Theology of the Body Broken-The Solution

We have reflected on the brokenness of the body in sickness and death and seen the challenges to understand these problems in a balanced manner. In these reflections we have seen an image of theology that can understand that while God provides healing and answers to prayer with our desire to be granted relief from our affliction, a simultaneous acceptance of our sufferings can still be part of the will of God for us particularly when our prayers for physical healing are not answered with that healing that is requested. With that in mind, how can we look more clearly at our sin apart from simplistic statements such as “this is God’s will”? Perhaps there is a solution that comes when we see our body broken as a theological vision.

To first understand our brokenness, we can look to our liturgical traditions that reflect on the healings from Scripture that we discussed in part one. As one example of this, it is important to note the hymns from our Byzantine tradition that are proper to some of the Sundays of Pascha. In the Sundays of the Paralytic and the Man Born Blind, we do not shy from the ugliness of sin and disease. Instead, we see them as portals into heaven, whereby we reflect upon our own spiritual weaknesses. On the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, we sing this: “With eyes that are spiritually blind, I come to You O Christ; and like the man who was blind since birth, I cry out to You with repentance: You are a light shining to those in Darkness”. Kontakion for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind

Here we see that our spiritual blindness is something that is common to all of us. We may be stricken with a broken body that is unable to physically see, but when we approach this Sunday in our liturgical calendar we all challenge ourselves to ask where we may be blind on the spiritual plane. What spiritual truths of goodness or even sin are something that we fail to see? What aspects of reality are we seeing as something that they are not, or perhaps in our spiritual myopia things afar off are hard to discern? Do we have spiritual far-sightedness and are some aspects of our spiritual vision most difficult to see clearly when they come close to us? Do we think that something is good but it is really bad for us, or vice versa? In seeking our spiritual healing from Christ the physician of souls and bodies we can grow by realizing the many ways that we can be blind on a spiritual level.

Similarly, on the Sunday of the Paralytic who was healed we pray: “O Lord, with your divine authority, as You once raised the paralytic, now raise my soul, paralyzed dreadfully with all kinds of sin and disgraceful deeds, that, being saved, I may cry out to You: Glory to Your merciful power: O merciful Christ.” Kontakion for the Sunday of the Paralytic.

Again as was the case with spiritual blindness, we may not be physically unable to walk as was the paralytic, or this may be exactly our physical condition. Spiritually, our theology of the body broken calls us to realize that we all have forms of spiritual paralysis regardless of our physical condition. We can therefore ask ourselves mystical questions such as: What movement should we be making that we are not making? What are we trying to accomplish that does not seem to happen despite our efforts? Here we can see a spiritual paralysis that needs healing from the same Divine Physician.

In speaking of the word body, it is also important that we think about another understanding of the body beyond our own personal bodies. After all, many times we as the Church are called the Body of Christ, with Christ being the head of the Church (e.g., Colossians 1:18). If the theology of the body broken helps us understand our own afflictions, does it also apply to the corporate body of our own parishes, particular Churches, and the entire Catholic Church?

Without entering the realm of a specific judgment or other forms of criticism, we can also apply the theology of the body broken to communities as well as to persons by asking some important questions. After all, if we are spiritually blind as a parish, we may all miss the importance of something that we fail to do or something that we see in an unclear manner. This may be liturgical, moral, or even a basic human element such as our ability to show hospitality. Are we spiritually blind when we as a whole group miss some spiritual truths? Are we spiritually paralyzed as a broader particular Church when we often fail to move throughout our communities as messengers of the Gospel? Does the broadest level of the Catholic Church manifest spiritual illnesses that need healing? Expanding beyond those two Sundays on our liturgical calendar, the theology of the body broken is a wide project which can extend to all of our brokenness, where each affliction or disease that manifests itself physically beyond blindness and paralysis is something that when understood rightly has a spiritual message to our personal or corporate state of affairs. Ultimately we may come to a point in the theology of the body broken where we understand what spiritual cancer is, as would be the case with spiritual arthritis, and beyond. This will not only expand our understanding of spiritual illnesses, it will also benefit how we evaluate ourselves in the journey to union with Christ. Instead of looking at our shortcomings as crimes, when we view them as illnesses we have at least two benefits. First, we can feel less ashamed, guilty or hopeless when we see our weaknesses as illnesses as opposed to treasonous transgressions. Our own suffering factors in to the equation, alongside our true sense of culpability. Second (and more importantly), our personal and corporate failings are things that do not need judgment or programs to fix a guilty or fallen down structure. We instead return once again to that beautiful image of Christ as our Divine Physician of Souls and Bodies.

