Food, Embodiment, and Our Struggle with Ourselves
by Jackie Kohl
The holiday season takes its toll. Family gatherings, parties, church festivities, gift-giving, Christmas baking, decorating, and countless other traditions pile-up on top of normal routines. And, as we ought, we merrily feast, give thanks, and celebrate.
The season ends every year, leaving us groggy, uncomfortable, and eager for a new chapter. We know we cannot continue in our indulgences; there’s a time to feast and a time to fast. So, we enter the new year with its resolutions and fresh starts, ready to correct. However, we do not do so without our baggage. Our broken bodies and minds formed in modern American culture rarely approach this changing of seasons with grateful, intentional moderation.
Instead, we go to war with our bodies.
Falsely believing we can leverage our shame into willpower, we take on physical challenges, implement strict diets, and resolve to make ourselves new. As post-Platonic Westerners, we constantly falter in thinking rightly about our bodies. For some of us, the shame of hating our bodies plagues us and leads to our own mistreatment. The opposite ditches of thoughtless indulgence and fixated control threaten us as we travel the road of temperance.
If you’re like me, you may not feel like you are honoring God in the treatment of your body. Or worse, you might find that you are often at war with the frustrations and burdens we each carry because of them. Let me suggest that our salvation, even in this area, is found as always in Jesus himself.
Six ways Jesus shows us how to thrive as embodied humans
Jesus’s care for his own body and the bodies of others.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus’s signs and miracles carry a direct relationship with the physical needs of others. Wine at a wedding, food for the masses, the healing of sickness and disabilities, and even the raising of the dead. The miracles Jesus performed serve Messianic functions beyond the health and well-being of the recipients. T.F. Torrance puts it this way, “God comes among sinners and makes himself responsible for their condition… (and thus) reveals the ultimate helplessness and hopelessness of man, apart from such a stupendous act of divine grace.”1
Ironically, the miracles show that while Christ has become one of us in the incarnation, we desperately need someone who is also not one of us. We need a God-Man capable of being our mediator. Jesus shows that a flourishing person, one who lives in light of the Kingdom of God, is fully aware of and embraces the physical human experience. Jesus ate and drank, feasted and fasted, slept, retreated, and significantly lived out many unremarkable hours, days, weeks, and unrecorded years. One way that the life of Jesus helps us with our own is that we can accept our creatureliness, limitations, and needs, affirming that it is good to be a human, body and soul, like he did.
Jesus’s delight in and gratitude for food and drink. Since food and drink can be particular points of pain and frustration for us as we think about our bodies, it’s worth considering how Jesus approached these necessary components of life. When Jesus fed people in the gospels, he blessed and gave thanks for the food and the wine. When Jesus spent time with people, he did so by sharing meals with them.
Jesus enjoyed and celebrated food as one who knew that it serves us. We don’t serve it. Our bodies need the nourishment food provides. As our communities gather to fellowship and celebrate, food and drink offer an instrument to do that. Our bodies are physical things that use other physical things to enact our purposes and joy. This provides a corrective to our tendency to limit or indulge in food and drink. It is here as the bounty of the earth, a gift from God that we necessarily depend on.
Jesus’s self-control. Relatedly, Jesus lived a life of discipline, mature self-regulation, and expression concerning food and drink,2 sexuality, spiritual practices, and his emotional life. To be human is to experience various emotions, needs, desires, and pleasures. And Jesus shows us what it means to experience it all in full obedience to God. By his Spirit, we can embrace our full humanity and surrender it all to God’s good care, resting in the knowledge that the shed blood of Jesus covers our mistakes and failures.
Jesus’s active life. In Jesus’s three years of ministry, we read about a man who traveled, visited, taught, preached, feasted, prayed, healed, and actively shepherded people. Some of us may need to see that part of our problem could be idleness due to wealth and technology, which renders our lives more passive and less active. Perhaps our preoccupation with our bodies is a function of the fact that we have not busied ourselves with the work God has called us to.
Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 5, “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Paul even connects this idea to how we consume wine a couple of verses later,3 knowing that, in our foolishness as fallen creatures, disordered living leads to disordered treatment of the body.
Jesus’s shed blood. Ultimately it is through Christ’s atoning work that we are saved. The very physical blood from his own body spilled for us supplies the mercy needed to live this life, weak and frail as we are. No wealth of time or treasure, and no evolved approach to health and fitness will deliver us from our bodies of death, but thanks be to God that the death of Jesus in his body secures for ours the promise of resurrection. The promise that one day we will feast and drink with him in perfect holiness and satisfaction.
Special Note to Female Readers:
It’s no secret that the management of bodies especially burdens women. The pressures of our specific society, the natural desire to be found attractive, and the unique stressors women’s bodies endure due to the reproductive cycle and pregnancy carry implications for each woman, whether she bears children or not, for the vast majority of her life.
Jesus did not live in the 21st century. Jesus did not come as a woman, nor did he share in the griefs specific to female embodiment, of which there are many. Lest we feel cast aside or excluded because the Messiah came as a male, I’d like to say that Jesus, once and for all, affirmed the dignity and goodness of the female body by spending the first nine months of his incarnate life in the womb of Mary. By leveraging the reproductive hormones, organs, and physicality of an ordinary woman to enter into the created world, he said “yes” to your body. Further, he relied on this same woman for the first several years of his life to handle, feed, care for, and nurture his body as he grew. Moreover, Jesus demonstrated a serious and inclusive love for women throughout his ministry.
At the wedding at Cana, we see respect and deference from an adult Jesus toward his mother. With the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well, we see Jesus gently and justly interact with the plight and failures of women in a society where they were disregarded and maligned. When Jesus is on his way to raise the young girl who had died, he stops to heal the woman who bled for twelve years. In this moment, we see an adult Jesus unashamed and unafraid of the complexities of the female body as he publicly commends her for her faith. And notably, at the end of his ministry, when his crucifixion is complete, and Jesus descends into death, we see his body cared for once again by the women willing to do so.
Like his mother would have done in his youth, they tended to his wounds and wrapped him in cloths and placed him, not in a manger, but a tomb. Jesus begins and ends his earthly, pre-resurrection life in the company of women, and he rises to greet one in the garden by name.
May we each hear him as he likewise draws us to himself.
1. Torrance, Thomas. Incarnation, 241
2. It’s worth noting that in Matthew 11:19 the pharisees take issue with Jesus eating and drinking but never accuse him of gluttony or drunkenness.
3. Ephesians 5:15-18
Jackie Kohl is the managing editor of Humble Orthodoxy and earned her BA from Moody Bible Institute in Theology with an emphasis on Systematics. She has taught secondary Bible, theology, and church history classes at a Christian school and in church contexts. She now works as a high school career counselor and is currently earning an MA in theological studies at Emmaus Theological Seminary. Jackie was born and raised in Chicagoland and has lived in the western suburbs of Cleveland since 2020. She and her husband Jim have been married since 2008 and have four kids.
Photo by Siora