Embodiment of hope

Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto

Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto.

A colleague recently commented to me that she had noticed that we don’t focus on the pregnancy of Mary. Mary has not often been depicted in art as pregnant. Rarely do we put pictures of Mary obviously pregnant up for Advent.

I’m not sure what she had in mind when she said this but it got me to thinking about how bodily impactful pregnancy is. Pregnancy stretches a women’s body almost to breaking point. Skin grows translucent, organs are rearranged, babies can be felt kicking and moving.

For me, one of the implications of Mary’s pregnancy is to affirm the importance of the body. The body matters.

God chose the body of Mary to bear Christ into the world. In becoming human, Jesus experiences humanity with all the joy, wonder, pain and sorrow of the body. His death is borne in his body, suffering extreme physical pain on the cross.

Early on in the Christian tradition, a stream of thought began to despise the human body, viewing it as less important than the soul. The body was seen as weak, the place of sin, female. This has had serious negative repercussions for our understanding of the goodness of the body, of sex. I wonder what it might mean to take our bodies seriously.

Increasingly, psychologists are coming to understand that traumatic experiences manifest themselves in physical symptoms. For a long time we imagined abuse, grief or other trauma to be known and experienced in the mind or emotions. But now we know anxiety and trauma can manifest in symptoms like tightness of chest, feeling faint, difficulty breathing and a range of other symptoms. Trauma can be passed not just psychologically but physically across generations.

I know from my own experience how much grief affected my body. I couldn’t eat, my stomach churned, I couldn’t sleep. I felt physically agitated and could often only relieve the agitation through a long walk or other physical activity. My body often tells me I am stressed before my mind.

I am learning to listen to what my body is telling me.

If we take this understanding of the body seriously, it will shape how we offer pastoral care and what we take seriously in our active listening.

Pastoral care will see us listening to what people are telling us, not just with their words but with their bodies.

We will be alert to and honour bodily experiences of loss, suffering and mental illness. We could affirm people’s body experiences and take them seriously. Pastoral care should take the impact of physical illness on the whole of life seriously. We will listen to people tell us about their symptoms, pain and treatment because they matter and impact faith, wellbeing and sense of self.

Our bodies also say a lot about what we believe and where our commitments lie. Where we place our bodies speak of our commitments.

We understand what it means to be loved not just because someone says ‘I love you’ but because of their embodied loving care – tending us when sick, cooking meals, just showing up. New parents know the way loving an infant requires so much care borne by the body, in the body. Such care is demanding and speaks of deep love. Our bodies speak of what we love.

The non-violent civil rights movement knows the power of the body to witness to belief. There is a long tradition of putting bodies on the line, in danger to bear witness to the violence of racism, the suffering of immigrants, the tyranny of colonial occupation.

Risking one’s body speaks powerfully to a commitment to follow the peaceful justice-seeking ways of Christ.

Showing up to worship, holding out our hands to receive the presence of Christ in bread and wine, opening our ears and hearts to words of grace is an embodied expression of our desire to meet God’s love over and over.

We cannot take Christ into ourselves in Holy Communion without being physically present, eating and drinking. Being bodily present in Christian worship makes fellowship and grace possible.

This Advent may you ponder Mary pregnant and find your faith renewed and your commitment to embody Christ in the world strengthened.

Sharon Hollis

Moderator

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