There is one important qualification to our meditations on the theology of the body broken that is important for us to repeat at this juncture. We should not conclude that a person who is physically blind or paralyzed is somehow more spiritually blind or paralyzed than those who are not physically suffering with that condition. This also does not mean that if you suffer from these physical ailments or any others that you are some kind of example that must be placed in front of the eyes of all. Explaining exactly why sicknesses occur is asking too much of the mystery of life, which goes back to our scriptural studies in the first reflection. We instead see sickness as a mystery that must again be held in the dynamic of something that we seek and ask for healing as we simultaneously understand that the spiritual healing is what matters most. Nevertheless, when we read these hymns and think along this angle of the theology of the body broken, this is not a perspective that shies away from the imperfections of this world by only thinking on the spiritual plane. No, this is a perspective that sees the flaws and sadness brought about by our sin to be an occasion of eye-opening embrace of our fallenness, with the hope of moving beyond that fallenness. The paradox of understanding our weakness, God’s open arms that embrace us, and yet our admission that God is able to take us and mold us as clay in His merciful power that shines as a light in our Darkness answers our longing to be made both whole and loved at the same time. While not denigrating the importance of our flaws, there is something to this idea of acknowledging our own blindness, our own inability to walk, and our own position of illness. It is hope for the today when I am not all put together. We have such a long way to go in our journey to union with Christ, but even in our broken state of affairs, we can see a beautiful story that is being created after that ideal likeness that came to this earth to save us all. Thus, the theology of the body broken is a powerful vision to view our physical and spiritual weaknesses on the path where we are today and where we hope to be tomorrow.

Lastly, let us consider the end of our lives on a personal level, and ask if we are understanding death as linked to sin with the fullness of our tradition. At times we may read passages like Romans 6:23 and feel that death is merely a punishment from our God who is just and free from sin. There is truth to this image, but like all images of the divine we should be wary of missing the fullness of an image. In our Eastern Christian tradition our holy Father Gregory of Nyssa is among many who taught that we should not simply death as simply a punishment. In his Great Catechism he wrote: “Nevertheless one who regards only the dissolution of the body is greatly disturbed, and makes it a hardship that this life of ours should be dissolved by death; it is, he says, the extremity of evil that our being should be quenched by this condition of mortality. Let him, then, observe through this gloomy prospect the excess of the Divine benevolence.“ (The Great Catechism, VIII) The end of this quote is key to understand it fully. In considering our mortality, we see that our evil itself is quenched when we die. Yes, there is the dissolution of our body, but here we are not thinking of death as a destruction in a solely negative sense. Instead, we see here that our mortality is a way to quench and destroy our own evil. Thus, while sin is often considered a sickness, death is conversely a source of life in that our sinfulness can finally cease when we are united to Christ and we are freed from the sinful aspects of our bodily existence. This may sound paradoxical, but perhaps this paradox is precisely the solution. Perhaps we need to again consider our body broken in the light of who we are as the Body of Christ.

As mentioned in our reflection on the problem of suffering and death, our last scriptural example of someone who prayed and did not receive deliverance from death was Christ Himself. Being members of His body, understanding His own lack of deliverance is important, but even more important is to understand Christ’s death in its full context and significance. At the Mystical Supper, Christ proclaimed “this is my body which is broken for you”. (1 Corinthians 11:24) In our Byzantine Tradition, the Paschal Troparion triumphantly proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead! By death he trampled death, and to those in the tombs He granted life!” Our understanding is that Christ’s death is life-giving precisely in its being a death. If we understand the theology of the body broken, there is an opportunity to see that our own deaths are likewise life giving.

