Breath of the Spirit: Our Spirit-filled Bodies
Too often we Christians think of our bodies as the enemy. Our bodies have needs and desires that we can perceive as inconvenient impediments to our spiritual goals. We interpret Paul’s battle of the flesh vs the spirit as one of the body vs the good part of us. Today’s reflections – rooted in the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost – remind us that such dualism is foreign to the Love which created us and pronounced our bodies as “very good.” Perhaps more importantly, today’s readings remind us that, not only are our bodies not impediments to Love, they are its necessary conduit.
June 5, 2022: the Feast of Pentecost
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
Our Spirit-filled Bodies
A reflection by L. F. Ranner
“So, Ms. Ranner - like, did the Greeks just not do clothes?”
It’s the middle of the sophomore World History unit on Ancient Greece, and this was the comment of a student obliquely alluding to the video clip on Classical sculpture in which everyone seems perpetually naked. Before I can get more than a few words into my explanation of heroic nudity, someone else pipes up with the further observation that Athens must’ve been some town, with “3-D porn” apparently set up on every street corner. These are the honors kids, and so the conversation takes a turn into how one might go about establishing the parameters of art - what makes something lascivious versus beautiful? It’s more or less what always happens at this juncture, every year; you can set your clock by it. I make the point that there’s a significant difference between glorifying the human body and unbridled lust - that in fact, to the Greeks, they were polar opposites.
The kids are inevitably skeptical. I take things a little further, explaining that heroic nudes embody the state of being kaloskagathos, literally “beautiful and good” - which in layman’s terms just means someone who has become the most perfectly, fully realized human being possible, inside and out. And of course, self-mastery is the crowning virtue of a kaloskagathos person - the adherence to the maxim of “nothing in excess” - which is fairly unrepresentative of what pornography is meant either to portray or elicit. In the anthropomorphic artistic vision of the Greeks, the body becomes the vehicle for illustrating not the degradation of the human condition - our enslavement to appetites - but just how close to divinity we really are. As anyone can testify who has dipped into Homer, our mortal state - our enfleshment - makes us more poignant, and in some senses more puissant, than the gods. We feel more deeply than they do, because we know someday it all comes to an end. As a pivot point, I show the class a picture of Socrates (half) dressed in his chiton to prove that Greeks did wear clothes sometimes; now if I can just cram all Greek philosophy into the last ten minutes before the bell…
One might well ask: but what does the Ancient Greek approach to the body have to do with Pentecost? Isn’t it the pre-eminent feast of the Spirit? Reflecting on the readings, however, it becomes apparent that the two carry a similar message about humanity’s role in realizing the Reign of God.
Pentecost was an intensely sensual experience. Sound, light, heat, speech - the Spirit, channeled through the bodies of the disciples and that of Christ. The Spirit is not an idea - it is wind, it is fire, it is the breath of the Savior upon the beloved ones. It is apprehended only with their bodies; we have not a single word on the ideas running through their heads.
In their bodies, this miracle is expressed and its power transferred to others. Those tongues of flame become translated, we are told, into all the tongues of the Roman world. This detail of parallelism should not be overlooked: one single undifferentiated substance, the Spirit - channeled through human beings in their physical, idiomatic, incarnate selves - only thus does it become the words that every ear needs to hear, that every heart yearns for, the words spoken to each individual in the language they can understand. The Spirit overcomes the barriers that human beings erect between themselves - walls, doors - but it relies on the openness and faith of the disciples, not their esoteric knowledge, to make itself understood. Without their bodies, their tongues, the Spirit would be mute and thus unheard in the world. This is the humility of our Creator: our bodies are necessary for the work of God in the world to be accomplished.
The Psalmist gives us the context of this extraordinary faith of God in creation. Our existence is a source of mutual joy; our God and I rejoice in each other’s presence. When you send out your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. Though we are wholly dependent upon God as the source and sustainer of our being, yet, God, too, depends upon us. It is our creation - our being-in-the world - that makes the renewal of that world possible. And as we all know from our human ties, to be needed is both a burden and a boon.
