This is My Body, Given for You
Matthew 1: 18-25
A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 22, 2019 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
I wonder how you feel about your body. Maybe you live with perpetual pain, or old age is making every joint creak. Perhaps you have a physical disability. It could be you spend an hour a day applying makeup, drying your hair, using preparations to enhance your appearance. Or possibly you live with shame, about being carrying too much weight, about scars you try to hide, secrets you want no one to know, hurts you tremble to name. We spend enormous amounts of time thinking about our own and one another’s bodies. They harbour some of our deepest and often unresolved feelings.
There are two days in the Christian year when we think especially about the significance of the human body. The first is Easter Day, when we discover our bodies are not just for now, but forever, not just for earth, but for heaven. The second is Christmas Day, when we realise that God regards our bodies so highly as to take on our human flesh in Jesus. These are the two central moments in our year: God entering life, and overcoming death.
Given these two high watermarks of the Christian understanding of the body, you might be surprised that the history of Christian reflection on the body is so troubled and confused. I want today to look at why this is so, and to suggest how the story of Mary conceiving a child through the Holy Spirit can redeem so much of this pain and grief. I want to explore three reasons why, despite the fundamental affirmation of Christmas and Easter, the body has been such a difficult subject for Christians.
The first is fear. The body makes you do things your mind would rather you didn’t do. The body makes you greedy for more, because that little bit of salt in the caramel or gin on the tongue makes you long for a second, a fifth, a forty-third helping. The body makes you lust for touch, taste, sight, for fulfilment of desires and indulgence of feelings, in the face of what your conscience or forbearance tells you. The body makes you tired, lazy, and inclined towards comfort, even when your mind says you need to be thoughtful, alert, or helpful. In such ways our bodies seem to be beyond our control. So we seek to bring them to heel, through denial, discipline, training, habits, practices, distractions – all of which work sometimes, but none of which suppress the bodily wants that present themselves as a tsunami of needs. Schooling the body never entirely works; those who set and uphold wise rules for others evidently fail to keep them themselves, resulting in hypocrisy and humiliation.
But fear isn’t the only reason for the body being so problematic for the church. The second reason is hurt. The body has been the principal site of the domination of the powerful over the weak throughout history. Slavery names the way the body of a person is made to fulfil the wants and needs of a master – a person who has somehow gained control and dominance over them. Assault names the physical imposition of one person’s body over another’s, to express physical supremacy, sexual gratification, or mental ascendancy. Torture names the way a person uses control over another’s body to inflict agony, demonstrate power, or extract information. Such experiences have been known to perhaps the majority of the world’s population throughout history. They yield physical wounds and mental scars that many can never erase. Sadly, like every exercise of power, the church and its representatives have sometimes not just suffered such things but perpetrated them.
There’s also a third dimension inhibiting Christian understanding of the body besides fear and hurt, and that’s neglect. For much, perhaps most of Christian history, the body’s been treated like some kind of undercarriage that supports us on earth but won’t be needed in heaven; like the boosters that fall away from a rocket leaving only the mind or soul or both. Sometimes this has led people to believe it didn’t matter what they did with their own bodies or anyone else’s, since the body doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Sometimes it has led people toward a harsh rejection of the body, as an encumbrance they’d be better off without. Licence and abstinence both risk a pernicious separation between our bodies and the rest of us. This gives us no positive way to think about how we can live well or apply our physical selves for good.
When we look to the account in today’s gospel of the young Mary conceiving a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see how each of these troubled interpretations tells its own version of the story. The view of the body through lens of fear sees sex as dangerously full of lust, desire and wilfulness, and affirms that Jesus was born, as John’s gospel puts it, ‘not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ The hurt perspective perceives the story with profound suspicion, noting that no mention is made in Matthew of Mary giving consent or indeed having any agency at all, and thus replicating and even validating a pattern where powerful people, invariably men, inflict their will, frequently bodily, on vulnerable people, often women. Meanwhile the neglect version is one in which Jesus came to bring a spiritual message, and so the human role in conception was appropriately minimal.