From a very basic human level, a Christian death of the likes of which we pray for in the Divine Liturgy is one where our death can bring friends and family closer together. Many times the opposite may be the case, due (for example) to inheritance squabbles or discussions of how the funeral should be held. While the negative examples can be multiplied ad nauseum, we also can understand that if Christ’s body was broken to bring life, we can understand that our own ultimate breaking of our bodies can be life giving. The Christian example of one who is at peace with prayers being answered by God bringing spiritual but not physical healing may be an example that helps the skepticism in the hearts of others. The forgiveness that is extended in the midst of real pain and suffering can bring one to the foot of the cross where like Christ we can cry out, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Our own death can be a cause of thanksgiving (the root of the word for Eucharist is thanksgiving, after all) because in offering our lives we can show in the most radical way possible that God is worthy of all thanksgiving and praise at even the seemingly darkest moments of our lives. In the theology of the body broken, the most radical form of brokenness can be the most radical form of praise to God, when rightly understood. We have sought to navigate the pitfalls of simplistically analyzing sickness and death for the precise reason of seeing the good that can come in some of the most painful moments. Pitfalls of being overly simplistic about why we are suffering can very easily obscure the vision of our union with Christ in our lives. In contrast, when we can understand the theology of the body broken, we do not cease to pray for healing but we assent to the more mysterious and ultimately triumphant will of God. We see that our union with Christ is such that if He was not spared the cup of offering our lives, then we are called to do the same offering our bodies as a living sacrifice that is wholly acceptable to God, as the letter to the Romans states (Romans 12:1-2).

In conclusion, the theology of the body as understood by St. John Paul II had a very clear focus on the sacramentality of the body in marriage. But if we think of our bodies more broadly as he himself did in his last general audience which was quoted at the outset of these reflections, the problems of suffering and death open up another vista whereby we can understand the spiritual and physical significance of suffering and death. We have seen a balance of accepting our plight in life and imploring the Divine Physician for healing. We have navigated the spiritual significance of suffering of death without making those most directly involved mere signs, but instead real human figures on their journey to healing. The journey to healing is seen as most fundamentally culminating in union with Christ who Himself sought healing and was denied the physical healing of the sake of bringing out the life of the world. Our Byzantine Christine life of prayer resonated completely with this understanding on many levels. Therefore, on a very fundamental level, as Byzantine Christians who have reflected on the theology of the body broken, we are offered a life of prayer which sees God in all things, including our own very broken bodies. We revel in the magnificence of Christ, singing hymns of His victorious resurrection. And yet at the same time, we can look to our flaws and find God in those very flaws as well. It is our prayer that the theology of the body broken as explained here might be the start of a discussion on how the various physical afflictions speak to spiritual realities to understand sin and healing better. More importantly, our prayer is that the theology of the body broken be a vision that accompanies us all to our common destiny of losing our sinful nature and putting on the beautiful vision of divine union with Christ, who Himself was broken that we might have life and healing. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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The Theology of the Body Broken I: The Problem

How should we think about the problem of sickness and death? As Byzantine Christians, we pray about this in different ways in the Divine Liturgy. For example, one of our litanies looks to healing when we ask, “that we may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need…”, and yet another prays “for a Christian, painless, unashamed, peaceful end of our life…” which also acknowledges quite honestly that one day our life will end. With these mixtures of petitions, our tradition offers us the chance to have a balance of hope for healing of our broken bodies, and the acceptance of the reality of our mortality. Still the problems of suffering, sickness and death remain. We may ask ourselves questions about our illnesses like, “Why has this sickness come to me?” Is there a divine meaning to my affliction? If so, what is it?” Or we may ask questions about our attempts to get well such as, “Why does this medicine work for me and not others? Why does this medicine not work for me? Why did God answer my prayers and give me healing? Why did prayers not bring me any healing?” As we will see, our Byzantine Tradition can guide us to understand this problem and its solution, if we meditate upon the theology of the body broken.

