By Br Brian Grenier
TWO of the heresies that emerged in the early history of the Christian Church are Docetism (Jesus is God but not man) and Ebionism (Jesus is man but not God).
I use the present tense designedly because, like most ancient heresies, they still have their devotees today or, at least, people who are influenced by them.
For the ancient Docetists Jesus’ bodiliness was (as it is for some of our contemporaries) a stumbling block.
For them, though he gave the appearance of being human (Greek “dokein” – “to seem”), his human body, his corporeality, was only apparent.
It was an illusion with little, if any, direct relevance to his saving mission.
This judgment flies in the face of what the author of the First Letter of John wrote in his introduction to that timeless document: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life …” (1 John 1:1).
Physical contact features in accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry much more than, perhaps, we have adverted to in our reading of the New Testament over the years.
This may be just an oversight on our part; or it may point to our reluctance to accept fully what it means to say that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human in all that that implies.
He continues to be, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews states, one who is able “to sympathise with our weaknesses … one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
It should be noted that, for some people, this unwillingness to accept the integral humanity of Jesus may stem from a denial of the essential goodness of their own body – an attitude that is in keeping with another heresy which saw all things material as evil.
Pope St John Paul II has much to offer them in the magisterial series of 129 lectures on the “Theology of the Body” that he gave during his Wednesday audiences between September 1979 and November 1984.
The four Gospels provide us with many examples of Jesus being touched by other people – lovingly in the case of the woman who, at Simon’s banquet, washed his feet with her tears, anointed them with expensive oil and dried them with her hair; aggressively in the case of the Roman governor’s soldiers who scourged him and of the High Priest’s guard who struck him; and hypocritically in the case of the traitor Judas who betrayed him to his enemies with a kiss.
There are even more examples in which Jesus himself touches people in the exercise of his healing ministry.
A few of the many images that come readily to my mind include – Jesus placing his fingers in a deaf man’s ears, his pasting mud mixed with his own saliva on the eyes of a man born blind, and his taking the hand of Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter and that of Peter’s ailing mother-in-law.
We know that he blessed little children at their mothers’ request and, to the horror of bystanders, he even stretched out and touched the hand of a trusting leper and cured him.
Of course, Jesus could have healed his supplicants with just a word and sometimes did; but the never-to-be-forgotten touch that often accompanied the healing raised the experience of the afflicted one to a new level.
In their document on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, the assembled bishops of the Second Vatican Council had this to say of Jesus: “He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) is himself the perfect man … He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us …” (GS#22).
Br Brian Grenier is a Brisbane-based Christian Brother who has had wide teaching experience both in Australia and in Rome where he lectured in an international renewal program. His writings include several books published by St Pauls and columns on Scripture, spirituality and religious education in Australian and overseas journals.