Celebrating embodied incarnation

God’s fleshy existence in Jesus has implications for our understandings of discipleship

December 23, 2015 | Young Voices | Volume 20 Issue 1
Kim Penner | Special to Young Voices

Who delivered the baby and laid him at Mary’s breast, skin upon skin?
Was it the Innkeeper’s wife?
Who cut the cord tethering him to the womb, birthing a new kind of attachment?
Was it Joseph?
Without words, the WORD becomes flesh, God with skin on!

- Don Penner, “A Christmas Eve Poem,” 2013

Baby, breast, skin, cord, womb, flesh—these are words that remind us of the physicality of human existence. They are also words that connect us to Jesus, God incarnate. What are the implications of this very embodied and lived understanding of the incarnation for us as Christians?  

This is not an easy question to answer. The most common use of the word “body” in Mennonite circles I’m a part of (the churches I attend and the scholarly work I engage) tends not to be an understanding of the literal, fleshy, human body, but Paul’s reference to the church as the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). In our denominational conversations regarding sexuality, there are very few references to the actual physical bodies of particular people and/or how inequalities supported by disparate relationships of power related to gender, sexuality, age, race, class and ability impact different people differently.

In the “Being a Faithful Church” resources, for example, only five of 58 references to the body are references to the physical body of a human being. The other 53 uses are references to the Body of Christ and/or a delegate or conference body. These numbers are striking and reveal a focus on the corporate body over the particular bodies of individual believers, thus ignoring many of the power dynamics at play in these relationships between individuals within the community of faith.

I affirm the use of the word “body” to refer to the Body of Christ (i.e. the church). However, it doesn’t yet get at the answer to my earlier question regarding the very fleshy transformation of the Word in the incarnation and its implications for each of us as individual disciples with unique bodies and bodies that bare the social markers of our given society.

In addition, I find the underdeveloped attention to an embodied view of the incarnation in Mennonite theology and ethics surprising given our low Christology (affinity with Jesus’ humanity). While we draw on Jesus as a moral guide with regard to most matters, we have given less consideration to how the Word made flesh has implications for discipleship.

To begin to consider the implications of an embodied view of the incarnation for discipleship, I draw here on the work of theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, who has considered the implications of an embodied view of the incarnation for the Black Christian community in America and which has implications for us as well.

These key implications are as follows:

  • God is present with us through our humanity and, in this way, affirms our particular bodies in all their diversity.
  • By becoming fully human, God affirms our sexuality.
  • Coming to us in the particular body of a Jewish peasant living under occupation, God reveals to us God’s particular presence in the experiences of the oppressed as they seek justice.
  • To be a disciple of Jesus is to be motivated by God’s love to enter into relationship with the rest of God’s creation, including oneself, just as God became human in order to enter into relationships with us.

Let us not lose sight of the implications of God’s fleshy existence in Jesus for our understandings of discipleship, particularly as they relate to conversations about sexuality and the body.

One way of doing so would be to develop a worship ritual or practice for Christmas and/or Epiphany that seeks to grow our understanding of God’s presence with us in our unique physical bodies. This ritual could do so by celebrating, for example, healthy body image (a particular need among young women in a society in which women’s bodies are routinely objectified), gender diversity and equality, and a positive view of sexuality.

Kim Penner, 29, is a doctoral student in theology and Christian ethics at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto with her partner Dylan Tarnowsky (and their cat, Max), and attends Shantz Mennonite Church in Baden, Ont. and Toronto United Mennonite Church.

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