Almost twenty years ago, Goo Goo Dolls made a name for themselves with a song that began with “…and I’d give up forever to touch you”.
The song then became synonymous with the movie City of Angels, in which the main protagonist, a disembodied angel named Seth, would give up his existence gliding through the eternal plane to become an embodied schmuck in time. His motivation, his love for another embodied schmuck in time.
I do not think it would be much of a spoiler to say that that time would come to an abrupt and tragic end. The experience of the loss of another’s bodily existence would bring home the seemingly depressing reality of embodied existence in general. In the words of Goo Goo Dolls, sooner or later it will always be over.
At the same time, the movie would follow this statement to make another. At the end of a day, another step towards the end of all things, Seth would be plunging his body into the waters in the presence of heavenly hosts. The baptismal tropes, where a new creation comes into view, are impossible to avoid. The angels, signified by the laugh of Cassiel, look on with approval, as if the whole point of life in eternity was put on display by this brief episode of embodied life of on a love-struck fool. And audiences round the world had all the feels.
More than four decades before City of Angels, an obscure line of an equally obscure appendix of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Return of the King entitled “The Annals of Kings and Rulers” gave us another look into this foolhardy plunge into the decaying carcass of temporality, and once again in the name of an immortal’s love for an albeit better looking embodied schmuck. During the betrothal of the immortal High Elf, Arwen, to the mortal Dunadein ranger, Aragorn, the former would say to the latter
I will cleave to you, Dunadein, and turn from the Twilight
With her embrace of his mortal body, Arwen would cast off eternity to embrace this mortal coil. And readers round the world had all the feels.
This literary device of forsaking the splendid purity of eternity for the tragic mess of mortal life sits uncomfortably with a Christianity that many of us are used to. It is a Christianity that looks forward to leaving behind the burdens of this temporary existence to bathe in the light of eternity in a plane of existence far, far, away.
Yet the Catholic imagination of Tolkien, and the vaguer copy in City of Angels, alert us to another, more sacramental point. Embodied existence, for all the awkwardness, breakage and loss, gives us a foretaste of eternity. Stricken from embodied life, eternity is doomed to become abstract and vacuous, so much so as to become unattractive and meaningless. Heaven is not marked by “the unbearable lightness of being” we find in postmodernity. Set in a sacramental register, eternity has a density and texture. Bodies, created in the image of God, were designed to be the tactile portal of eternity, meant to make heaven an experience in the now, rather than a delayed response for the reserved in some non-specific future.
As the psalm says, we were meant to “taste and see” the goodness of God, and the Body of Christ, present in the Eucharist, is meant to be the seal of this reality. Thus the problem with with embodied life is not that we cleave to it. The problem lies in the fact that we cleave to a shallow version of it, unaware that the full splendour of heaven is pressing itself onto us, proclaiming itself through the sin-stained cracks of every sight, sound and touch.