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When I look back at my theological development, the guides and teachers I continue to be
grateful for are more likely to be rooted in spirituality than systematic theology, more in poetry, nature, and music than sermons or formal instruction.
One of the first inspirations for the progressive, poetic Christology I longed to find came from a book I came to almost by accident (if you believe in accidents.)
I was shelving books in my job at a bookstore and discovered it half-hidden behind some larger books, a slim volume, titled I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body by Rubem Alves. (Translated from the Portuguese by L.M. McCoy.)
Maybe I was intrigued because the idea was big and the book was small, or maybe I felt that
sudden lurch that I now think of as the Holy Spirit poking me in the ribs, but something caused me to take the book off the shelf and start reading it on my lunch break.
Resurrection begins in a poetic preamble asking what the affirmation in the Apostle’s Creed of bodily resurrection really means, what it means for us, our bodies.
And then I read two sentences from which I am still recovering: “God’s desire is revealed in our body. After all, what the doctrine of the incarnation whispers to us is that God eternally wants a body like ours. . .”
Until I read those sentences I would have thought it was heretical or at least improper to speak the word “desire” in relation to Almighty God, and beyond heretical to suggest the human body was anything remotely good or acceptable, let alone desirable.
I had by that time absorbed decades of sermons about how bad the body is, how Spirit and Flesh are opposing forces, with flesh always weak and shameful.
But Alves offers a lovely reframing.
He claims that desire is the reason there is something here in the universe instead of nothing, and God’s desire is for the divine love to become visible, tangible, seen, and then, ultimately, flesh.
In affirming the original blessing of human bodies, Alves uncovers the damage done in the body hating theology with which I was so familiar: “But a strange thing happened; something tempted us, and we began to look for God in perverse places.
We thought to find God where the body ends and we made it suffer and transformed it into a beast of burden, fulfiller of commands, machine for labor, an enemy to be silenced; and we persecuted it in this way to the point of eulogizing death as the pathway to God.
And we became cruel, violent, we permitted exploitation and war.
For if God is found beyond the body, anything can be done to the body.”
Over the years I have seen how that insight, made when this book was originally published in
1986, still speaks with eloquence to our current context.
Violence done to the body—to poor bodies, black bodies, female bodies, transgender bodies, and even to the earth itself— begins with a refusal to acknowledge and honor the image of God found in all the ways the Spirit inhabits matter.
Over the years I have dipped into the pages of Resurrection and always find something that
speaks to me.
The book flows like a good conversation between friends, with unhurried pauses between thoughts, questions after each chapter to ponder.
The book also features pen and ink illustrations that depict Christ as the resurrection unfolds, unbound from his burial wrappings, coming back toward incarnation.
Recently I checked back in with Resurrection to see what wisdom it has for our current context.
The chapter about sacraments is particularly helpful for this moment we are in, when we must worship in a distanced way.
Alves begins with a lilac bush that reminds him of his long-dead father and works his way along to saying that sacraments exist to us bind us in what he calls longing remembrance, where love and absence are found together.
Surely, all of us who have attended birthdays and memorial services via Zoom know the feeling of love and absence and the sacred bonds that transcend time and space: bread and cup, with water freely poured out, hands stretched out in blessing.
I went on to write my own small book about incarnation, Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on the Incarnation.
In some ways my book was a conversation with the poetic mothers and fathers, like Alves and the poet Mary Oliver, who had sent me down the path of seeing how incarnation exists as a pattern in God’s self-disclosure; with the incarnation of Christ not as a one-time experiment, but as the interpretive key that unlocks a new language.
I was sad to see that Resurrection went out of print at some point, creating its own love and
I treasure my copy carried home from that bookstore gig, and occasionally look in
libraries to see if it sits on the shelf there, a small book with big ideas.
I rejoiced to see that a Wipf and Stock reprint is now available.
The current cover features a resurrected Jesus that is a little buff and bristling for my taste, but some of the original illustrations seem to remain inside.
If you need a New Year’s read to start you off in a new direction, or a Lenten devotional unlike anything you have done before, I would urge you to invest in this poetic and powerful work.
Melissa Tidwell has written about metaphor, music, maps, and zombies. She is the former editor of Alive Now magazine, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on Incarnation. She contributed to the Companions in Christ small group formation series and to the Upper Room Disciplines. A 2015 graduate of Columbia Seminary, Melissa is currently the pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Stockton, California.