Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sacred Body and Sacred Bodies

Corpus Christi Year C

You may have heard this story.

A 70 year old woman looks at her own reflection in the mirror. Her husband is lying on the bed, reading a magazine. Woman says,
“Look at me, 70 years old and not getting any younger! I’ve got wrinkles all over my face and creases stretching over the whole length of my body. My love handles look like sagging water balloons. I’ve lost most of my real teeth. Thank God for these dentures. And my hair just keeps thinning and I’ll be bald most probably in another 5 years. I feel so miserable about the way I look. For heaven’s sake, can you please pay me a compliment to make me feel better!” The husband lowers his magazine and ponders for a minute, then replies, “Look on the bright side honey, you still have good eyesight!”

Deny as we may want, we live in a body conscious culture. Young slim women and muscular men boasting six pack albs adorn the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Millions of dollars are spent developing products to make us look better, whilst less is spent to solve issue of poverty and to find cures to presently incurable diseases like HIV, cancer, etc. We have used our innovative genius to create and develop products to clean up, paint up, and fix up. We spend more time worrying about our physical shape rather than on the state of well-being of our soul. People spend thousands on dietary supplements, gym equipment, personal trainers whilst governments make fiscal cuts to subsidies for essential goods and amenities. Longevity and prolonging the appearance of youth seem to be greater concerns than eternal salvation. Deny as we may try, we do live in a body conscious world.

Despite this glorification of the external appearance of the body and all the rhetoric to the contrary, the ironic reality is that we have rendered the human body cheap, it has been rendered valueless by our culture and by society. We waste it: institutionally, clinically and deliberately. Death rows and abortion clinics pay no attention to the fact the object of their killing is a human body, and not just a ‘thing.’ We wipe out millions of unborn in one year alone. We place millions of others in homes and institutions because we consider their bodies functionally useless and unable to perform the productive tasks which society expects from them. We tolerate small sweat shop factories in Third World countries that engage child labour and near slave conditions for migrant workforce, so that we may enjoy cheap products from the shelves of our hypermarkets. We pursue wars that kill thousands and millions, often writing off body counts as collateral damage or mere statistics, signs that we are winning the war. Bodies of naked women and men and even children flood our television and computer screens, bodies available sometimes for free or just for a few dollars. The starving of millions scarcely merits a shrug. We do live in a body conscious world, but we survive with the contradiction that bodies come cheap.

But there is an alternative vision to the human body, a vision that resists degrading the flesh. Human bodies are not just meant to be beautiful. Human bodies do not come cheap nor are they valueless. On the contrary, human bodies are precious or more importantly, sacred. Many would vehemently reject this accolade – how could this body of mine, one which I sometimes loath and detest, the one which seems to cause me affliction and pain, the well spring of temptations of the flesh be seen as sacred? We resist this association between the sacred and what we consider to be profane because we feel that the corporeality of our bodies would stain the pure nature of the divine.

This new vision of the body comes from our sacramental sensibility. Our Catholic faith is not just spiritual but also physical. We express it in a sacramental way, which means in a sensible, tangible and corporeal way. It is both transcendent and incarnate. Our deepest communal impulse is to celebrate feasts of conceptions, births, deaths and martyrdoms. Our most treasured devotions and feasts are corporeal – The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the holy wounds and the Mystical Body. The pinnacle of our sacramental faith is the reality we commemorate and celebrate today. At the moment of consecration, we kneel before this divine mystery, a mystery that celebrates the Incarnation – the en-fleshing of the divine, a mystery that makes visible the invisible. We hear the priest say these powerful words: “This is my Body … This is my Blood…” We believe that it is not just him speaking, he is ‘alter Christus’, ‘another Christ’; he speaks ‘in persona Christi,’ in the ‘person of Christ.’ It is no mere symbol or metaphor – it is real, it is substantial, it is Christ, it is “truly, really, substantially” his Body and his Blood. At the instant of our most holy communion, we hear the words: ‘Corpus Christi’, the Body of Christ. If only we could fathom the enormity of this reality, then like St John Vianney, we will “throw (ourselves) at the foot of the Tabernacle like a dog at the foot of his Master."

The Incarnation, the Birth, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, make our celebration not just an empty ritual, an exercise in futility. To deny the real presence means more than just a rejection of sacramentality. It would mean denying the Incarnation and the Resurrection, because both these mysteries point to corporeal character of our salvation. The Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery has made all human flesh precious and bodies sacred. The eternal Creator looks at the least human person and now not only numbers the hairs of our head – but sanctifies every single cell in our body, every drop of blood in our veins. God looks at the least and sees the eternal Child of God, the Word made flesh and blood. We are saved in him. And when we consume the Body of Christ, we partake of the flesh of Christ, the flesh of God: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him." In his Easter Sermon, 227, St. Augustine exhorts: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.”  And in receiving Christ, we become one body in Him, and through Him, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Through receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a unique and personal relationship with the Trinity and with one another, the Body of Christ.   In Christ, our bodies truly, really, ‘substantially’ become sacred, they are made inviolable and consecrated to the service of God.

After the Incarnation, and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, our bodies, no matter what the blind violence of sinful men and women may indicate, is never again to be seen as something dirty or cheap. Our body is sacred and precious, so precious that God would die for it. Our bodies would never again be our shame or fear. We don’t have to paint it or fix it. Rather, our bodies have become the sign of God’s covenantal love for us and unbreakable promise of eternal. This is the conviction behind the Christian challenge to a world so violent and so indifferent to human dignity that one might be tempted to think that humans have nothing precious about them at all. All the cosmetic surgeries, all the body tattoos and piercings, all the savoir-faire fashion in the world, will not be able to disguise or hide or enhance the natural beauty that already comes from us being ‘in God's image. We are beautiful and holy from the inside out because God created us that way. Our beauty and our holiness have little to do with our outward appearance or how others view us.

We can’t view all of these in any ordinary glass mirror. We can only see a true reflection of ourselves when we gaze upon the cross of Christ, the sacrifice of love which is represented in every Eucharist. At every mass, we are reminded of our true worth. That value can never be bought by any human price. It is a gift from God. You have been bought with the price of Christ’s own body and blood. “This is my Body … broken for you.” “This is my Blood … poured out for you and for the salvation of many.”

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