Healing. The topic is timely, given our ongoing emergence from a grueling and sometimes brutal election cycle. As Christians, wherever we fall on the political spectrum, it is our obligation to do the spiritual work to be peacemakers and reconcilers. This is the meaning of the fifth question addressed to us every time we witness a baptism or a confirmation: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” No one lies beyond the reach of our care. In offering that care, we participate in the healing work of Christ.
We are also in the season of Incarnation. As I write this, it is mid-Advent, and we are fast approaching Christmas, the great Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. Here too there is an invitation to reflect on healing. At the most basic level, healing is about restoring health to sick or wounded bodies. After all, Christmas is all about the body. “Incarnation” is just a technical term for taking on flesh, that is, becoming embodied. At every Sunday Eucharist we profess our faith that Christ, eternally begotten of the Father, “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The eternal Word of God became one of us, sharing fully in our embodied nature, in all its vigor and frailty. In so doing, he affirmed the dignity and worth of the body – a dignity and worth to which the Bible witnesses from beginning to end. Thus, when we as Christians pray for the healing of sickness, we are also asserting our conviction that bodily wholeness is an ultimate good. After all, in the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe in the resurrection of the body. That is, we assert our conviction that in a way we cannot fully understand, we will be embodied in the age to come. When we pray for the healing of our bodies in this present time, we are praying for a foretaste of the embodied life we hope to enjoy in the kingdom of God.
This means that we must work at embracing our embodiment, even when we are tempted to deplore the inconveniences our bodies burden us with. We are prone to sickness and physical disaster because we are part of a physical universe that is constantly interacting with our bodies. The laws of physics govern our every move, and we are vulnerable to the natural movements of the created order as it too obeys those laws. Even germs and viruses pass through our bodies or take lodging there without the slightest concern for our well being, as they pursue their own allotted course.
Nevertheless we must resist the wish to be rid of our bodies, since that wish prevents us from giving thanks for being part of the material world, the cosmos God has created and which God has placed us in. To say yes to our embodiment is to say yes to our full participation in a universe (more locally a planet) that comes with weather, geological movement and bacteria. The joys of embodiment are easy to discount. The tragedies are the price we pay for being (as Eucharistic Prayer D puts it) “the voice of every creature under heaven.”
Our participation in this world involves, of course, our participation in one another. We are all part of a vast body, which is the human race. When the eternal Son took on a body, he didn’t just take on a particular body. He took on that whole body. We are one body because we are all of one stock, connected to and dependent upon one another as members. That’s the Biblical witness. We must be peacemakers and reconcilers, because in the incarnate Christ, God has broken down all false walls that separate us, by becoming one of us, thus sending a shock wave through all our avenues of connection, those we choose and those we didn’t wish we had. Jesus galvanizes us into a new season of encounter, understanding and embrace.
How can we receive this continual shock wave, which will surely bowl us over when we open ourselves to it? In this season of incarnation, we will do well to reflect on what it means for us, the church, to be the body of Christ. Where does our health lie? Three things come immediately to mind.
(1) In any body, the flow of oxygen and nutrients is crucial to life. For the church, this flow is none other than the free circulation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which we develop further through the generous exchange of our natural gifts. It’s important for God’s mission that we identify our gifts and allow them to circulate freely and generously. (In this regard I recommend reading Eric Law’s Holy Currencies.)
(2) Bodies need exercise. The church’s exercise is her constant witness to God’s justice and love, which she accomplishes through her service to and with the communities that surround her. The more we interact with our neighbors and get to know them, the more we build up our spiritual muscles. Sometimes this is hard work, but it is work that strengthens us and revitalizes us. I remember a gym teacher in high school who taught us to appreciate the “good ache” that comes with healthy exercise. What might a spiritual “good ache” feel like, and how might we achieve it?
(3) Fear is a natural emotion, and we couldn’t get along physically or psychologically without it. Fear rouses us to seek protection when danger threatens. But if we are paralyzed by fear our bodies will suffer. So it is with the church. We are part of a world that is polarized and highly anxious, and we ourselves can succumb to fear about our survival as a body. Yet Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples not to be afraid. Is he saying there is no danger or risk in store for them? Of course not. But even the cross yields resurrection. We can trust God to bring our faltering initiatives to fruit in ways we cannot imagine. When we temper our fear with trust, we are freed up to focus on God’s mission rather than our own survival. Therein lies our own healing, and our capacity to be a healing presence in the world.
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The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.