One of the things I find most puzzling about how God reveals himself to us is His decision to do so primarily through physical means. God is a Spirit, after all. And it seems strange to talk of matter being holy.
Nevertheless, God is actively engaged in hallowing and making Himself known through the common, physical material of the world. The Bible testifies to this throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Imagine living in a world in which events like these are part of how you understand reality:
A dead man comes to life when his body falls onto Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:31). Multitudes are healed when they reach out and touch Jesus’ robe (Matt 14:36, Luke 6:19, Mark 5:27-29). Jesus frequently heals by touch (Matt. 8:3 and elsewhere). The sick are cured when Peter’s shadow passes across them (Acts 5:15). Uzzah is struck dead when he reaches out and touches the ark of the covenant (II Sam. 6:6-7). God appears in a burning bush and hallows the ground on which Moses is standing (Ex. 3:5). Moses’ face shines after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29-30). Handkerchiefs that touched Paul’s skin are used to heal the sick (Acts 19:11-12). The Israelites are warned, on pain of death, not to touch Sinai when God comes upon it (Ex. 19:10-12). The priests of the new temple are instructed to change clothes when leaving the sanctuary “lest they transmit holiness to the people with their garments” (Ezek. 44:19). The Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16, 19:6) and real spiritual power (I Tim. 5:22, II Tim. 1:6) go out to people through the laying on of the Apostle’s hands. Jesus tells his disciples to “take, eat” and to baptize with water.
Nor do such examples end with the New Testament. The history of the church records many instances in which the bodies of holy ones gave off a sweet smell after death or did not decay.
But the supreme act of matter-hallowing is the Word made flesh. Our entire redemption rests upon the notion that God, in order to save us, united Himself permanently with a real human body and was really crucified at a specific point in the history of the world! If there is no hallowing of matter, there is no redemption.
One of the benefits of looking at the incarnation this way is that it becomes clear that it is not an anomaly or a one-off event but a culmination and outgrowth of the way in which God has always worked with his people. There’s a certain inner logic to it that might otherwise be missed: the God who comes to us through matter purchases our redemption through the ultimate act of hallowing matter, by uniting it to Himself.
This understanding of the hallowing of matter emphasizes God’s presence in the mundane, the everyday. He comes down to meet you where you live (and again this has its ultimate expression in the incarnation). He is not too good for your normal life. He meets you in your normal life!
Having understood all that, it becomes clear just how important our bodies are. They are not just temporary containers for our souls, but part of who we are. This is why the church and Jesus himself practiced spiritual disciplines like fasting and solitude. It is why the liturgy is so active, involving all the senses. And it places an often-missing emphasis on the resurrection of the body. Revelation is clear that after the resurrection heaven will come to earth (another example of God hallowing matter!), and we will live for eternity with him in our new bodies on a new earth, not in a disembodied “heaven”. When you look at the history of God’s dealings with man, this is really the only way it could be.
One last comment on what it means to live in this kind of world. In the gospel story of the woman with an issue of blood who is healed by touching Jesus’ robe, he says to her “daughter, your faith has made you well.” At first this seems like a strange thing to say – if all she needed was faith, why did she have to touch Jesus’ robe? – but it provides a needed corrective. The hallowing of matter does not mean that God does magic for us when we do or say the right things and it does not mean that we can manipulate God by manipulating the matter through which he works. Faith was the reason for the woman’s healing, even though touch was the means by which the healing came to her. These two things, faith as the reason for grace and touch as the medium through which grace is communicated, can and do coexist. I think this insight explains how it is that the sacraments are means of grace to us – but that is a subject for another post.