On meat cutters and the Incarnation

When I saw the blood pouring from my right index finger, I wasn’t surprised. 

It had been another early morning at the deli where I worked slicing meat on my summers home from college. I’d awoken after a poor night of sleep, stretched, and immediately thought: I’m going to cut myself at work today. It wasn’t so much a fear as a known fact. Tired as I was, my name was on the schedule, so I drove to work as usual. 

Once at the deli, I washed my hands and set to work cutting the day’s load of meats and cheeses at the industrial slicer. Swiss. Provolone. Vermont Cheddar. Virginia Ham. Pastrami. I watched the whirring saw blade swish through the food. After finishing the morning quota, I cleaned the machine with a washcloth and then switched it on one more time to run the sharpener over the blade. 

The cut didn’t even hurt at first; it only surprised me. I checked to see if the top of my finger was still attached. It was, but it was split. I’d forgotten to wear the Kevlar gloves we were required to have on whenever sharpening the machine. Sitting in the urgent care clinic an hour later, watching three loops of black thread tug my fingertip back together, I reflected on what had happened. It could have been so much worse. 

The mere thought of that meat slicer made my stomach clench for weeks after the incident.

Afterwards, my phone’s biometric ID no longer recognized my misshapen fingerprint, so I had to re-enter it. The small raised scar is a good reminder of how ill-suited I am to manual labor with anything sharper than a kitchen knife. It’s also a reminder of the fact that my body needs a savior.

What do I mean by that? I mean that it’s easy enough to imagine Jesus coming to earth to save my heart or my mind, or maybe even my soul. But my physical weakness reminds me of an uncomfortable reality: while I am more than my body, it is also true that in some sense I am my body. I am vulnerable. My body can suffer pain or death. If a faith promises me salvation, I want it to promise the salvation of my body as well. 

That is why the Incarnation is one of the truths I value most about Christianity. Jesus took on a body, so He knows what it is like to be sick and dirty and exhausted. He also made a point of caring for physical bodies while He was on earth—John 9:1-12 recounts how He healed a blind man by making clay with dust and saliva and rubbing it into the man’s eyes. He cared for people with everything from withered arms to leprosy to a years-long flow of blood. 

Jesus proved His care for the body in other ways as well. He instituted a sacrament that takes the human body as its primary metaphor and reality. When He held up elements of an everyday meal, calling them His flesh and blood, He elevated the physical to an unheard-of height. Jesus sealed humanity’s salvation by dying and rising in His body. He challenged a doubting disciple to renew his faith by reaching his fingers into His scarred hands and side. And He promised all of His children that their bodies will rise from the dead and be “conformed to His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20–21). Christianity is not some distant, insubstantial spiritual practice for people who want to escape the constraints of this world. The religion of Jesus is grounded in things you can touch and taste and smell. 

The religion of Jesus is grounded in things you can touch and taste and smell.

I am just starting to explore Orthodox Christianity, but one of my favorite things about it so far is that the experience of worship uses all of my senses. Perhaps it’s important that I attend a church where incense fills my nostrils, and the taste of the blessed bread fills my mouth, and I can press my lips to a golden cross. Maybe it matters that I can look at an icon of the Savior, not to worship the icon itself but to remember that my Jesus has a face. I don’t know yet whether these are things I will want to continue my whole life. I don’t know if I will always cross myself when I pray. But I do know that these practices prevent me from over-intellectualizing or even over-spiritualizing my faith. I feel that, in worship, I may touch the hem of His garment (Matt. 9:20). 

When I watch my grandparents age, when I care for a younger sibling who is sick, when I put contacts into my legally-blind eyes, I cling to the hope expressed in Job 19:25-27, that “in my flesh I shall see God.” I want a God who forgives all our iniquities and heals all our diseases and redeems our lives from destruction (Psalm 103:3-4a). I want a Savior who does it all, who triumphs over sin and sickness, who laughs in the face of death. The Orthodox tradition likens repentance to physical healing, which is not to say that turning to Jesus will always bring about the end of affliction. But it does mean that He comes to heal the whole person. I can look towards a day when the only scars in sight will be on His hands, lifted in blessing for the world. 

For a poetic reflection on the Incarnation, read Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Supernatural Love.”

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