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Human flesh, despite jaundiced church views, is who we are.

In a small coastal town in Washington state, a group of religious leaders recently united to rid their community of a monument they felt violated their religious beliefs. It was a wooden statue of a mermaid, naked from the waist up. The protesters made their point: Undisguised human flesh is an offense against God.

"Prepare the way of the Lord," John the Baptist cried. "All flesh will see the salvation of God' (Luke 3:4, 6). Flesh?

In her remarkable book, Ordinary Time, Nancy Mairs tells of going to a spiritual director because she felt a need for guidance and encouragement. The priest immediately asked Mairs if she and her husband touched each others' bodies, well in a particular way during sex. He told her these sins of the flesh are precisely "what the devil uses to get access to the world." Mairs laments that "the disgust for the body ... that makes such a ministry conceivable suffuses church attitudes."

Flesh -- skin, bones, muscles, pimples and cellulite -- will be the medium through which we recognize and seize the appearance of God, according to the Baptist.

All flesh will see God, not just special kinds of spiritually treated flesh. Could John be saying that ordinary human skin is not an obstacle to the experience of God but the very means of enjoying such an experience?

Think of how the heart races when it senses good news. Think of the goose bumps that rise up to tell us something beautiful is near. Think of the cold sweat that warns of danger. Think of the way the flesh leans toward what it desires. Isn't it often the various swells and shrivels of the flesh that betray what we are attracted to and repulsed by?

Christianity, when it has spoken of the flesh, has typically considered it something irreparably tainted by sin. If we trust our skin, we've been told, it will lead us only toward carnal depravity. Fr. Laforgue, the priest in Bruce Beresford's film "Black Robe," viciously flogs himself after seeing a couple make love in the forest. He views the flesh as something that cannot be trusted, so it must be tamed.

But John the Baptist suggests something different. Perhaps in the desert his flesh experienced the salvation of God, so John emerged, dazed and delirious, declaring this could happen for everyone. To re-inforce his point, be draped his body with animal skins, sucked honey from the comb and chewed on locusts for nourishment. This is standard behavior for a prophet. Intimacy with God was broadcast to the pub-lic through very earthy, sensual symbols.

This is even more clear later in Luke, when Jesus talks about John:

What then did you go into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

Bruce Springsteen, in his 1992 single, "Human Touch," speaks of something similar:

In this world without pity,

when all the answers, they don't

amount to much

you just want someone to hold on to,

you need a little of the human touch.

We need a human touch especially when the official church's answers to life's questions seem so frail. The truth may be splendid, but a Vatican document is unlikely to touch our skin with the shattering love of God. We need a human touch. We need it most of all from the church that proclaims that in Christ God took human form.

We don!t need to treat our human existence, flesh included, as a necessary evil; it is a necessary good. Liturgy might be the place where we most explicitly proclaim this. Liturgy might be where people are free to be themselves, where the potential of our flesh to see God is affirmed.

Liturgy might be the place where those bravely exploring their humanity are heard. Women, homosexuals, the divorced, the remarried, teenagers, minorities, the men's movement and other emerging voices in the church must be given freedom to be themselves, to pray their prayers. And maybe then the church can be the body of Christ and not ashamed of its own flesh.

Christianity, perhaps, has more to do with being redemptively human than with being superhumanly spiritual. It involves the conversion, not from human being to spiritual hero, but from inhuman to human. God will be known in and through our humanity.

Those of us who have tried and failed to be pure spirit, to live an extra-fleshly existence in the name of piety, will welcome such encouragement. We need a human message from a human church. We need a human touch from God. The challenge for the church, leaders and members, is to give voice to the human experience of God.
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Title Annotation:theology
Author:Peatman, William E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 12, 1993
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