Last night I found myself scrolling through the seemingly endless list of Grammy nominees and was surprised to find one nominated album was called “Hiraeth”. This was both exciting and troubling to me, exciting because hiraeth is a Welsh word and troubling because it is a word that is often mishandled. I went and listened to the title track, which turned out to be a lot of indiscernible lyrics and glottal singing, in short, nothing that sounded like Wales to me.
I was telling a friend about this today, which meant I needed to explain what hiraeth is. That in itself is difficult, as it is a word that is iconically Welsh and can be difficult to describe exactly in English. The general idea is one of longing or nostalgia, perhaps the feeling of homesickness but with the knowledge that you can’t go home. One of my Welsh friends said it was like having your feet in two different worlds. As I was explaining this to my friend, she said, “That sounds like the Christian life.”
Suddenly, all of the blog ideas I had swirling around in my head for the last month and a half came into focus. I had known since I got back from Wales last fall that I had been feeling a sense of hiraeth, but now I saw how much this theme ran through the things various stories and discussions I had encountered in the last few weeks, in particular, the story of “Doubting Thomas” and the idea of experiencing God physically.
The story of Thomas’ doubt is very near to my heart, mostly due to this paper written by my former professor, Stan Harstine, which you can read here. Harstine’s paper compares Thomas to the character of Penelope in the Odyssey, who would not believe that her husband had returned until he could prove he was who he claimed to be. Likewise, when presented with the possibility that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, Thomas’ response was one of trepidation and discernment.
In the span of time between hearing that Jesus had risen from the dead and being confronted by the risen Christ, Thomas found himself in a moment of hiraeth. The teacher he loved, the friend he deserted, the savior he longed for – could it be possible he was alive? Thomas must have had a mess of emotions warring within him, hopeful that it might be true, despairing that it might be false, doubtful that it could be true, wary that it might be a trick. He resolved within himself that he would not believe unless he could touch the scars of the crucified Christ with his own hands.
And then, in an unbelievably tender scene, Jesus appears to Thomas. Suddenly, his teacher, his friend, his savior stands before him. And where we might expect Jesus to say, “O ye of little faith,” Jesus says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Jesus knows that Thomas’ heart is not hard, only hesitant, only unwilling to hope for something false. Instead of standing aloof and reprimanding Thomas, Jesus draws near and submits his body to inspection so that Thomas may know. Here we see that the fully realized gospel is not merely one of spirit and faith, but also one of body and physical access.
We as Christians now live in a continual state of hiraeth. We are the people of whom Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Like Thomas, we have heard that Christ has risen, we know the promises which are ours, but we have yet to receive them, we have yet to see the risen Christ. There will be a day when our faith will become our sight. And not just our sight, but ours to hear, to touch, and to know. There will be a day when we know Jesus more closely, more concretely, than Thomas did on that day.
Not only will we see our teacher, our friend, our savior, but he will see us. We will experience the eternal acknowledgment and embrace of our God, no more to be forgotten or passed over, no more to hide ourselves, no more to feel ashamed at his gaze.
This is our hope as Christians, but we currently only have one foot in this reality. We very much still experience the despair, the doubt, the wariness that say what we hope for cannot truly be real. We long to experience the love of God in tangible ways, not just to be provided for materially, but to touch him with our hands and feel his presence physically within our bodies. The sin and suffering we experience, especially when we feel them within our own body, can easily make us feel alienated from our eternal hope.
I have had eczema my entire life. Not the kind that gives me some annoying dry patches of skin in the winter, but the kind where I continually have large sores on my body. The kind that makes it hurt to shower. The kind that would have designated me a leper in the Old Testament. I have never felt completely at home in my body. There is something incredibly bittersweet about the idea that one day I will have a redeemed body and stand securely before my savior.
But this feeling of hiraeth tells me that I can, to some degree, experience Jesus physically even now, even while I am in what people refer to as the “already/not yet”. 2 Corinthians puts it this way, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
So I’m feeling the need to pray for us, because I think every person can relate to this feeling of alienation from their body, this awareness that we are physically broken and the effect that has on our relationship with Jesus. Jesus wants to minister to you, not just that your soul may be sanctified, but that your body may find rest and acceptance with him. Jesus wants to take your hands in his and invite you to touch his scars and place your hands in his side. And with all of his infinite love, he says, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”