In today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-38) St John describes the discussion of betrayal that took place at the Last Supper. We need to remember this dark side of the story if we are to recognize the light that dawns at the end of the story. It is as disturbing to us as Iago, the corrupter and traitor in Shakespeare’s Othello, is to watchers of the play. At the end of the play, after he has destroyed his master, Iago is exposed and condemned but refuses to explain his motives. He only says: ‘Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak a word.’ If we want meaning we have to look deeper than mere motives. The truth of this mystery is not found in explanations.
In today’s reading from Isaiah we are reminded of the identification of Jesus with the ancient prophetic, indeed archetypal figure of the suffering servant and the wounded healer. Isaiah says:
..pay attention, remotest peoples.
The Lord called me before I was born,
from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.
The secret we are looking for is always about our origin. Who am I? means Where do I come from? And, only then, ‘why?’ But just as the answer to our origin lies in a pre-linguistic state, before I was born, so the question of meaning lies in the silence that follows after language.
Like ours, the story of Jesus enters time with his conception and birth, with his body that was formed in a womb and was then pushed out into the world. The same story, like ours, ends with his last breath and burial, when he was pushed back into the womb of mother earth. In no faith tradition is the body more important. It is true that western Christian moralists often gave the body a junk bond credit rating. It was full of temptations and drives. These ran counter to an idea of holiness, which was itself so far removed from the vision of wholeness that the angelic, bodiless state seemed higher.
There were exceptions as any theology of the Incarnation made inevitable. The puritanical, gnostic impulse in Christianity could never wholly denigrate the body. Jesus was raised ‘in the body’. ‘In my flesh I shall see God’. Angels were closer to God, but we were more like God ‘because we had a body’. And so, in Jesus, did God. In him, too, God wept, got tired and impatient, drank wine and loved, was betrayed and suffered.
Other wisdom traditions take the body more seriously as an instrument of spiritual development. Yoga, Tai Chi, Tantra have a practical, body-based wisdom that Christian spirituality has generally undervalued. But the Asian traditions, while also conceiving of some kind of transformation, tend to see the physical body as a packaging, a vehicle, an aggregate that dissolves back into its elements. The body of Jesus, evolves into the Body of Christ. It evolves through a resurrection that reveals the bodily destiny of each of us. We have a spiritual body to look forward to. But, as Teilhard de Chardin , says ‘spirit is matter incandescent.’ We will glow and we will be embodied for eternity.
Sounds good. But then, who knows for sure, until we know? For now we reflect on Jesus as a bodily person: like us anchored in the world and the present moment through a changeable body that does not work like a machine and that is always our interface with the deepest nature of reality.