The Sacred Language of Christianity is the Body: Sermon 1 of 3

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Advent III, Year C

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

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Madonna and Child by                               Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

The Sacred Language of Christianity is the Body

Reflection 1 of 3

       The Word became flesh and dwelled among us…

         Today’s homily is the first in a three-part reflection, with what we will share this morning, as well as tonight at Lessons and Carols, and at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  As we step into this holy time, it might benefit us to lengthen the conversation time, to slow down and reflect more deeply on what we are experiencing together.  So, I offer this to you, and will make copies available for our continued conversations.

        Last week, I was on a video call with colleagues from London, Brazil, Prague, and Australia, planning an upcoming conference in Vancouver in August, for the World Community for Christian Meditation.  I love that we have the technology to share in conversations like this, to see one another’s faces, to reflect together—and laugh.

While we were on the call, Fr. Laurence Freeman asked us a question: “What is the sacred language of Christianity?”  We were reminded that Islam has Arabic, Judaism has Hebrew, Hinduism has Sanskrit.  These are the sacred languages for these faiths.  What, he asked us, would Christianity’s sacred language be?

One might think Latin, but we remember that the Great Schism of 1054 divided the Church, with the Greek-oriented Eastern Orthodox Church not using Latin.  And since the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s, services in the Roman Catholic Church are done in the local language.  Latin is still a core piece of the tradition, but we cannot say it is Christianity’s sacred language.

So what, Fr. Laurence asked us, is Christianity’s sacred language?  Does it have one?

I was intrigued at the question.

“Well,” I shared, “if we really let the truth and reality of the Incarnation ‘play out,’ if we really take it to its logical conclusion about what it is claiming, theologically, about the connection between the Creator and the creation, I would say that the sacred language of Christianity is actually the body.”

That ‘makes the most sense to me,’ when I think about it.  I bounced the idea off Cynthia in conversations during the week.  We wondered whether the body could even be a sacred language.  The purpose of a language is to convey meaning, to carry a message, is it not?

We wondered, can the body be a language since it doesn’t make a sound?  But then we immediately began to remember ways in our lives and in our sacred texts, that bodies do make sounds—and important ones!  And, Cynthia reminded me that we speak all the time about “body language” and the way the body most certainly conveys messages of anger, anxiety, fear, and so on.

In our own sacred texts, these images resonated with me:

  • The way Adam and Eve’s bodies rustled through the leaves as they hid from God’s face in the garden.
  • The crunch of Abram and Sarai’s feet as they traveled across the barren land after being sent by God to journey to a new place.
  • The sound of David’s fingers strumming the strings of his harp.
  • The rattle of dry bones being brought together in the field, given new life.
  • The rush of legs and arms of men, women, and children carried into exile in Babylon.
  • The strain of Mary’s muscles as she went into labor.
  • The touch of Jesus hand, the sound of dry skin on dry skin as he reached out to lift the sick and lame to their feet.
  • The sound of wrapping Jesus’ body in cloth, laying it in the tomb.

Just in these few accounts, as I spent time with this image of the body, no sounds were uttered by any mouth, yet the messages conveyed by those bodies carried enormous significance.  They told the story of our faith.

There is a trajectory of embodied grace, of embodied divinity, that lies at the absolute heart of what Christianity “means,” the truth that it carries about the presence of God in every moment of our lives.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

We see this reality of the body in today’s texts from Zephaniah when the prophet says “The king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst,” and “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”  This isn’t just a rational exercise, like “God is thinking about you.”  It isn’t just a manner of thinking about things; rather, it points us to God’s presence, in terms of the language, in our hearts, in our guts, in our bodies.  In the midst of us, within us.  It pushes us to consider how we understand God’s actions in our lives.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

In the Gospel story today, when we find ourselves watching John the Baptizer confronting the complacency of those around him, provoking them, challenging them with his message of repentance, we hear him say, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.”

He is coming among you, within you.  As one of us.  Prepare the way of the Lord.

This is what Advent is about: preparing for the coming of Christ into our lives, not just in thought or idea but in an embodied reality.  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  The body matters.  Our bodies matter.  Matter matters.  The earth matters.  Individual bodies matter, and bodies of communities matter.

That being said, to say that Christianity as a religious tradition has a complicated relationship with the body is an understatement.  There has been such focus and disagreement over the role of the body, the purpose of the body, the pitfalls and promises of the body.  The beauty of the body.  Looking at the tension from one angle, I would say perhaps this ‘proves’ the point of it being our sacred language.  The focus and energy for over two thousand years demonstrates the vital importance of the body.  Might this be why it carries such weight? (get it?)

It is no small thing to say The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.  It is shocking, scandalous even.  And, we have not lived into this reality yet, my friends.  It is our constant invitation.

In the 14th century, St. Gregory Palamas leaned into the tensions about the body himself, arguing against those who said the body was corrupt, utterly fallen, and that the point or goal of salvation was to escape it.  Some argued that the body was an evil thing.  (Some still feel this way).  St. Gregory thought otherwise, saying “We are the house of God (Heb. 3:6), as God Himself confirms when He says, ‘I will dwell in them and walk in them, and I will be their God’ (Lev. 26:12; 2 Cor. 6:16). . . These are the things we should say to the heretics, to those who declare that the body is evil and created by the devil.  But we regard it as evil for the intellect to be caught up in material thoughts, not for it to be in the body, for the body is not evil.”[1]

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.

        One who is more powerful than I is coming…

We too often believe or act as though our bodies are just the vessels from moving us from here to there, that our thoughts are really what matter.  We live our lives and practice our faith in the space between our ears.  I wonder how Jesus’ birth challenges our denial or neglect of the body?  What does his crucifixion say about the importance of the body in the life of faith?  In reality, our religious tradition teaches us that bodies are the location of the divine presence.  Friends, this is radical.

After all, even the word ‘belief’ itself, credo (from which we derive the word creed), at its deepest meaning, means to give one’s heart to.  We’re not just speaking about rational thoughts or ideas.  We’re talking about embodied grace.

God continues to try to squeeze into human life, to be embodied, but we do our best to squeeze the indwelling Spirit out.

We are surrounded by images of the body in our liturgy that call us to reflect more deeply:

  • all hearts are open, all desires known…
  • cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
  • Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
            he came down from heaven:
        by the power of the Holy Spirit
            he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
            and was made man.
  • We have not loved you with our whole heart;
  • The sharing of the peace, and the sounds when we give hugs, pat a back, shake a hand.
  • Lift up your hearts
  • He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world
  • This is my Body, which is given for you.
  • Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son
  • The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven
  • Almighty and everliving God,
    we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
    of the most precious Body and Blood
    of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
    and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
    that we are living members of the Body of your Son

Once you start looking, you see bodies all over the place!  And, each Advent and Christmas, I am reminded just how radical our faith truly is, what it claims, how it calls us to live in this world.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

Come, Lord, Jesus.

[1] Gregory Palamas, The Philokalia, Vol. 4 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1995), 332.

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