When you add in the post-Enlightenment scepticism about how it was possible to conceive a child without a conventional meeting of sperm and egg, then you begin to realise why the so-called doctrine of the virgin birth has become perhaps the least popular of the stories associated with Jesus. But I want to suggest a different way of reading the story.
One of the greatest insights I’ve learned in studying the New Testament is to understand that references to Mary, mother of Jesus, are often ways of talking about Israel. Mary’s the embodiment of Israel at its best: faithful, obedient, willing, devoted. She is, in her way, the one who perfectly keeps the covenant with God that Israel’s portrayed in the Old Testament as having painfully broken. The conception of Jesus through Mary and the Holy Spirit is a way of saying Jesus is utterly human and Jesus is at the same time utterly God. But it’s also saying Jesus is utterly Israel. In other words God hasn’t given up on the covenant with Israel: Jesus is the fulfilment of that covenant. He’s a Jew – his mother is Jewish. But he’s also God, because he’s conceived by the Holy Spirit. He’s the complete embodiment of everything the Old Testament longed for – the total harmony of God and Israel.
See the significance of Mary fully participating in the birth of Jesus. In this moment we find revealed the purpose of the human body. Given how terribly the human body, particularly the vulnerable and often female or juvenile body has so often been treated, it’s completely understandable that many people feel it’s compounding the misery for anyone to presume to tell them what their body is for. When you’ve been cruelly maltreated, of course you want to know no one will ever be able to do that to you or anyone else again and the that perpetrators will brought to justice. But the boldness of Christianity isn’t just about keeping people safe from harm, important as that is. It’s also about joyfully discovering what our lives are actually for. Mary discovers what her life is for, and her discovery is a discovery for all of us.
Remember when Abraham was told what Israel was for. In Genesis 12 God says through Israel all the peoples of the earth would find a blessing. Now here in Matthew 1, Mary’s told she’s to be a channel for the way the Holy Spirit will bless the world. The name for that blessing is Jesus, which we discover means Immanuel: God is with us. What Mary discovers is that she exists to be a channel of the Holy Spirit. What we discover is that we exist to be a channel of the Holy Spirit. That’s what our bodies are for.
See how liberating this claim is. We have a constant voice inside us, telling us our bodies aren’t good enough. We don’t have the right shape, height, strength, fitness, beauty. At the same time we have constant voices outside us, telling us our bodies have to experience particular things to be fulfilled: the best coffee, the most exotic travel, the most comfortable sofa, the wildest sex, the experience of childbirth, the liveliest dancing, the most terrifying bungee jump. But hard as it may be, we don’t have to listen to those voices. Because we’ve discovered through Mary what are bodies are really for.
Our bodies are for conceiving, nurturing and giving birth to the way the Holy Spirit blesses the world. How liberating to know we won’t finally be accountable for whether we ate that dietary additive or experienced the rush of being a gifted surfer! We’ll be held to account for precisely this: ‘Did you allow your body to be a channel of the grace of God’s Holy Spirit?’ Before you say, or do something, ask yourself, ‘Is this expressing my desire to let the Holy Spirit work through me?’ See how it’s not about being clever or fit or wealthy or talented: it’s simply about letting God work through you.
That means letting God’s grace be seen in your smile, to make strangers feel appreciated and welcome. It means letting God’s Spirit be channelled through your touch, when you draw close to a person the world has shunned. It means letting God’s gentleness be felt in your words, when you speak a difficult truth to a person who isn’t ready to hear it. It means putting your body between another and danger, like John Crilly, who three weeks ago confronted Usman Khan on London Bridge, despite believing his antagonist was wearing a live suicide belt. It means letting your wounds become a channel not of bitterness but of grace and glory.
I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have a hang-up about their body. The likelihood is, Mary did too. But she discovered her body wasn’t fundamentally a place of fear, hurt, or neglect. She believed her body was made to give birth to the work of the Holy Spirit. So is mine. So is yours.