Springfield Cathedral—Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-49
So, here we are on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is almost here. Three weeks ago, our liturgical attention was consumed by visions of Last Things, the second coming of Christ for the purpose of judging the living and the dead. Over the last couple of weeks, the emphasis has shifted to a rather odd combination of warning and comfort: John the Baptist has crudely and rudely called us—we who are in his estimation a “brood of vipers”—to repent, to turn from our wicked way. But this in-your-face warning has come in a context of promise and hope, a vision of a restored human community, reconciled with God and one another, living in joy and peace.
Now the focus shifts again. We read from Luke’s gospel, but not the familiar story of the Annunciation—that’s reserved to Year B, and this is Year C in our lectionary cycle—but, rather, the visit of pregnant Mary to pregnant Elizabeth, both of them gestating within their own bodies—Elizabeth a little further along—the bodies of Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively.
But you may have noticed that, before we got there, the lectionary threw us, not just a curveball, but something out of left field, an obscure passage from the already obscure Epistle to the Hebrews, something about bodies: “A body you have prepared for me …”, and then, a little later, “… we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
A body is very real, very much “there,” inescapable. Ask any women who’s pregnant or has ever been pregnant. She feels changes within her own body, and always feels the presence of something that is part of her body, yet, at the same time, not part of her body, something alive and growing, something that is at the same time her and not her.
As I mentioned, Hebrews is obscure; it’s very complicated material, a rather tight argument almost from beginning to end. It’s difficult to teach from, and even harder to preach from! In today’s reading, the author quotes from Psalm 40, but in the second half of the fifth verse of that Psalm, he uses an alternate reading of the Hebrew text, changing one word. In Hebrews we read, “A body you have prepared for me.” But if you were to open your Prayer Book to Psalm 40, that same line would read, “You have given me ears to hear you.” Quite a big difference in meaning, right?! Like I said, it’s only a one-word difference in Hebrew, a difference that is magnified when translated into English. So the author of Hebrews did this very intentionally, choosing to use a textual variant of Psalm 40 in order to support his argument about the importance of the body of Jesus, the body of the Messiah, in God’s scheme of redemption.
In our society we seem to gravitate toward one of two extremes with regard to our bodies. One is to idolize them. In the 70s, there was a popular women’s book called Our Bodies, Our Selves. I was already troubled by what that title implied. Dan Martins is a lot more complicated than this body you are looking at. Yet, I am more disturbed by the opposite tendency, to downplay the significance of our bodies. There’s a graphic meme going around on Facebook that is falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis. It says something like, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” While there may be an oblique element of truth in that, it’s mostly theological malarkey. A human being is a dynamic body/soul duality. We need both to be fully human. This is why, despite the overwhelmingly dominant cultural narrative, the Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul. We may affirm the immortality of the soul, but that is not our hope. Do the creeds ever mention the immortality of the soul? No. What do they mention? The resurrection of the body. That is our hope. Personally and pastorally, I am disturbed by the trend to have funerals without the body of the deceased present. The body is not nothing. The body is sacramental. When we lowered the casket containing my father’s body into his grave almost 11 years ago, I was never more aware of this element of our Christian hope. I said to him in that moment, “I will probably join you in a place just like this. But we’re coming out of there.” Death separates us from our bodies, but, in resurrection, we are reunited with them. (Of course, they’ve been overhauled in the meantime to be a lot better!) In any intermediate state there may be between death and resurrection, we are not yet fully ourselves, even if we continue to have some kind of conscious existence. Our salvation is not complete until we are once again in a body.
So bodies matter. The body of Christ matters. It matters that we celebrate the birth of a baby later this week, a baby with a body emerging from a woman with a body. It matters that God shares his life with us by means of that same body in the sacrament of the Eucharist, in Holy Communion—yes, all grown up, crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified—but the same body, nonetheless, the same body that lay in the manger. “A body you have prepared for me … we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
The expression “body of Christ” also has another level of significant meaning, as you know. St Paul uses it to refer to the Church, the community of the baptized, which is to say, us. Together, we are the body of Christ, and individually member cells within that body. We can also see ourselves in that textual variant from Psalm 40, “A body you have prepared for me.” As God works through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, to feed and sustain us with the Body and Blood of his Son, so we, the Church, are collectively a sacrament—a sign to the world of God’s undying love, always inviting men and women and children into friendship with him in the communion of those who have become cells in his Son’s body.
So, as Advent draws to a close, it is our joyful privilege to worship God in our bodies, from our bodies, through our bodies, with our bodies—not worshiping our bodies, but worshiping their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It is our joyful privilege to welcome God incarnate, the Word made flesh and moved into our neighborhood. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.