The Purity of the Flesh

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I knew a girl once in Chicago who dreamed of living on nothing but air. I was just out of college, working at a library, and I’d met her in a small organic grocery store. We became friends and had many conversations which all came around, eventually, to spirituality. Hers was a system we might call “New Age.” She believed in the power of crystals to channel energy, that fairies haunted flower gardens, that ESP was possible. She wanted in all of it, healing and purity. So it was that one night, after eating Indian food in one of the the restaurants on Devon street, she told me about reading of some gurus who had achieved a state in which they no longer needed food. They lived only on the air they breathed in with their mantra. This she held as an aspiration.

Her desire may seem strange, but many of us have our own versions of it. We dream of a liberation from our bodies, the spirit unbound from earth and all its grime and dirt, souls free from the necessity of eating and stomachs and the cycles of nutrients. We imagine that our bodies and what we do with our bodies and live in our bodies is somehow a temporary stage until we reach some higher realm.

The idea that matter is less than spirit, that the material world is somehow impure, is an ancient belief. It came to a head with Christianity in the form of gnosticism–a movement of Greek spiritualities that prized special knowledge and sought liberation from all things physical. And though orthodox Christianity was first defined through the rejection of these beliefs, our faith has continued to struggle with their draw. When the famous literary critic Harold Bloom set out to describe the “American religion,” he argued that we are far more gnostic than Christian in what we actually believe. Most of us prize information over the stuff of creation, we desire to be spirits more than bodies.

But if we were to pose this question to our scriptures today, we would hear in them a resounding NO to all these tendencies. From the Hebrew Scriptures to the Gospel, we heard a celebration of creation and an embrace of the materiality of our lives. Our scriptures give us an image of a world where spirit and matter join together in a fullness of life that God calls good, where matter and desire are goods not to be rejected but instead to be embraced.

“The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.” These lines from the Song of Solomon do not reject the world of objects, the goodness of what can be touched and felt and encountered with all the senses. Here we smell and hear and see.

And these words come in the context not only of a celebration of creation, but also of desire for the body of another. The Song of Solomon is a frank celebration of sexuality, employing the language of animal metaphors for the desirable just as we do today–in gazelle think stallion, think tiger. There is no shame in the longing of these lovers–their desire is seen as a part of a whole creation permeated by a unifying desire that brings forth life and pleasure. It is these very things that make this book is a part of what call “Holy Scripture.” As Mercy Church pastor and Hendrix professor Robert Williamson says in his recent study, The Forgotten Books of the Bible, the Song of Solomon could be described “as the holiest of the holy precisely because it invites us to celebrate the goodness of human sexuality, the uninhibited joy of sexual passion, and the intrinsic beauty of the human body in all its shapes, sizes, and skin tones.”

It is good to have this open celebration of creation in all its aspects as the first of our readings. We must hold its harmonies in our mind as we introduce the other song lines of our lectionary with James and Mark.

Without the Song of Solomon in our background, it would be easy to read James’ call to keep “unstained by the world” as a gnostic rejection of the created order. But the opposite is in fact the case. James warns that religion is inauthentic if it does not transform our relationship with the living and breathing people around us, especially those people on the margins, the messy people whose raw physical needs offend us.

There was a man who was a regular at the church I served as a seminarian in Washington, D.C. He was a large man, rarely sober and rarely showered. He had a stench that cleared the pews all around him. Though this was a congregation that prided itself on radical hospitality, many people complained to the rector about this man. In his office after the service, the rector told me “I know people are complaining, but I think there is something holy about his stench.” This priest had welcomed the word of God and it had in turn transformed his relationship with the bodies of all he felt called to love.

What James says is also what Jesus teaches in another way and another context. Here the challenge comes from the Pharisees who are worried about the cavelier attitude Jesus seems to have toward ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees followed an interpretation of the law called “the tradition of the elders” that had laid on extra layers to the biblical mandates. They had particular rules about handling food and dishes. They didn’t want to be unclean or tainted by the world.

But Jesus rejects their understanding of the created world as a dirty thing that could stain a person with sin. They thought that what happens to pots or pans can make the difference between being clean or unclean. Jesus, turns that inside out, affirming those first words of Genesis–that God created all and called all creation good. There is no unclean creature. It is instead our desires that twist creation, our motivations that unsettle matter.

All of us exist as these different aspects, spirit and body, soul and world. Every aspect is a gift, a part of the whole of our lives as creatures. But in our desire for freedom, for goodness and beauty, which is behind any want for purity, we so often cut off one or the other. We want to wash dishes so that our spirits will be free; we desire to live only on air so that our bodies will be pure. God saved us from all that by becoming flesh, taking on the same kind of body that leaps like a gazelle, eats food grown in dirt, and dies the disgusting death of the cross. Because of that we are now free to live in beauty and goodness and purity not through an escape from the flesh, but by embracing it. So taste the rippening figs, savor the smell of the last summer flowers, embrace the bodies of those you love and those no one else would dare to. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield