A film was recommended to me the other day. Joshua (2002) stars F. Murray Abraham (who for me will always be the Dominican Bernardo Gui from The Name of the Rose) and it’s about a stranger who wanders into a community, causes an equal balance of miracles and tensions, and turns out to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The whole film hinges on no one recognizing him for who he really is. The other characters in the story could not see past his “externals” (for lack of a better word) to see the truth that lay underneath his skin. The assumption is that there is some inner spirit or true self and the body is secondary, a shell that can be discarded or, in the case of this characterization of Jesus, exchanged. In a similar way, the country singer Collin Rae has a song “What if Jesus comes back like that,” and there he waxes about Jesus possibly returning as a rail-riding hobo, a poor man without a home and in deep distress and once more unrecognized. We simply can’t see the truth under the skin.
These are touching attempts to challenge us of course, but let’s flesh this out (pun intended).
The mystery and indeed the scandal of the Incarnation, the subject of Christmas and also Easter and Ascension Day, is that God took on flesh in space and time. “The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14): middle-eastern, Jewish, male. And then that same body, in all its particularity, was nailed to the cross, died, and rose again: middle-eastern, Jewish, male. And then that same body, in all its particularity, ascended to the right hand of God the Father: middle-eastern, Jewish, male.
In other words, Jesus’ “externals” — his body, his flesh, his human nature — will always be the same, even at the Second Coming when all things will be put right, justice will rain down on creation, and sin and death will be but a faint memory. Let’s put aside the clear scriptural promise that everyone will recognize him at the Second Coming when the dead rise from the grave. And likewise, I beg patience regarding Eucharistic implications — though in fairness there is much to be said. Let’s just focus on the troubling suggestion that we can separate out a true self (e.g. the spirit) from the flesh.
Here I’m writing for folks who don’t keep Athanasius and other patristic writers on the bedside table (for you, dear friend, this post may be obvious and boring). Our salvation is bound up in the infinite God entering finitude, the God of the universe becoming particular. Then, that same person, that same body, overcame death as the first fruits of them that slept (1 Cor. 15:20). Then, that same person, that same body was seated in glory (Acts 1:6-11).
We could even be provocative to the point of profanity: Jesus has genitals (not had, but has). And he — not his spirit or some part of him, but he — in the fullness of his particularity has taken our nature to the right hand of God the Father. When he returns, however glorious, he will be middle-eastern, Jewish, and male. Of course there are occasions in Scripture in which the risen Jesus was not immediately recognized (e.g. Mary in the garden in John 20, and the disciples on the Emmaus road in Luke 24). But these constitute only a portion of his resurrection appearances, and he is recognized without difficulty in time. It is not that he took on a different body with different particularities. To repeat: his glorified body is still middle-eastern, Jewish, and male. And that body retains the scars from his time of poverty, suffering, and death. This is the stuff of our salvation. Otherwise, we’re just Gnostics aimlessly hunting for a deeper or transcendent “spiritual” truth than the one we see in the mirror, that image and likeness of God wrought in flesh and redeemed by flesh.
Karl Barth wrote:
Christ is now, as the bearer of humanity, as our representative, in the place where God is and in the way in which God is. Our flesh, our human nature, is exalted in him to God. The end of his work is that we are with him above. We are with him beside God. (Dogmatics in Outline, 125)
Elsewhere Barth, stepped back to see the whole process of the Incarnation and the glorification of humanity:
It is the movement initiated by the fact that there took place first the opposite movement from God to man, from heaven to earth, and therefore from above to below, and [by the fact] that it still takes place and is an event in the person of this One [i.e. Jesus]. (Church Dogmatics, 4/2, 29).