The Tactual, Tangible, Carnal Salvation of Christ

Reading Paul J. Griffiths’s Decreation and Christian Flesh I was repeatedly struck by the significance of the sense of touch. Human flesh desires to touch and be touched. “Flesh is haptic,” Griffiths writes, “which is to say that flesh touches and is touched, contacts and is contacted. Those activities are what make it flesh; they are constitutive and defining of it” (CF, p. 8). We desire—often overwhelmingly, desperately, voraciously—a physical meeting of bodies. Children wish to be held by their parents. Lovers wish to be joined intimately to the flesh of their beloved. And if God is enfleshed, as Christians have believed and proclaimed from apostolic beginning, then it is not surprising that we passion­ately desire to envelop and be enveloped by the divine flesh. We cry out to our Jesus:

Let me be kissed with your mouth’s kiss:
for your loves are better than wine,
fragrant with your best ointments.
(Song of Songs 1:1-2)

The Song of Songs is a poem of  desire and love between man and woman, but with its incorporation into the canon of Scripture, it has been given a new literal meaning: for the rabbis, the Song expresses the desire and love between YHWH and Israel; for the Church Fathers, Christ and his Church. We should not be embarrassed by its erotic language. It bespeaks profound intimacy and the ecstasy of haptic union. Griffiths comments on the above verses:

The Lord, therefore, your scriptural imagination can tell you, wants to kiss your lips with a passion, to redden them with the redness of his passion for you. The “scarlet thread” of the beloved’s lips, stained by the blood of the Lord’s passion and inflamed by the heat of his kisses, belongs to the Lord’s church and, by extension, to each of its members. The Lord’s death on the cross is the deepest kiss of humanity’s unclean lips, extending to all the embrace given to Abraham. Christians reciprocate this kiss most fully here below in drinking the blood-red wine of the Eucharist. The stain of that wine on our lips is the mark of the Lord’s blood on our bodies; it is also the  mark of his lips on ours, cleaning them with the purifying flame of his passion.

In these kisses, our mundane kisses participate; our desires for our beloveds’ lips are what they are because of the lord’s desire for our lips. The intensity of our desires for those human lips, and that the kisses we give to and get from our lovers do not satisfy while being necessary and delightful, is a sign of this participation … The Song’s beloved is the one eager for her lover’s kisses; and she figures Israel-church just as he, the Song’s male lover, figures the Lord. (Song of Songs, pp. 8-9)

Griffiths criticizes construals of humanity’s eschatological fulfillment that ignore the haptic dimension of our salvation, emphasizing the intellectual apprehension of Divinity (the beatific vision) while disregarding both the bodily resurrection of Christ and the promise that we too will be given new bodies in the Eschaton. Salvation is more than spiritual communion. It is a touching, a cleaving and conjoining, flesh uniting with flesh. Is this not our most powerful and deepest hunger?

We want more than veiled caresses. If you’re my beloved, the one who’s given me by way of your caresses the unparalleled gift of being a beloved, and, therefore, a lover, I want to touch you unveiled. I don’t want clothes or other human beings or the accidents of bread to be what it seems to me I’m touching. I want it to seem to me that what I touch is you, skin to skin, unveiled. I want that from and with Jesus, too, more, in fact, than with any human beloved; and I want it with any human beloved only because I want it with him. The monstrosity of my desires for human flesh other than my own is a direct outflow of the fact that the flesh I want, the only flesh that can satisfy that monstrosity, is Jesus’s. When I can caress him and be caressed by him, in his ascended flesh, unveiled, with full and unmediated intimacy, what I seek now in copulation, in orgasm, in the kiss, in the desperate clutch for the other’s flesh, will at last be given. My skin will be touched by his, and his by mine. That’s part of what the resurrection means: receiving Jesus’s caresses … The characteristic doctrine of Christianity, that makes it not Platonism and not, really, anything but itself, is that we shall be resurrected in the flesh, the selfsame flesh that we have now (though the meaning of “selfsame” remains deeply obscure), there to be in the company of the other saints resurrected before the face and within the reach of the ascended LORD and his mother. The saints in heaven before the resurrection, existing discarnately as separated souls, can see and know the LORD already, sine carne. We expect, finally, more than that: we expect whatever it is that the resurrection of the flesh adds to the capacity for sight and understanding, and that can only be touch. We expect the LORD’s caress, skin to skin That is the culmination of the Christian life. That is when Christian flesh becomes fully itself, unveiled to Jesus and with Jesus unveiled to it, in full tactile intimacy with its LORD. (CF, pp. 145-146)

In the eucharistic in-between, we are given to touch and taste the divine flesh. Only a small piece of bread, a sip of wine—the lingual caress is all too brief; the tiny quantity ingested guarantees that our hunger will not be sated nor our thirst slaked; our devastated condition in the Devastation inhibits our transfiguration. Eucharist is but a veiled foretaste of the fleshly superfluity that will be, and is, the Messianic Banquet.

Griffiths’s focus on the physicality of our eucharistic feasting drew me back to an essay that I wrote some sixteen years ago—“Eating Christ.” The co-editor of Pro Ecclesia, Robert W. Jenson, accepted it immediately, without peer review or revision. I was thrilled. Sometime after its publication I met George Lindbeck at a conference. He took me aside to tell me how much the piece meant to him and shared with me the pain of not being able to consume the Host because of his sensitivity to gluten. Both men were Lutherans. Both believed that the Holy Gifts truly are the risen and fleshly Christ—no ifs, ands, or buts, no sophisticated explanations needed. We eat the Body, we drink the Blood—that we do so is our tactual, tangible, carnal salvation.

