Saturday, April 18, 2009

Let's Get Physical

In today's Wall Street Journal, a letter-writer responded to this article: The Shroud of Turin: Faith, Proof and Relics - with this letter: Letters - You don't have to read either one.
In part, he wrote:

"The desire for physical connection to Christ's human existence, however well-intentioned, may reflect more of a human weakness rather than a rational search for truth. If one is a Christian, the value of any holy artifact, even the actual shroud of Christ, is inconsequential relative to the sacrificial act of dying for mankind's sins. An obsession with relics can be a distraction from that fundamental truth."

Well, yeah, an obsession with anything is bad...that's part of the definition. I don't pay too much attention to the Shroud myself: the Wind of Science blows this way.....then that way....then another way. Who can say if the Shroud wrapped Jesus? But besides that, I believe the writer suffers from The Western Disease, i.e., discounting the physical as a valid (may I say equal) way to access God, while unduly favoring the spiritual, which is often a stalking-horse for the 'Rational' 'Intellect.' (That last bit was a digression)

Anyway, the writer mentions the Golden Calf: "the people of Israel lose faith in God and build a golden calf to worship, an apparent human need to have a comforting physical representation of their deity." The problem I have with this is yes, worshiping the Golden Calf was a sin, but wanting a comforting physical relationship with the 'deity' is not. We're weak, we have needs....yes we do. God knows this, loves us, and responds accordingly.

Let's remember, a non-physical God made Adam from dirt, Eve from a rib. Yet the relationship of God & Man in the Garden was in some sense physical. God the Father has no body, yet Adam & Eve related to him through their physical natures as well as spiritual (e.g, Gen 3:8). This access was broken by the Fall, but the desire for humans to know God through both their natures remained.

For millennia, then, God remained physically remote in a direct sense (he was still indirectly physically accessible in a limited way through media, e.g., the tablets, Moses' stick, Elisha's bones, Elijah's cloak, the Jordan river, etc.). Remember poor Moses, 40 days on Sinai, all that time in the meeting tent...."could I just have a little peek at your face, LORD, I just wanna see" and God says, "'d kill ya." And who isn't like Moses, or Thomas, "yeah, but....I wanna see. Please?"

And this is the great change with Jesus. People could see God, hold onto him, hear his words go out of his mouth and right into their ears; they could even smell him. No more Moses wanting a glimpse, just a glimpse. And Jesus worked all his miracles through people's physical encounters with his physical nature. Lord, my son is possessed; Lord my daughter is dead; if I can just touch His tassel; let me wash off this mud from my eyes; let me pull some bread & fish out of this basket; let's lower our friend through the roof. Nobody said, "hey Jesus is in town, let's all pray for him to heal our paralyzed friend" or "I'll pray for Him to heal my leprosy." No. It was "hey Jesus is in town, it's time for action." Remember the paralytic's friends? Jesus saw their faith, because he saw what they did physically, through his own physical nature. And so could everyone else who was there.
But to believe a man was God presented its own many Pharisees looked right at Jesus working miracles, and insisted on not believing? Even Thomas had to have faith.

This is a great gift: God made us with bodies and souls. In spite of the wreck sin has made of the natural order of things, both body & soul are good, and we were created to know & love God through both natures. And Jesus having a body (He still has it, BTW) makes it possible for us to do so even today (the technical term for this is 'incarnation,' a word I'm not fond of. It just goes in one ear & out the other). But can we access Jesus' physical nature through something besides our own bodies? No. Even everything I know about other peoples' souls I infer from using my senses to observe what they say and do with their bodies, their physical natures.
So what does this have to do with things now? Let me recount some Wednesday Sunday School:

I use a bone (2Kings 13:21), my suit jacket (2Kings 2:6-14), and a rag (Acts 19:11-12) among other things to act out how God uses things as conduits, as media for His power. By the way, the bone is a chicken bone, we just pretend it comes from's not worth anything on the black market.

We act these things out, and read the story as needed: oh no, here come bandits! No time right now to bury him, just throw him down there on Elisha's bones, we'll come back when it's safe.

How am I gonna get back over the river....?
Dear wife, our daughter is gonna die, but Paul is in town. She's too sick to move, what'll we do? Give me your apron, I'll go to Paul..... I'm back, I got close enough to press the apron against Paul's skin.....let's cover her with it.

Note that in 2Kings 2:6-14 the cloak continued to mediate God's power even after Elijah was gone, which points out that God's power didn't abandon the cloak after Elijah's departure. We might observe that Elijah had already authorized Elisha to succeed him, so maybe it doesn't have anything to do with the cloak, per se, but the authority of the wielder. Maybe so. Maybe not.
But who were the nobodies who used aprons and facecloths to carry healing to the sick and possessed? Probably just faithful Christians. And might the power persist over time? Would the faithful treasure those cloths, those aprons until they wore out? Could they heal more than just one person, one time? Given that these miracles happened after Jesus had ascended, and Paul had not known Jesus during his earthly ministry, is it reasonable to think the healing remained in the items as long as they lasted and weren't tied to Paul's authority? Was it it reasonable, or superstitious, to do the apron thing in the first place?

So I use this line of thinking to explain the reasonableness of relics, and as an introduction to sacraments. God's grace & power continue to flow through physical things, including people and their dead bodies. EEeewww! chorus the 6th grade girls.

Here's a question: was God with Abraham? Yes. Was he with...Noah? Yes. Moses? Yes. David? Yeah. Ezekiel, Isaiah, all the rest? Yes, of course. Now jump ahead to Jesus, (Matt 28:20) "I am with you always, until the end of the age." Uh-huh, so what's new? But the apostles weren't going to be losing God spiritually as Noah might have; they were going to miss His physical presence. I believe Jesus, whose distinction among the Trinity is his physical existence, meant not just that he'd be with us always spiritually, but physically as well. Thus through sacraments, especially the Eucharist (another word I'm not fond of....don't care for 'communion' either), Jesus provides that physical link to his body. He ascended with it and still has it. I assume it exists as matter in dimensional space (sounds like another post gestating) somewhere, and he makes it objectively available to us in our limited reality through the Eucharist. So he's still with us, spiritually and physically.

So back to the letter: "The desire for physical connection to Christ's human existence, however well-intentioned, may reflect more of a human weakness rather than a rational search for truth." Our desire for a physical connection to Christ's human existence is correctly-intentioned, reflects human weakness only as a consequence of sin, not as a consequence of physical existence itself, and is an indispensable part of a rational search for truth.