united; He who took upon Himself our weakness to transform it.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”

1 Peter 2.24-25

So what do we ask for when we cling to Him?

Like the woman who crept through crowds to grasp a hem of His garment, or the lepers who dared near Him, or the blind whose eyes He covered in spittle as He restored their sight, or the Magdalene who lavished nard at His feet, there is but one desire: and it is that of life renewed by a love stronger than all human loves.

This desire is fulfilled through a specific corporeal action: the embrace, the touch of Christ Himself. This is the touch of One who wishes to give Himself to us. It is the touch of grace and of restored life. It is the touch of intimate union. It is the touch that unbinds the heart to enable the outpouring of offering. It is the touch that enflames a new holocaust — that of our barrenness and solitude, that of our selfishness and pride — and makes of it a spotless sacrifice. He “who had no place to rest His head” (cf.Lk 9.58) invites us to rest in Him — that is, to offer Him our own flesh as the place of His rest — that He might restore the temple of our bodies, that He might dwell in the tabernacle of our flesh, and reveal to us the depths of an Incarnate Love.

“For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.”

-2 Chronicles 7.16

Chosen and consecrated, we are made for Him, united by a spousal love through the Church, and brought into the consummation that weds humanity to divinity — a love story like no other. In this mystery we realize how no one loves the human body quite like Christ does. He, who being God, participated in its creation, lived in it sinlessly during His earthly life, offered it for the salvation of the world, and then lifted it up in the glory of the empty tomb only to bring it into the heights of paradise, shows us the value of our bodies by giving us His own. In the flesh of Christ there is no desecration and no waste, no loss and and no division, no violent possessiveness; there is simply the unity of Truth and Life, and the lavish promise of the fullness of beatitude.

When Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body you have prepared for me”

Hebrews 10.5

He who knew the earthly price for the restoration of the glorified body touches human flesh still, to free it, to purify it, to guard it in the jealousy of divine intimacy, and to seal it with the mark of godliness. In this He does not fear the dark exile of the crosses of this world, nor the barren desert of futile human endeavors, nor betrayal of love, nor the endless desecration of the Temple of His Body.

He lays Himself bare even now, that the interior of God might through His wounds become exterior and visible to us — a fount of grace poured forth in blood; a Body we can touch, and taste, and see.

…”A body you have given me.”

My Christ, make it your Body.

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You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com

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