Christians believe that Jesus Christ is “fully human and fully divine.” That is, both man and God. Both. At the same time. But some Christians have a tough time accepting Jesus’s humanity. Some of us prefer to focus on the Gospel passages that seem to highlight what theologians call his “divine nature.” We like to think more of the Son of God who healed the sick, raised people from the dead and stilled storms–the kinds of actions that people associate with his divine power.
In other words, some Christians may be tempted to believe that God was just play-acting, pretending at being human. They think (and I’ve heard this), “Well, he may have suffered on the cross, but for the rest of his life, well, he was God, so he had it easier than the rest of us, right?”
But here’s something we often overlook: Jesus had a body. He suffered physically, emotionally and even — as he cries out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” on Good Friday — spiritually. And if you overlook Jesus’s humanity, you might miss some of the meaning of Lent, the period of preparation for Easter that begins on Ash Wednesday.
Jesus was born, he lived, and he died. The child called Yeshua — his name in Aramaic — entered the world as helpless as any newborn and just as dependent on adults. As a boy growing up in the backwater town of Nazareth — which held only 200 to 400 people — Jesus would have skinned his knees on the ground, bumped his head on doorways and pricked his fingers on thorns.
Jesus had a human body. Like you and me. That means he ate like us, drank like us and slept like us. He went through puberty. As a human being, he would have experienced sexual longings and urges. We know he was unmarried and celibate, but he would have, as a human being, felt the normal sexual attractions. Those are not sinful, after all. Far from it.
Having a body meant that Jesus got tired from time to time. In one Gospel passage he falls asleep in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus likely pulled muscles, got headaches, felt sick to his stomach, came down with the flu, and maybe even sprained an ankle or two.
Like all of us, Jesus sweated and sneezed and scratched. Everything proper to the human being, to the human body, he experienced—except sin.
And that’s just his life before Good Friday. Think about what happened on the day of his execution. Crucifixion was one of the most agonizing ways to die — the Romans used it precisely because it was. A person was nailed to a cross, usually through the wrists, and then set on a small wooden seat fixed midway on the upright beam. Alternately, a footrest was placed under the feet. That wasn’t for comfort. Rather, it was to prolong the agony.
Victims died from either loss of blood or, more likely, asphyxiation, as the weight of the body compressed their rib cage and lungs. So he understood what it meant to feel pain in his body.
What does Jesus’s having a human body mean for Christians? Let me suggest two things.
First, something about our world, our community, that is, our brothers and sisters. Second, something about us as individuals. And the two are connected. And both can shed light on the Christian experience of Lent.
First, a word about our brothers and sisters. Think of the thirstiest you’ve ever been. Maybe you were running a race on a humid summer morning, or you were walking along the street on a blistering afternoon, or you were in the hospital one night and the nurse forgot to bring you ice chips. Remember how good that first drink of water felt? You felt that you couldn’t go a moment longer, and when that liquid finally coursed down your throat, it was so glorious, so satisfying, such a relief.
For many people in the world, physical thirst is a daily experience. Clean water is not the lot of everyone. All that most of us have to do is turn on the tap to slake our thirst, but you might be surprised to learn that nearly 800 million people lack access to clean, fresh water.
As Christiana Z. Peppard, a professor of theology at Fordham University and author of “Just Water,” told me in a recent conversation, it is women and children who are often most affected by these situations, since the burden of procuring water falls to them — in bodily form; often they must walk miles to acquire it and carry the heavy liquid back home. It also affects them in terms of lost opportunities for education and earning a living. Finally, many women are physically or sexually assaulted while out getting water or seeking adequate sanitation.
And today, as Americans think about the terrible tragedy of poisoned drinking water in Flint, Mich., the preciousness of that resource is even more before our eyes.
Jesus thirsted–as a human being on a daily basis, and in an intense way on Good Friday. In fact, it’s one of the “Seven Last Words,” or phrases, that he utters from the Cross: “I thirst.”
Today Christians believe that the “Body of Christ” is not just Jesus Christ risen and alive, but, in another way, all of us, our brothers and sisters gathered together on Earth. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” We are, in a spiritual way, the “Body of Christ.”
So the Christian can say that Jesus’s Body is going thirsty now. Thus, if you shed a tear for Jesus’s body thirsting on the cross 2,000 years ago, then shed a tear for the members of his Body who are thirsting right now. Shed a tear for the child in the developing world — or in Flint. Shed a tear for those who suffer bodily today in any way, through thirst or hunger or nakedness or imprisonment or torture or famine or assault or abuse. Shed a tear and do something about it.
In other words, let that sorrow move you action. After all, this is one way that God moves us to act. How else would God act in the world?
This is also one of the main spiritual goals of Lent—to let our compassion move us to action, to help our brothers and sisters. Lent is not simply about giving up chocolate.
The second point about Jesus’s body, his humanity, has to do with us as individuals. And it is this: Jesus understands what we are going through physically.
Nearly everyone reading this article has some physical burden that is a “cross” for them. Perhaps it’s something small, like a cold. Perhaps it’s something bigger, like a chronic illness. Perhaps it’s even bigger than that, like a life-threatening disease. Particularly when the cross is a big one, God can feel far away. And we wonder, “Does God care?”
But remember: God had a body. In fact, God has a body, because Christ is risen. The Risen Christ carries within himself the experiences of his humanity, and that includes suffering.
That important theological insight is often overlooked. Jesus after the Resurrection, to put it more starkly, is the same person as the Jesus of Nazareth who walked the earth. The Resurrection does not mean that a new person was created. No, it is the same person, who bears the marks of his suffering on his resurrected body. Indeed, in one of his first appearances after the Resurrection he showed the disciples his wounds. As Jesus says to the Apostle Thomas after the Resurrection, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
The Risen Christ was recognizably and identifiably Jesus of Nazareth. As Stanley Marrow, SJ, a New Testament scholar, once wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of John, “For him to have risen as anyone other than the Jesus of Nazareth they knew would void the Resurrection of all its meaning.” His wounds, the marks of his suffering, are, as Father Marrow says in a memorable phrase, his “credentials.”
Therefore, the Risen Christ remembers his suffering.
A second goal of Lent for Christians — uniting ourselves more closely to Jesus — is informed by this. When we pray, we pray not simply to someone who understands us because he is divine and all-knowing. We’re also praying to someone who understands us because is human and he went through what we are going through. He had a body. He thirsted. He knows.
This can help us to feel closer to God. Because God understands us. Lent is an important time to be reminded of that. Lent is a time to enter more deeply into a relationship with God.
For God desires a relationship with all of us. So much so that, as Christians believe, God came down to earth and suffered physically for us. That’s one reason God comes to us — to help us to be in relationship with him. God wants that intensely.
God, you could say, thirsts for it.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America. This essay was adapted from his new book “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus,” published February 2016 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Book Publishers, hardcover, RRP $18.99.