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.