By Eun Joo Angela Ryo
As I grow older, I can’t help but to notice that I’m invited to more funerals than weddings. In our twenties, almost every month, (if not every week!) we were busy attending weddings as our friends tied the knot one after the other. However, in our thirties, that slowly started to shift where the death toll overtook wedding bells. Just recently, a string of funerals made me think harder and deeper about our relationship between the spiritual and the physical. Especially when my 11-year-old daughter’s best friend’s mom died of colon cancer a few weeks ago, my daughter started to ask a lot of questions about what happens to our soul. Does our body really just become an “empty shell” when we die?
Growing up, I was taught that everything “spiritual” was good and anything “material” was anti-spiritual and therefore, insignificant, trivial, and evil. Hence, I tried to deny my body and all things material. So, naturally, I saw God who was only concerned about the world of the spirit. Flesh counted for nothing; spirit was everything. However, over the years, my faith journey has distanced me from this Western dualism and my theological training has reminded me the significance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and how that foreshadows our own bodily resurrection. Jesus could have resurrected as a spirit, but he didn’t; he experienced a bodily resurrection with vivid traces of what he had endured in this life. Bodily resurrection of Jesus is a reminder to us that our bodies DO matter and that this life continues on to the next.
This led me to another question: How has my own body been raised up as an instrument of healing and wholeness here and now? As I preach, teach, and comfort God’s people, I am not just a mind, a ball of feelings, or some mystic force. I serve as an embodied presence in times of others’ pain, joy, and grieving. My facial expressions, my touch, my gestures, my posture — they are fully integrated into who I am as a pastor. In the same way, a dead body is NOT just an “empty shell” as was suggested by one of the presenters at the hospital during the first week of my CPE orientation. While doing CPE last summer, I have seen and participated in careful and loving bathing of dead fetuses by the pediatrics unit chaplain so that she may take pictures for the parents. Why take pictures of the “empty shell”— especially of empty shells they have only known for just a few minutes if that at all? Isn’t it because the pictures of their bodies serve as sacred memories of who they were and whose they are? Their bodies, then, not only hold sentimental value but sacramental value for their loved ones.
I see my work as an embodied pastor, then, is to recognize, remind, and help people to interpret their experiences of pain, loss, and grief as sacraments so that they may start to make meaning out of what seems to be meaningless suffering at the time. Although the reformed church practices only two Sacraments — the Lord’s Supper and Baptism — I believe the work of the pastor is to help others recognize that any event and/or object in life has sacramental value if we interpret them through the lens of faith –even the lifeless body of our loved ones.
Eun Joo Angela Ryo immigrated to America from Korea when she was nine. Having graduated with an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, she currently works as a full-time certified ESL teacher for undocumented unaccompanied minors at a non-profit organization under the auspices of the Office of Refuge and Resettlement. Angela has completed the pastoral ordination process in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is currently seeking her first call for ordination.