I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for humans to be embodied people–not just spirits, but people made of physical bodies who relate to each other in embodied ways. I am someone who deeply craves physical touch, and it’s been a weird year to think about this stuff during 2020 while touching other people has suddenly gained a whole lot more baggage than usual.
There have been a number of times recently when my longing for physical affection has felt heavy, even suffocating. A few months ago I felt so discouraged that I went for a walk alone under the stars and poured my heart out to God. I told God how I just wanted to be held. To have a person look on me–my physical body–and feel desire for me, to step towards me and hold me. To hold me and not let go.
I grieved that God wasn’t there to hold me in that moment. Sometimes I struggle with feeling like God isn’t a real person: if I can’t see him and touch him, is he really there? How do I relate to some disembodied spiritual deity ‘out there?’ How can the love of God feel real if is so intangible and so far removed from the physical reality of being an embodied human?
In that moment, my heart taught me something my head had known for years: it really matters whether Jesus is an embodied human being.
I know. The inner Bible College student in my head could parrot theology about the incarnation: about how God became a human being with a human nature and a human body of flesh and blood. I know that’s why we celebrate Christmas, as we remember God being born as a human so he could save humanity from sin as one of us. I know Jesus is truly human and truly God and the perfect mediator between God and humanity.
I’ve known those things for years. Probably you have too.
But something I’ve been dwelling on is how much my heart needs this to be true. I need it to be true because I need to be loved as a full human being with a physical body that longs to be seen and held. I need to feel loved and touched by God at least as tangibly as my friends love and touch me. And sometimes I feel a barrier in my relationship with God because his presence just doesn’t feel as real or tangible.
So I sat down to journal about what I do know about Jesus’ human nature. I imagined and wrote a series of vignettes that helped me concretely picture the real man who lived and walked and who calls me Beloved.
I didn’t plan to share this part of my journal at first, but over the past few months I’ve found I keep dwelling on this imagery to remind myself what kind of friend Jesus really is. Full disclosure: this piece is soppy and sentimental just like you should expect of my private journal: you have been warned. I’ve never tried this style of writing before, but I needed the space to engage my imagination and emotions and express those honestly before God. I hope some of it might resonate with you.
A heartbeat. Cells cluster together as an embryo forms. A baby bursts into life as a heartbeat emerges, sending blood pulsing through its tiny arteries. Limbs form: an arm grows with the most miniscule of fingers taking shape. Atoms and molecules assemble into cells that make up the bones and ligament, skin and fingernails of this baby’s tiny hand. As muscles strengthen and nerves grow, the baby’s arm reaches out – for the very first time.
A newborn baby. His physical presence so real you can feel his touch and hear his breath softly rising and falling as he rests in his mother’s arms. Arms that cling to this child with all the tenderness and warmth that only a parent can offer. Asleep, his tiny arm reaches out and his hand closes around his mother’s finger: drawing comfort as he clutches her with his outstretched arm.
A swarm of noisy children. Giggling and pushing each other, they steal hopeful glances at a man. They say his touch has power to bless. His followers shoo the kids away indignantly and tell them the teacher is busy. The man stands up and his eyes turn to the children, and they fall silent – afraid. A smile breaks across his face as he kneels down and opens his arms wide to receive the children. They run to him, and he holds them in a fatherly embrace in his outstretched arms.
A leper dressed in rags stumbles forward desperately as the horrified crowd draws back. An outstretched hand shows stubs where fingers once grew, now destroyed by disease. This hand hasn’t felt the touch of another person in years, expelled from all human contact as a dreaded contagion. Only one man stands still facing him while the rest of the crowd pulls away in disgust. That man steps towards him. No one has ever stood this close to him. He could almost reach out and touch him – if only this deadly disease hadn’t rendered him untouchable. But the man facing him wasn’t like the rest of the crowd. He stretches out his arm and lays a hand on the leper’s shoulder, gifting him with his first human touch in years. His hand rests there, clutching firmly as his shoulders rise and fall with his quickening breath. Warmth rushes through his body, life pulsing through his veins at the touch of this man. He is healed.
A man reclining on some cushions. In the stillness of a summer evening, a meal is shared with friends. The conversation is heavy and sombre as the air is thick with dread. A friend moves towards the man and sits beside him, sharing the comfort of physical presence together. He takes a long, slow breath, burdened with empathy, then leans in closer to his friend. His head finds a resting place on his friend’s shoulder and leans in close enough to feel the man’s warm breath rhythmically brushing over his skin. As he rests in the physical closeness of their friendship, his friend extends an arm around his shoulder – and holds him close.
A hill smothered in thick darkness. The skyline is broken by three wooden structures towering over the hill. Near the foot of the middle cross a mother weeps uncontrollably, held by the friend of her son who hangs dying. They try to look away, but even as they close their eyes they see that image burned into their minds: the image of a body writhing in pain with skin torn to ribbons from a flogging he didn’t deserve. The arm of a baby who once clutched his mother’s finger and the arm that once held his dear friend close, now stretched out along a wooden beam and gripped by sharp metal rivets through his wrists. As he exhales his last breath, his body hangs limp between his outstretched arms.
A private room with the door bolted shut. A vision appears to the men hiding nervously: an apparition of the friend they are mourning. The vision steps towards a man and opens its mouth to speak. It invites him to touch and feel his body – and he shows he is not a vision at all, but a physical body made of atoms and molecules, a body with skin that is warm to touch, a body with blood pulsing life through his veins once again. Seeing disbelief written on his friend’s face, the man steps closer until his breath could be felt, the gentle rhythm of air filling his lungs. He turns his palms out to show his scarred hands then offers the reassuring physical touch of his body with an outstretched arm.
A luscious garden beside a river. A crowd of people spilling into the garden, laughing, singing, and dancing together. I look up to see a man smiling down, and I feel a nervous flush as his eyes lock with mine. I haven’t seen this face before – but it feels like we know each other. A deep desire surges within me: I want to know him. More than anything, I long for him to notice me. His eyes fix on me and it’s like he’s not just looking at me – he’s seeing me. Slowly but with thrilling purpose, he steps out of the crowd and moves towards me. I feel myself pulled toward him, but I can’t move my body. My heart is racing but my legs are frozen in place while he makes his way over to me.
Now he’s standing before me, those eyes seeing me and smiling warmly. I see him now, too. I’ve always felt him… but now I can see him in the flesh with my own two eyes.
And now that I can see him, I need to feel him more. I need to touch his skin and know that he is real. I need to feel his chest rising and falling and know that he is truly alive. I need to feel his arms around me and know that I am held. Every atom in my body finds its purpose now – to be held by the one who formed these cells out of dust. To be physically, tangibly embraced by the one who became embodied for me. I feel it now. Every desire I’ve ever had pulling me towards these arms.
His smiling eyes connect with mine. His lips form a word and before the sound even reaches my ears, I know it is my name. He’s standing close now. He spreads open his arms, and my body falls into his. His outstretched arms close around me at last.
I am held.