Bodies Radiant with God

‘A flamenco dancer, lurking under the shadow, prepared for the terror of her dance. Somebody has wounded her in words, alluding to the fact that she had no fire or duende. She knows she has to dance her way past her limitations, and that this may destroy her forever . . .

When the music starts she begins her dance, with ritual slowness. Then she stamps out the dampness from her soul.  Then she stamps fire into her loins. She takes on a strange enchanted glow. With a dark tragic rage, shouting, she hurls her hungers, her doubts, her terrors, and her secular prayer for more light into the spaces around her.  Soon she becomes a wild unknown force, glowing in her death, dancing from her wound, dying in her dance.’

Ben Okri wrote this story about the power of transcendence.  ‘It takes courage to dance’, he said. This was the dance into another place. The dancer’s body carried her from frailty to freedom. While she danced she was taken beyond herself, to the destined space she was made to move in.  ‘We seldom try,’ wrote Okri, ‘for that beautiful greatness brooding in the mystery of our body and blood’.

Christmas is the feast of the body: it celebrates the flesh, the senses.  Yet too often we are taught to distrust their beauty and wisdom.  But they are the sacrament of the Incarnation.  Redemption, resurrection, the abundant life – they are ever only real when experienced in our essential humanity.

‘The flesh is the hinge of salvation,’ wrote Tertullian. Without our bodies grace could not flow.  It is in our bodies that we experience heaven.  And that God experiences earth.  Tradition calls this, ‘the dance of the Hypostatic Union in the Human One’.

And God said:

May you delight in your body.

It is my body too.

Don’t you know you are my senses?

Without your body I cannot be.

Were we to believe even a whisper of that revelation, adults would gather around the crib next with astonished faces – astonished, as if for the first time, at the promised possibilities for their bodies and for the body of the world.

It is a blessed scene about our infancy and destiny as well as that of Jesus, a graced infancy in a graced humanity that grows more perfectly human even after our death, in the youthfulness of heaven. But not without its necessary deprivations and tears.

Indeed, after the Resurrection, the physical wounds of Jesus are ever honoured.  Embodiment, even in its pain and fragility, seems to be an essential condition of divinity. Michael Simmons Roberts writes in Food for Risen Bodies II;

 Now on Tiberias’ shores he grills

a carp and catfish breakfast on a

charcoal fire.

This is not hunger; it is resurrection:

he eats because he can, and wants to

taste the scales, the moist flakes of the sea,

to rub the salt into his wounds.

Christmas reveals that we are all born with a divine star.  Our bodies carry auras of inner loveliness.  That is the meaning of the hallowed halo around the baby’s sleepy head.  We all have one!  Its brightness does not depend on being successful at religion, on acquiring virtues and overcoming vices, on enforced beliefs and passing worthiness tests.

In Icon Lynn Roberts writes of a very ordinary hard-working woman. The poem ends,

Her face is olive and her hands have pads

of calloused skin from grinding grain for flour;

but if you concentrate, you’ll see, perhaps,

through her chemise a faint transparency

which glows – as though she’s swallowed fire.

 ‘As though she’s swallowed fire’ – like the flamenco dancer in her wild catharsis, like all our bodies when they fall in love with the God within them.  That’s the evocative language that best expresses the assumption of a receptive humanity by a hopelessly smitten divinity. ‘As though she’s swallowed fire.’   Not even the angels could say those words.  Only we, who have senses.

In a delightful Advent homily one thousand years ago, St Symeon wrote so beautifully of a lambent healing in our vulnerable bodies:

We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens our bodies.     

And everything that is hurt, everything that is maimed,      

ugly, irreparably damaged, is in him transformed,

recognised as whole, as lovely, and radiant in his light.

There is a shocking intensity about total incarnation, about God’s initial and passionate desire to possess us.  At the beginning, when shaping Adam and Eve out of the new mud, God was carefully forming all our human bodies as we know and experience them, as God-made-tangible and visible, enjoyable and lovable.  And that first desire was never thwarted. Original sin is the strange resistance we carry to believing such good news.

There is a story about God’s initial desire to play hide-and-seek with human beings.  (St Thomas Aquinas explains creation in terms of ‘God’s sheer joy, a joy that demanded human playmates’.)  Having discussed and dismissed all the possible-hiding places in creation with the angels, God suddenly cried out, ‘I have it!  I will hide in the human body and in the human heart. They will never think of looking for me there.’  And they didn’t.  And we still haven’t.

Without the baby in the midnight crib, without the bread and the wine of the Dawn Mass, we would simply forget, as Richard Rohr OFM puts it, that our very DNA itself is divine.  That DNA does not belong only to a chosen race, a people set apart.  It belongs to everyone.

Christmas, therefore, asks us and our churches to name and recognise our own issues and prejudices with the human body in all its peculiarities and proclivities, in its particular sexuality and ambiguity.   It urges us to value and to embrace all those we recklessly label, scapegoat and sinfully diminish in our graceless ignorance and fear.

To raise our hands at anyone in our own home, to physically or spiritually abuse a child, to torture or mutilate anyone, for any reason, is to strike out at Gods own face.  So we learn to respect and grant justice to one another as divinely embodied people, with all our emotional and mental differences.   The crib confronts us with another way of understanding what incarnate beauty looks like.

Incarnation irrevocably reveals that God has carefully created and tenderly blessed all people with dignity and worthiness.  It insists that the first places at the holy altar of equality are always reserved for such special and beloved children of God.

Joseph, my brother, who had Down’s Syndrome (and who was once deemed unworthy to take his place at that table to make his First Holy Communion), loved dancing. Unable to speak, he sang his story in his simple steps.  Like the flamenco virtuoso, like the child in the fields of Bethlehem, Joseph’s free movement flowed from within his own body with its unconventional gracefulness.

And when Joseph danced delightedly around our Christmas kitchen, I used to think that the Lord of the Dance was tapping his foot too, and that, at least for those few moments, there was peace on earth.

(The Tablet, December 2010)