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Flesh of My Flesh

When my younger son was very small, he insisted on feeding himself long before he was capable of reliably guiding a spoon into his mouth.  The result was that much of his food wound up on the floor, on his feeding table, on the walls or smeared over his face and body.  Unlike his more fastidious older brother, he was not the least bit troubled by the mess he made.   For him, eating was an activity in which all the senses were brought into play, particularly the tactile one.  Food was meant to be squished, kneaded, pummeled, spilled and flung -- and only incidentally to be chewed and swallowed.

Eventually, of course, my son learned to satisfy his appetite without causing others to lose theirs.  He was subjected to the tortuous process by which children everywhere are eventually rendered fit for adult society.  Much of this consists of learning which senses may be appropriately brought into play under what circumstances.  For example, food goes in the mouth, not on the floor; objects on the floor do not go in the mouth.  And so on. 

Alas, sometimes these lessons are learned all too well, and the message we absorb is that our senses are best not brought into play at all.  We get the idea we cannot put something unfamiliar in our mouths without being poisoned, cannot shout without disturbing others, cannot run or jump without risking injury, cannot touch without breaking something.  Eventually we may conclude it is safer just to be a spectator, so instead of living life we watch it on TV.

Mistrust of the senses has long been a staple of orthodox religious belief.  The two most influential figures in the early Christian church, Paul and Augustine, were both inclined to draw a sharp distinction between body and spirit.  Paul wrote that "the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh."  Augustine, for his part, never entirely overcame his early infatuation with Manichaeanism, which regarded the material world as inherently evil. 

This dualism of flesh and spirit is all the more incongruous in a religion that regards the Incarnation, or "Word made flesh," as the central event in human history.  The idea is that God implanted himself into his own creation, and he did not come wrapped in cellophane.  He wept, bled and died, just like everybody else.  He invited his disciples to become part of his body, so that God might be fully incarnated in them as well.  Eat my flesh, he told them.  Drink my blood.  This is my life; live it. 

The Incarnation makes no sense as a singular event.  God is not embodied in one man alone but in everyone and everything: in this poor soul who imagines he can capture such a thought in words; in the notebook on my lap, the pen in my hand, the floor under my feet, the air I breathe; in everyone who breathes the same air I do, the sky overhead, the wind in the trees.  It is all flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.  In vain do I seek some spiritual realm apart from the world in which I live and breathe.  Breath and spirit are one word in the both Hebrew and Greek, the languages of Scripture.  Together they breathe life into a world that is not ethereal but real.

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