(Return to first article)


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9 Responses to The Tactual, Tangible, Carnal Salvation of Christ

  1. These are some of the most carnal descriptions of the eschaton I have ever encountered. Fascinating stuff.

    Personally I feel a tad uncomfortable imagining myself in “orgasmic embrace” with Jesus, as both I and he are straight males. But if you do some creative theologising and christologising you can come up with a doctrine of Mary as “The feminine Christ”, and then all of a sudden I am far more comfortable with the language being used here. Mary is the Holy virign, the perfect bride, etc. I’m much more comfortable imagining myself in an orgasmic embrace with Mary than Jesus.

    I haven’t yet read your paper, but it sounds awesome! Will try and find some time tomorrow to suss it out.


  2. brian says:

    I think one has to allow “apophatic space” for what our “cataphatic experience” may analogically suggest. Folks who I think are worth adding into consideration here are Charles Williams on coinherence, some hints in the essays and esoteric poems of Oscar Milosz on nuptial being in the eschaton, Philip Sherrard and Christos Yannaras on eros and person, Berdyaev who otherwise has some gnostic tendencies towards disgust for biological sex discerns a trajectory of eschatological significance. Christ’s flesh is the flesh of the eschaton. He is the kin to all creation that brings life where Adam introduced death. Sex tied to biological eros can only fight death through continuation of the species via a string of mortal individuals. Agapeic eros is something different. Suppose intimacy is intended to bring life that is not cut off as an atomized, separate individual, but life as an opening into depths and discovery, the person always as kenotic journey into the other that yields not the enclosed and ultimately doomed insularity of romantic passion, but creative gift, nurturing of the beloved as unanticipated and unknown, union as always greater than any dyadic idyll that would turn the “intimacy of I-Thou” into its own idol, rather, delight, surprise, fearless vulnerability that is expropriated as “mission” towards all of being. Short of the Fall, speculatively, procreation may have involved the development of persons as increasing freedom, like adding on a new, “living” addition to an organic cathedral, a “place” for discovery without alienation, betrayal, loneliness, and death. Solitude would always have been a deeper communion, a plumbing of abyssal depths in order to share uniqueness for the sake of the kin. Suppose the human thing is a Unity, an “at-one-ment” that precludes flesh as buffered, isolated selves, but flesh as permeable boundaries, infinite frontiers, unguessed connections that appear through event, being as event, not past, not a closed structure with merely incidental and adventitious relations. The human thing is a We Are that embraces all of nature, personalizes the cosmos, bears the eternal touch of concern that hallows all of time, the omega of completion that yet remains dramatically open to discovery, that is already hidden in the flourishing plenitude of the Origin that calls us from the nothing, so forgotten it is beyond memory, yet ever present as promise of what we eternally are.

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    • The idea of the final moment of history is great brain exercise, when you take into account the following true doctrines:
      1. Theosis, Conceived of more as a LDS style “Exaltation” where we literally become God in every respect (As opposed to the more mainstream account where we are only God “by participation”)
      2. Divine Simplicity and Perichoresis (Which when paired with the previous point, implies that in the eschaton, there will be no distinctions between us. Will will all be completely equal to each other BUT due to perichoresis we will retain our distinct identities)
      3. Divine Marriage. There is a sense in which we will all be married to each other, and experience the eschatalogical intercourse and intimacy described by the song of songs. A little bit of speculative LDS theology is actually helpful here: In the eschaton we will only be “married” to the spouse that we married prior to the eschaton (whether here on earth or down there in purgatory), but we will be “sealed” to absolutely everyone. (The Mormon sealed/married distinction is fascinating)


  3. Grant says:

    It’s also interesting to think about the importance of the physicality and need to touch, interact with and relate in a physical way extends into the importance of relics, holy sites of pilgrimage, the bodies and graves of saints, icons and so on, and the importance of touching and kissing that can be part of interaction and veneration. Think of the importance of kissing the icons, they are not something (and indeed someone) just to be intellectually contemplated, and this may be least important part, but are to be greeted and responded to physically as well as mentally with love and devotion, to touched and kissed. This also prefigures this holy erotic longing that is to be far more fully manifest and only know with the resurrection.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I never considered that. Very interesting. I’ve always found it easy to venerate icons and statues in the abstract, but I’ve always found it uncomfortable to make intimate physical contact with them (eg kissing). Although i’m happy to “blow” a kiss towards the tabernacle. It’s just not the same, kissing an icon and kissing a living saint. Perhaps I lack faith


      • Grant says:

        Possibly might be cultural if you come from a country with an British origin, being such myself (English South African origin now British living in the UK) tend to have various degrees of reserve in terms of shows of physical affection. Even more so outside family, so for myself I find kissing icons, bowing in sight of others awkward and embrassing at times (even when I know and can see everyone else doing it 😉 ) but I’m fine doing it when it’s just us (me and the icon in question). I guess in part because I don’t like public attention much. Anyway I find some other cultures are often much more physically expressive with affection such as Mediterranean and a number of Continental European Middle Eastern cultures.

        So maybe it’s more just cultural norms rather than any lack of faith, God sees your heart in all such moments 🙂 .

        Maybe that isn’t it,

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Dan says:

    Fr Al, Thank you for the link to Eating Christ… excellent.


  5. Basem says:

    Beautiful article Father! I believe what is unique about Eastern (Ancient) Christianity is the lack of that artificial separation between body and spirit. Song of Songs is indeed perhaps the most profound part of scripture! It is an epitome of the condescension of the Creator towards His creatures. CS Lewis perfectly grasped this when he said: “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable”. That whole concept of God, by His own choosing, to be “vulnerable” is scandalous to some like Muslims and perhaps even many Christians who haven’t yet fully grasped the scandal, or the “Holy shame”, of incarnation!

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