Life in the Body
Recently I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on my scalp. It was caught in an early stage, and no more treatment will be required except regular skin examinations. I am very fortunate, but I was affected by this news that reminded me of what we all know. Disease, accidents, and general physical decline will afflict all of us in this mortal life in the body. Our conference is in grief now because of the deaths of two of our ministers and friends, John Bartha, who died from an accident, and Jeffrey Oglesby, who died because of illnesses.
Some of the saints who practiced asceticism and mystical contemplation spoke of the "heaviness of the body." This common expression in spiritual literature conveys not only how our bodies affect our sense of spiritual well-being because of infirmities and weariness, but also how our bodily passions must be trained through self-discipline in the ascent of the soul to God. It is true that our bodily existence poses a challenge for our spiritual life.
However, this perspective about the "heaviness of the body" ought not tempt us to look negatively upon our bodily existence, for it is a good gift of our Creator. One of the saints who maintained a balanced view about our life in the body was Maximus the Confessor (A.D. 580-662). Hans Urs von Balthasar summed up Maximus' teaching: he taught that "the weight of our vulnerability is not simply a 'spirit of heaviness' but also the healthy and necessary gravity of earthly existence" (Cosmic Liturgy, Ignatius Press, 1988, Pp. 341-342).
Life in the body is the good gift of God, and we are sustained in our anxieties and struggles by the grace of God. In his discussion of angelology, Karl Barth includes a description of demons as the forces of falsehood which oppress us. In a lyrical passage describing the ways in which we experience this pressure of falsehood, Barth says of the "demons," "they are the spirits of complaint which falsely depress us and rob us of our humour by persuading us that the natural limits of our physical and psychial existence are a constriction, curse and misfortune, when we are really borne, sustained and even uplifted by God within these limits' (Church Dogmatics: the Doctrine of Creation, Volume III, Part 3, T&T Clark, 1960, p. 529).
One of the doctrines of the church is that humanity is in a fallen state from our original creation, and that we are destined for corruptibility and death because of our fall. This fall is described in the Scriptures as the consequence of the sin of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. While the fall is a part of a story about Adam and Eve, the meaning of the fall is understood metaphysically as a truth about human nature. The fact is that our existence as a bodily and psychial whole is a good creation which is also corrupted by the powers of sin and death. The good news is that, by the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, we are redeemed or liberated from these powers. Already we are set free from guilt and and fear through faith in Jesus Christ, and we may live in the midst of our afflictions by the grace of God given to us daily. More than that, we can face the future with hope in the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ, whose own resurrection from the dead is God's sign to us of the ultimate transformation of our bodily life and of all creation.
So then, as the creed of the United Church of Canada says, "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God."
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