Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"Christ Has No Body on Earth Now But Ours": An Easter Meditation on Hands and Feet by Jessica Pegis

In her recent essay at the Women in Theology site entitled "Hands and Feet," Jessica Pegis notes that one of her favorite icons, depicting Jesus washing his disciples' feet, shows Peter touching his head. This is, as she notes, a gesture noting divine epiphany in ancient Greek culture.

As Jessica recently thought about that gesture and what it might mean, the former bishop of Tucson, Gerald Kicanas, published a reflection in National Catholic Reporter. The reflection showed him giving communion over a border fence in Arizona. Only the hands of the communicants are visible in a photo of this event. 

As Jessica read this reflection, it suddenly hit her that the gospels are loaded with references to hands and feet — and hands and feet are featured in the gospel passages about Jesus washing his disciples' feet, an enacted parable that is about humility, nurturing, and service. She suggests that Peter's experience of having his Master washing his feet might have had epiphanic significance precisely for that reason: it orients discipleship not to lordship or mastership, but to loving, humble service.

And then she writes,

"Christ has no body on earth now but yours," wrote St. Theresa of Avila, "no hands but yours, no feet but yours." 
"We joined hands through the steel barriers separating our people," Kicanas wrote. "I saw the Christ with arms outstretched trying to bring our two worlds together. I could almost hear the angels singing, 'In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world.'" 
This image of the body of believers as the hands and feet of Christ—or as a cosmic chain of humanity encircled by Christ, rendering directionality moot—is expansive, both deep and wide, and resonant for the 21st century. Note that "yours" has no gender and that there is no discussion of whether the man hands are doing man things or whether the woman feet are doing woman things, or whether these activities are "complementary" and "God-designed." 
Now compare that language and imagery with the spousal symbolism of the church as the bride of Christ. Pope John Paul II elaborates
"In speaking of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, Saint Paul uses the analogy of spousal love, referring back to the Book of Genesis: 'A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh' (Gen 2:24). This is the 'great mystery' of that eternal love already present in creation, revealed in Christ and entrusted to the Church…. The Church cannot therefore be understood as the Mystical Body of Christ, as the sign of man’s Covenant with God in Christ, or as the universal sacrament of salvation, unless we keep in mind the “great mystery” involved in the creation of man as male and female and the vocation of both to conjugal love, to fatherhood and to motherhood." [emphasis mine]  
~ Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II, 1994 
Side by side, the two visions of the church barely talk about the same thing. As symbolism goes, the first widens but the latter contracts. The universe (evidenced by the reference to creation) is 100% heterosexual, either married or planning to marry. In this sense, the imagery fails to reflect the modern world, where the non-married are often as numerous or more numerous than the married. (In my own country, the most popular household type is the one-person household.) Christ’s love is now married love, not loving service in the broadest sense of the word. And the body of Christ has been boiled down to one form of relationship, spouse and biological mother and father, not the great cosmic chain of hands joined across the world … or the fence.

I highly recommend this fine theological reflection to you, in its entirety, this Easter week.

The Byzantine icon of Christ washing the disciples' feet is in the British Museum.

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