The Body. The Universal. The Passion.

The following is a guest post by Matthew John Paul Tan.

The Body. The Universal. The Passion.

Palm Sunday begins the week of commemoration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The week in the leadup to Easter will be particularly intense for the churchgoer. If one is not stepping up of his fasting or almsgiving, one will almost certainly be attending a church service on a day other than Sunday, most probably Good Friday. Easter Sunday would come along and after wishing everyone “Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!”, these churchgoers will exit the church, and many will go on with their normal lives as if Lent was merely a brief disruption to their normal schedules.

This post-lent relapse will happen to the most fervent of Christians, but the question is why. The answer may be twofold. First, there is a tendency to think of the Passion as historical, once-for-all-time salvific event won by Christ. Secondly, and largely as a result of the first, there is also the tendency to think of salvation as a primarily spiritual event that has little to do with the exigencies of embodied life, the only exception being the embodiment of the Incarnate Word, and the breaking of that body on the Cross so that souls might be saved. In the words of Caiaphas, the Passion and the salvation it effects is assumed to work on the equation that says it is better for one man to die than a whole people (John 11:50).

The problem with living out the Christian life on this understanding of the economy of salvation is that it justifies the suffering of one or the few for the greater good. It risks accepting the breaking of those lesser bodies so that greater bodies can be protected, saved or have their ends furthered. It is this same kind of logic of salvation that has driven the 2 seasons of the American adaptation of the television series House of Cards. In terms that are more cynical than the British original, the series draws a link between the bodies of the characters, and the exploitation of those bodies in fulfilling the goals and functions of bodies greater than them. Thus, we witness bodies getting recruited, tortured, expelled, traded, fornicated with and finally broken and for the sake of a politician’s ambitions, a corporation’s profits, and a nation’s security. The show is a laundry list of the ways in which a particular body can and must suffer and die to make way for a greater universal good. And it is significant that this logic is set against the backdrop of the machinations of a liberal state. For all of liberalism’s championing of the individual, such championing must always yield to modernity’s imperative to subordinate the particular to the universal.

By contrast, in speaking of Christianity, G.K. Chesterton challenges this equation of sacrificing the particular for the greater universal good and turns that equation on its head. In his Orthodoxy, Chesterton spoke of the metaphysics of the Judeo Christian mode of salvation as a process of the universal engaging in the process of division and differentiation so that it can act on behalf of the particular. The reason being that God is Love, and for Chesterton:

Love desires personality, therefore love desires division, it is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces…for the Christian, personality [and particularity] is the purpose of God.

In other words, the good news of the Passion is not just that one individual died once and for all to fix some particular anomaly to the Platonic universal schema of Love. Rather, the Kenotic logic of salvation from the Judeo-Christian standpoint is such that the particular is the whole metaphysical point of any action of universal import. In other words, the Judeo-Christian economy of salvation outdoes liberalism in its desire to protect the supremacy of the particular body.

And it does not stop there, for the particular Body of Jesus of Nazareth is not a mere instrument that fulfills a universal purpose extrinsic to it. Rather the particular broken Body of Jesus on the cross is the locus of articulating and revealing that which is universal. For Jesus of Nazareth, because He is the perfect union of both God and Man, incarnates the universality of the Divine Logos within the context of His embodied particularity. And insofar as the Logos is part of the imprint of every particular creature in the cosmos, each body is not an aberration to the universal, but the very locus from which the universal unfolds. This is the logic behind the phenomenology of Max Scheler, which is also the logic behind John Paul II’s much touted Theology of the Body. The Theology of the Body is not so much about sex as it is about the human body’s role in the economy of Revelation and salvation. For in light of the Body of the Divine Logos, the human body is not something to be sacrificed for the greater good. Because the body articulates that which is universal, the body is the greater good.

It is true that Lent and Holy Week is a disruption to the normality of life, since it is redeems a fallen creation marked by sin. And it should be disruptive, for the Passion’s good news is that it is bringing about a new – and true – normality. Redeeming the faults of creation need not follow the false logic of what the powers and principalities of this world call the normal way of doing things: sacrificing the particular for the universal. In the light of Divine Revelation, which is the Body of the Divine Logos on the fallen wood of the cross, the particular does indeed declare the universal glory of God.

A blessed Pasch to all.


Matthew is a Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College Australia. Currently he is a Visiting Professor in Catholic Studies and a Research Fellow at the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

Matthew is also the editor of the theological blog “the Divine Wedgie” ( His book Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ: the Theopolitics of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II was recently published by Pickwick Publications.

Matthew Tan :
  • Ben

    Thanks for this Matthew, it’s been a great encouragement to me this Easter morning. I love your sense of how the particularity of the incarnation fits with the cross and I was wondering how Christian martyrdom fits–is that particular individuals giving up themselves for something universal or something different? Perhaps a particular persons giving themselves up for a particular God? Thanks!

    • Matthew Tan

      Thanks for your feedback Ben. Probably something that could help answer your question is the old patristic concept of the coincidence of opposites, especially that articulated by St. Bonaventure. I didn’t put it in in the interest of space, but in a nutshell, Bonaventure said that in the divine logos, anything that is opposite to another thing always harmonises, including the universal and the particular. So there need not be such a juxtaposition. In hindsight, maybe I should have included a section on that. I have spoken of this elsewhere in a paper and I am waiting for it to be uploaded.