When we hear the term “theology of the body”, the writings of St. John Paul II are likely what come to mind. And yet those writings likely do not stir up images about sickness and death, as the bulk of the material written by St. John Paul II (and those who comment on his work) is focused instead upon how we understand gender and sexuality as Christians, in the context of marriage and celibacy. What then is the theology of the body broken? As we will see, it is another look at who we are as people who are both body and souls, and the open admission that often our bodies are often broken in sickness and in death. But it is also a vision to help us understand that illness and death have real questions that need answering, and they have meaning that can be seen on a spiritual level. At the heart, the image of our union with Christ who is our Divine Physician will guide our understanding of the theology of the body broken.

One question may arise in thinking about the theology of the body broken: is the theology of the body broken something new with no link to the writings of St. John Paul II or our Byzantine Christian Theology? We must answer clearly and say “No.” While the general audiences on the theology of the body are quoted by many scholars and popular theologians at particular places in the addresses more than others, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with part of his very last general audience where he concluded his reflections. There St. John Paul II said the following: “The catechesis of the first and second parts repeatedly used the term ‘theology of the body.’ In a certain sense, this is a ‘working’ term. The introduction of the term and the concept of the theology of the body was necessary to establish the theme, ‘The redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage,’ on a wider base. We must immediately note that the term ‘theology of the body’ goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made. These reflections do not include multiple problems which, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message). We must state this clearly.”1 In this last reflection we see very clearly that the project of the theology of the body is called to extend beyond its main focus to the problems of suffering and death, where the body is in many ways broken. This is where the theology of the body broken comes into focus. It helps us to consider the problems and the solution to suffering and death. What does our Tradition have to say about this problem of suffering and death?

First, it is important to understand the Scriptural view of death and sickness. As mentioned, many times we confront sickness and ask ourselves why we have been afflicted. Very often some people claim that being sick is a sign that God does not favor us, perhaps due to some sin in our lives. Many non-Catholic communities particularly claim that this is the case, and they teach their followers that if one simply prays enough (or perhaps donate enough money to a given ministry) they will receive healing. What do the Scriptures say about this? It is clear that at times some people are afflicted due to sin or disbelief. Take the drama of the Passover and we can read of the plagues in Exodus that God worked to convince the Egyptians that the Israelites should worship. Thus, on the one hand those “faith healers” may seem to have a point. But is that the whole of the testimony of the Scriptures?

There are many reasons to avoid attributing personal sin to all sickness and death. First we have Christ in Luke 13:3-5, describing the death of 18 people who died because a tower fell on them. He makes it clear that those people were not more sinful, and that instead we are all called to repentance. Perhaps even more poignantly, Christ heals a man born blind and His words there are even more telling. In John 9:1-3 we read the following: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’” Thus we can see that there is sickness not linked to one’s personal sin.

The testimony that Christ healed the man born blind could lead some to believe that while sickness and death may not be our fault, it may be that we have a recourse to pray that is a sure fire way for us to get better. After all, if the man born blind’s healing is a sign to help us believe, why would that not be the case with us as well when we are sick? Again, turning to the Scriptures is helpful for us to see more clearly. Here we can consider one of the preeminent apostles. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us a very intimate story about his prayer for healing. He tells us: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) What is key for us to realize is that while healing does come to some, St. Paul makes it clear that he not only asked for healing from his thorn in the flesh, he was also denied of this petition that he made three times. We read that the Lord explains why Paul was not healed. His experience shows that there are times when we do not receive healing at all and that there is a call to rely upon the grace of God who shows his own strength and glory in our weakness. Our last example of a prayer that was not answered comes from Christ our God Himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the sickness of rage and murder was surrounding Him as He approached His own death. At that moment we know Christ’s famous prayer was to say “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) We know how the story goes, for it is the story of the cross. Christ’s prayer is very important to not pass over due to our familiarity with it. His prayer had a very specific clause, that if it were possible he made the request that the cup of suffering be taken away. It was not possible, and of course that was because Christ conquered death by his own suffering and death. Our own sickness, suffering and death are at times not possible to be taken from our lives. Taken together, we can see very clearly that we are not personally to blame for our sickness. It can be healed, but when we do not experience this healing we can see that there is an opportunity for the glory of God to shine in our sickness and even our death.