The spirit needs the body. Without our bodies, we lose ourselves. Paul suggests that we view our physical gifts as manifestations of spirit; the great metaphor of the Body of Christ is no idle literary device. It is an expression of one of the most fundamental truths of our existence: just as Theresa of Avila tells us that Christ has no body on earth now but ours, so too are our bodies the chosen bearers of the divine - not as some separate, bifurcated essence cultivated at the expense of the flesh. To the contrary, the divine spirit, as we witness in the Upper Room, can find no way into the world but through a body. The human person and the Divine Christ, body and spirit: belonging to one another, making a home in one another as lovers do.
It is a oneness that has suffered much violence over the centuries. The greatest schism in Christianity is not of East and West, of Protestant and Catholic; it is the ripping apart of the very fabric of Christ - the oneness of body and spirit - and the creation of artificial divides, of false oppositions, where none exist. The true work of evil, as we know from the etymology of the word diabolos, from whence devil and diabolical derive, is the destruction of wholeness and integrity; the temptation is always upon us to choose sides - in this case, historically it has been the side of the spirit that is championed, and that of the body degraded and shamed. It is at best a junior partner, subservient and tame (or for some recalcitrant and wild).
Pentecost is here to give lie to that narrative, to expose the diabolical origins of this line of thinking, and to set forth in the clearest possible terms the place of our physical selves in the history of salvation, if an incarnate Christ doesn’t make it clear enough: salvation dwells nowhere else but in the body. We are saved, and can help others toward salvation, through our physical selves, or not at all.
Why is this message so important? For so many of us, our relationships with our bodies are a story of torment and trouble. For some, our own bodies are a source of profound alienation. Others are deeply at home in their bodies; it is the rest of the world that doesn’t seem able to understand why. Some of us inhabit bodies that have been denigrated from an early age by those who were supposed to nurture and care for us, and it will take many years of struggle to unlearn the lessons of being fundamentally unsatisfactory, of being too much or not enough. Some are told our bodies must be another way, or we must inhabit them another way, to be acceptable. For yet others among us, there is the sinking suspicion that there is an inherent wrongness to who we are that can’t be fixed.
Pentecost is here to tell us that our bodies are not unfixable, unlovable, unworthy, that in fact, as the little sign on a counselor’s door proclaimed at the school where I used to teach: “all bodies are good bodies” - and powerful ones. At first glance, this would seem to contradict the Greek ideal of the supreme person, the kaloskagathos, and it is true the Greeks themselves were ruthlessly critical of those who fell short of their ideals. As in the ancient Olympics, there was first place, and there was everybody else.
However, look a little closer, and you will see that that the inspirational plaque, the Greek ideal, and Pentecost are very much on the same page about one thing: the absolute necessity of the human body. Without it, there is no way of being who we are, the creation in which God takes such pleasure. Bodies are not only inescapable, they are indispensable, and it is Jesus’ own actions at Pentecost that illuminate this truth in a way that is hard to play down, or deny.
First, John tells us that the disciples knew Jesus not by words, but wounds. It was through contact with Jesus’ physical vulnerability in the most literal sense by which they understood that this was their Christ.
Second, when the moment arrives to transmit the Spirit, Jesus performs an incredibly intimate act: he breathes upon them. In Greek the word for spirit and breath is the same, pneuma, a word that neatly gives lie to the physical/spiritual divide. To say Jesus bestowed the Spirit upon them sounds very cerebral and rather sanitized - like some kind of theological graduation ceremony. To say that he breathed upon them conjures up something quite different. When are we humans close enough to share the breath of another? I think of the milky breath of infants, the last breath of the dying as life leaves the body and we lean in a little closer before it goes, the breath of the beloved as we lie in their arms. It is that close that Jesus comes to the disciples: body to body, and soul to soul.
Lori Frey Ranner is a New Orleans native. She holds a double B.A. in History and Classics from Loyola University New Orleans and an M.Phil. in Byzantine Studies from the University of Oxford (Keble, 1996), with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. Her area of academic specialization is Latin and Greek ecumenical relations in the period following the Fourth Crusade. Between 1999-2014, she held the post of extraordinary lecturer at Loyola New Orleans in the Departments of History and Classics. For the past seven years she has taught Latin, Ancient Greek, World Religions, and Honors/AP World History at Holy Cross School and Ursuline Academy; she currently teaches AP World History and British Literature at The Academy of the Sacred Heart. She is married and mother to three children. In May of this year, she published her first novel, Sailing to Byzantium.