This sermon was preached at The Presbyterian Church of Traverse City in Traverse City, MI on December 19, 2021 by Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb
For the last twelve years or so, I have been on a journey of rediscovering what it means to re-inhabit my own body. For years I ignored a belly ache, a muscle ache, a longing or tingling telling me something was wrong, or that I was feeling joy. Everything in the world around me, told me what I thought and said mattered more than what I felt. That the body was something to suppress, to control, and contort. I learned to eat to be polite rather than listen to my body’s needs. I learned to speak just so to be respected. I learned to tend my body’s size in order to be considered beautiful. I learned that to speak of pain in my body would be to reveal weakness. To desire something was scandalous.
While these messages came from many places, the church was one place where I learned to suppress the body. One of the most embodied memories I have in church as a child was the strong desire to lay down. To lay across the pew or even fold over onto my own lap. I was listening and taking in all that was around me, and I had a deep desire to feel the ground underneath me, to rest, and curl up. Which in church was of course is/was considered rude, unfaithful, disrespectful. I don’t have strong memories of my parents scolding me, but I do remember feeling pressure to sit upright. There was a right way and a wrong way to hold my body in that space.
I wish I had had these words as a child, and especially as a teenager:
These words were first uttered by Sonya Renee Taylor, an author, poet, activist and educator about all things related to self-love and the body. The body is not an apology. Your body is not an apology.
Your body is here in all its glory and particularity. In its fullness and slightness, its shade and texture. It loves to move just so and you know exactly how and where your bones like to lay and rest. Your body needs support, water, nourishment, sunlight. Your body desires a hug, or tender care, or space away from everyone. Your body is able to do some things and not able to do others. Your body, just as it is, is beautifully and wonderfully made. And it is not an apology.
One of the things that strikes me as incredibly powerful about Mary’s witness in this gospel story and song is that she does not apologize for the scandal of her body. She is young, she is not married, she is a refugee who has fled for fear that those in power would seek to destroy her child, and she is poor. And she does not apologize for the scandal of her body.
Instead she sings, gloriously, of the power it has to topple systems of oppression.
My soul glorifies the Lord!
He has scattered the proud,
brought rulers down from their thrones,
lifted the humble,
filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.Luke 1:46-55
The Babies leapt! Women sang out about the possibility of their power. This story is an embodied story, one that is the prelude for the story of God made flesh, the Incarnation.
The author Frederick Buechner describes our embodied story of faith like this: “The Word became flesh…that is what incarnation means. It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. … But according to Christianity, it is the way things are.” (Wishful Thinking)
God took on human flesh – embodiment is at the very center of our faith. And in our sacraments, we do have embodied practices: Our bodies experience cool waters of baptism flowing over our skin. We take in the body and blood of Christ when we sit at the Table. We form the body of Christ as we gather together in faith. And even the Apostle Paul, whom we often think of as the first theologian who pits the soul against the body, writes that our body is a temple. (I Corinthians)
We have an embodied faith.
And so…it has become one of my greatest laments that our tradition, one so rich with stories about the power of our bodies, has become so disembodied.
So much of our tradition and our theology now speak of souls being trapped inside a body, teaching us that the body withers away, demanding that our convictions be centered only upon our spiritual wellbeing and its implications for the afterlife. We treat the body as temporary, a nuisance, a temptation, a flaw.
We have stopped honoring the miraculousness of the body, and the way God inhabits flesh.
That has profound implications upon the world.
Because, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours. Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls.”(An Altar in the World, 42.)
Nowhere in the gospel does it say Jesus inhabited a perfect body. Jesus had a body. One like yours and mine. He had brown skin, and eyes, and sweat and a heartbeat. God came into the flesh, and in doing so said to us: the body is not an apology.
Now I want to pause here and reiterate this point about Jesus not having a perfect body. If we start to imagine Jesus as the perfect body – what does that mean a perfect body is? Male? Brown?
(We don’t really even know any other details about what Jesus looked like. Though somehow in our collective consciousness he has become a rather skinny white man with long blondish/brown hair and blue eyes.) Jesus was not the perfect body. He had a body.
Sonya Renee Taylor, in her deep embodied wisdom that she offers the world, reminds each of us, that none of us have a perfect body. Because there is no perfect body. We each have. a. body.
We have created what she calls, “default bodies” — the bodies we imagine we are supposed to have according to some social hierarchy about what is acceptable. She writes, “Although social and cultural realities may shift what those bodies look like, using default bodies to establish a social hierarchy and distribute power and resources is a global phenomenon.” Default bodies might be: A White body, a skinny body, a svelte body, an able body, a young body, a body with clear-skin, or body that is clearly identifiable as a male body or female body, and a body that doesn’t express big emotions.
When we rely on definitions of default bodies being the only acceptable bodies we will continue to suppress, deny, control and abuse our bodies. And we will continue to exclude, oppress and bring violence to any body that does not measure up, even our own.
And so — to love our own bodies, to listen to our own bodies, to sing out of their miraculousness, their wisdom and their beauty, is how we topple systems of oppression. For when I increase the reverence I have for mine, I increase the reverence I have for yours.
As Mary sung out – the proud were scattered, rulers fell and the rich were made to walk away empty handed. Her body’s “yes!” to birthing Love into the world had the power to make empires fall.
Being pregnant has been one of the most miraculous experiences of my life. It was also one of the most uncomfortable. I ran out of space to breathe, my bones shifted beneath me, and I peed when I didn’t mean to…
I learned about my body in ways I had never anticipated. I found muscles I never knew existed. I discovered what my body was capable of. I came to know the vulnerability of my body. And I felt the visibility of my body — the very presence of it as it took up space in the world. It was something others felt entitled to comment upon, or to size up, and make assumptions about.
My body demanded my attention. And I learned to listen.
It was a profound time of transformation for me as I began to follow the lead of my own body for the first time in my life, trusting that it carried wisdom to guide me.
Now you don’t have to be pregnant to begin to practice this.
This Advent, this solstice (on Tuesday) on the darkest days of the year, I invite you back into your body. When the sky is dark, try living for just a little while without the light, and practice using the other four senses. Dwell for a moment in the Divine darkness, and see what you can taste, touch, smell and hear. You might sit still in a room that feels cozy and safe, or go for a walk under the stars. You might lay down in your soft bed or sit in the bath with the lights out. Wherever you choose to go be in the dark: Reinhabit the fullness of your sensations — without any expectation or striving. Just feel. Simply be present to to your senses, your body, and listen what it has to tell you.
The author adrienne maree brown writes, “I touch my own skin, and it tells me that before there was any harm, there was miracle.” (Pleasure Activism, 440)
May our bodies be our guide back to the Divine. The one who took on flesh.