In our spiritual lives and perspectives on the body broken, it is also possible that we could go in the opposite direction of the “faith healers” who assume we will always be healed and simply accept whatever illnesses come our way as part of the divine mission to be just like Jesus who died for us. After all, one could argue, isn’t that what Paul did? More importantly, couldn’t we ask if that was the message of Christ and His passion. Many times we hear the phrase that we should “offer it up” in times of suffering, which is particularly so among our brothers and sisters of the Latin “lung” of the Church. While there is truth to the idea of offering ourselves, we need to also balance this reality with the fact that both Paul and Christ prayed for healing. Perhaps more importantly, we must also consider the fact that in our Church the holy mystery of the anointing of the sick is offered to us. This is not merely a pious custom but again can be linked to the Holy Scriptures. In the Universal Epistle of Saint James we read: Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16) Again, we can look to our Byzantine Tradition and see this in the mystery of the anointing. Let us consider one prayer from the service: “Master, Lord our God, physician of souls and bodies, You relieve lingering ailments and heal all manner of disease and infirmity among the people. You desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of truth. You do not will the death of the sinner, but rather that he should repent and live…Thus emboldened by Your faithful promises, good and loving Lord, we pray and beseech You at this hour: Hear our prayer, accept it as incense offered up to You, and visit Your servants; and if they have trespassed in word or deed or thought, by night or by day, remit, forgive and pardon them, O God, overlooking their iniquities and transgressions, witting or unwitting…For there is no one living who does not sin, You alone are sinless; Your righteousness is to everlasting and Your word is truth…Moreover, You did not create us to be lost, but to keep Your commandments and to inherit eternal life; and to You we send up glory, together with Your Father Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good and lifegiving Spirit, now and forevermore. Amen.”2 We see here as in other parts of the liturgical life that we have as Byzantine Christians that Christ is the Physician of souls and bodies. Our theology of the body broken includes a journey of healing, and we seek this healing in the mystery of anointing of the sick which puts us in touch with Christ who is our Divine Physician. Note however that the prayer beseeches God for healing and life, just as did Paul and Christ, and yet the ending of the prayer closes with a request for forgiveness, which can also be seen in the epistle of Saint James. Christ is the physician of bodies but he is also (and perhaps most importantly) the physician of souls. When our prayers are not answered to provide us physical healing, our theology of the body broken must include the broader understanding that even if we die we can have a healing of our souls.

Speaking of dying, there is one last aspect of suffering and death which we have not yet addressed. As mentioned above, we are usually not personally to blame for a given sickness as though it were linked to our own sin. Nevertheless, the scriptural testimony is clear that when sickness leads to death, there is indeed a link between sin and death. If we venture back to Genesis, we are reminded that Adam and Eve were warned to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they die. More poignantly, Paul makes it very clear how the sin of Adam is fundamentally linked to all of humanity. In one section of Romans we read: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.“ (Romans 6:23) This notion of ancestral sin (known as original sin in Western Christian theology) is a problem that we cannot overlook. While all of our discussion on sickness and healing is important, the inevitability of death is important to consider. Again, we can reflect on how we as Byzantine Christians celebrate someone’s birthday and realize that there is nothing wrong to pray that God grant someone many years, in health and happiness, even if they are very frail and seemingly on death’s door. But how do we understand when we are in the position of Paul or even Christ and this is not granted to us? What reflections can come to us beyond saying, “Well, this prayer was only answered in the healing of my soul, and not my body?” There is more to see when we consider the theology of the body broken. As we move forward to consider our own weaknesses and our own eventual redemption that comes through union with Christ in our own death, the solution will be seen in that His body which was broken for us is the foundation and basis for our ongoing love, vision and hope for a future which transcends our own bodies’ brokenness and mortality. In our union with Christ, our own brokenness can become Eucharistic and offered for the life of the world.

1. Pope John Paul II, Conclusion to the Series on the Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage, General Audience of 28 November 1984

2. Kezios, Rev. Spencer T. Sacraments and Services: The Sacraments Narthex Press 1995