This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Mysteries of the flesh

Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship

Grace and Truth: A word from pastors

I walk up to the chain-linked fence that surrounds the county prison with a few members of our church. We show our authorized visitor cards and are admitted into the facility. As we follow the stream of visitors into the dining hall, a voice from a loudspeaker gives permission for the inmates to join us. I find a few familiar faces and spend the next hour with them, sharing stories and discussing Bible verses. As our time comes to an end, visitors and inmates hold hands and form a large circle. We sing to those who have a birthday that week, and sometimes we celebrate with an inmate who has received news that he will be released soon. With our hands still holding us together, we bow our heads and pray. There are not many situations during the week when my hands join with someone else’s hands for such a long time. I will, of course, shake hands with a number of people as I go about my workday. And my wife and I will hold hands occasionally during an evening walk—yet when we do, after a few minutes our hands get sticky and sweaty, so we let go. But with those men in prison, for those last minutes of our time together, we don’t let go, despite the awkwardness of holding another person’s hand. Although none of us would ever talk about it in prison, our hands are leading our bodies into the intimacy of companionship, of being present with one another—of solidarity, which is just another name for love. Through the union of our palms and fingers, we open ourselves to the flow of the Holy Spirit, which mingles our flesh and re-forms us into the body of Christ. The mysteries of Christ are made available for us as we pray and feel God’s presence pass through the fleshiness of our hands. Usually the Christian “fails to look forward to the point when the whole mystery of God will be known in the clasp of your brother’s hand,” writes Sebastian Moore in God Is a New Language. Yet in prison, with clasped hands, we patiently feel our way into the mystery of God: hand in hand, flesh on flesh—this is the site of revelation. The textures of our hands give texture to the Word made flesh. Together our bodies write the Word. To use Moore’s words again, our praying hands “body-forth the eternal word” as we receive the love of God and neighbor at the same time, in the same movement. God’s mystery bodied-forth through human flesh is the story of Christmas, as Mary welcomed God into the world through her body. The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that Mary’s womb was the site of God’s intimate presence: “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18); and again, as the angel of the Lord said to Joseph, “take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20). The uncreated One becomes a creature as the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary’s body. The One who is the life of the world receives life from Mary’s flesh. God does not choose Mary out of necessity. God could have chosen another way to save the world. God’s plan of salvation did not need to be so dependent on a woman. Yet that’s exactly what God does. Why? “It can only be that God chooses this way because God likes it,” writes Eugene Rogers in After the Spirit, “because God desires and loves and befriends human bodies.” The story of Christmas reveals God’s profound love for human beings, God’s intimate love for the very material that makes each of us a creature, our flesh and blood. God befriends bodies, even the most intimate and hidden parts of us, like Mary’s womb. As members of our church gather for fellowship and prayer in prison, we receive the flow of God’s life through our hands. The love and friendship of God revealed at Christmas come to us again as the Spirit overshadows our circle of bodies in prison. As we pray, we find ourselves in Mary’s womb, being re-formed by the Holy Spirit, and awaiting the birth of new life in our midst, the advent of Christ’s body. 

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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