Monday, 5 October 2015

A physical Gospel?

[Another God-bothering post: feel free to surf on to something more fun if this isn't your cup of tea]
People can encounter God in any number of ways: in the form of natural laws governing reality, or in the promptings of the heart, or in the intricacies of logic and reason.
I think we can encounter Him physically as well.  We are told that people were made in God's own image (Gen. 1:27).  I understand that this is usually taken to refer to the possession of free will and to the ability to return the love shown to us by the Creator.  However, we're also told that our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:13-16).  Perhaps we can infer that an element of the divine image went into the craftsmanship that shaped our physical form.
Image from here
What about the physical reality our bodies do things in?  Reality can be understood as a physical expression of Divine grace (that is, a sacrament).  There is no sign that God needed to create the cosmos in all its mindboggling complexity.  This means we can see its existence as an expression of God's love (it could also be an example of His sense of cruelty, but this presents a set of philosophical problems I would rather not grapple with!).  The world is then a place where human and Godly realms meet (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 24 May 2015, at §9).  This particular meeting can only take place through the medium of our senses.
The upshot of all of this is that by making our bodies do things - like athletics, for example - and by making them experience the physical world, we experience God's handiwork.  This must tell us something about Him, in the same way that Primavera tells us something about Sandro Botticelli.  It won't tell us everything about Him, of course, but this isn't a matter for concern: a partial reflection is all any of us will receive in this life (Exodus 33:20).  What we can hope to experience, however, seems so imprinted with the Divine that it might not be absurd - and hopefully not blasphemous - to talk about a Physical Gospel.
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Something that strikes me about the Old and New Testaments is how robustly physical they are.  On the Mount of Olives, Jesus' sweat falls like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).  This sounds like nothing so much as the ferocious perspiration of an athlete, giving their all in training, preparing for their greatest contest.  It has a counterpart in Jesus' sublime calm before Pilate, where He sounds like a competitor who has gone into the Bowl game or the title fight and is 'in the zone'.  Throughout His Passion, He seems completely focussed on the task at hand, scarcely noticing the roar of the crowd or the taunts of the opposition. 
Whether we consider that Jesus himself or Simon of Cyrene carried the Cross to Calvary (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26,; cf John 19:17), it doesn't take much imagination to feel its weight: the rough edges of the timber, the spine-twisting awkwardness, the smell of sap and the grinding, punishing weight of fresh-cut hardwood.  His final moments on the cross have, perhaps, an echo in the last few hundred yards of a marathon: the lung-busting pain in His chest, the final effort, and the final shout mixing defeat, success and relief of a runner crossing the finish line: "It is accomplished" (John 19:30).
File:Greek Runner Hammersmith 364.JPG
Image from here
The descriptions in the Gospels may well have been shaped by metaphors of competition and physical striving, in the same way that (written today) they might refer to this or that person "making a comeback" or "being on the back foot".  Certainly St Paul was partial to turns of phrase drawn from athletics (1 Cor. 9:26 and 2 Tim. 4:7, for example).  This tells us how apposite these experiences are for describing the things God wishes us to understand.
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Some of us draw immense pleasure from sports and physical activity.  Some of us run races and some like to race the clock.  Others play football or netball, or act as coaches to help others become the best that their skills and bodies enable them to be.  Whatever your sport is, I hope you can sometimes listen to what your nerves and muscles, limbs and lungs can tell you about the Creator and His creation.

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