God made us with bodies.
This is obvious and yet, beyond meeting the needs of the body, we don’t often consider how it relates to our spiritual life and walk. But the body is important to faith. It is fundamental to what we do as believers, and the sooner we settle into that knowledge, the more I suspect it might change the way we love and serve.
Something about embodiment is important to God. He gave us bodies; He gave us a series of instructions and commands on how to honor and care for those bodies. The body is important enough that He incarnated into one: Jesus had a human body. We are promised a transformation of our bodies into the bodies that God has long envisioned for us. And so many of the sacraments Christians keep center on the body: baptism and the touch of water, communion and the chewing of food and the swallowing of drink.
I was thinking about all of this lately when I read a thought-provoking article in Christianity Today about modern “virtual churches”: church services with all elements (baptisms, communions, the whole shebang) conducted online. The article is both fair and thought-provoking, but it focuses on a central question: what is missing when we try to participate in a “bodiless” church? What is it about bodies that matter to faith and the expression of it? Why can’t we just abandon the old buildings and the hassle of getting in our cars and going somewhere to settle in with God’s people in front of a screen?
Touch is what’s missing. The tug of a desperate hand at Christ’s garments. The capable hands of a Samaritan binding the wounds of a man near death. The passing-over of a jug of wine, a piece of bread. And not only touch, but the irreplaceable elements of embodied interaction and community: the softening of the eyes, the smile, the pat on the knee, all the meaning and understanding that lives in so many of the subtle acts we only witness and engage in by being bodily present. When touch is missing, so is everything it embodies: active care, attention, service.
I sat today in my church and I watched people, and I was amazed by how much everyone touched. Two rows ahead of us, three believers steadied an elderly gentleman with their hands as he slowly sat down in the pew. A mother reached over to her baby, cradled in her father’s arms, and adjusted her little baby headband. The man in front of us was absently patting his son’s back. I held hands with my husband. The choir director gave the pianist a gentle tap of familiarity on the shoulder as he went by.
Babies thrive on skin-to-skin contact, doctors tell us, to the degree it’s allowed as much as possible in the NICU. The elderly in long-term care centers perk up when a living, breathing person walks through the door to share conversation. People are encouraged to get cats and dogs if they’re lonely, if only for the immeasurable comfort of another warm and living presence that can cuddle, be petted, and play.
It’s not that our virtual tools and our technology are bad. Sometimes our bodies can’t be where we need them to be, and we need assistance to substitute for that lack. But we’re mistaken if we think that everything present in our embodied interactions can be substituted for with a webcam and a social media present, with texts or messages or even phone calls. Our bodies are not just something to be managed and restrained – they are a gift from God, and a tool for ministry, and we do ourselves a disservice if we forget how potent the embodied actions of love and service can be.