Not Love of Law, but the Law of Love

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus-painting_1280_x_1024As with so many readings from Sacred Scripture, there are certain pitfalls that we should avoid in our hearing the Word today and discerning the Spirit’s invitation to understand the its fuller meaning (sensus plenior).

One very dangerous trap is to slip into some kind of supercessionist interpretation of the First Reading (Deut 4:1-2, 6-8) in light of today’s Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 22-23). It is easy to see how one might mistakenly believe that the people of Israel misunderstood God’s plans and intention in the form of the Law presented to them by Moses. This version of the story suggests that for centuries people have been missed the mark and were inappropriately concerned about exterior and trivial matters (hand washing, etc.) in the way represented by the Pharisees’ concerns in the Gospel. It wasn’t until Jesus appeared on the scene, the Incarnate Word and fully God, that the “record was set straight.”

But this is not a correct reading of what is transpiring here. Though our First Reading does highlight the origin of the Law, we do not believe that our Jewish sisters and brothers and their ancestors misunderstood God’s commandments. It is not that everything that came before was wrongly interpreted and off base. Nowhere does Jesus say that the Law was wrong or bad, but rather its interpreters and self-appointed enforcers are the ones who act badly and misunderstand.

Another common trap is to interpret Jesus’s response to the religious leaders of his time as license to do whatever we please. In a way not unlike the history of over-emphasizing or over-spiritualization Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, some may simply domesticate this Gospel account and read it as “well, Jesus basically says that the laws aren’t important, what I do externally doesn’t really matter,” and so on.

However, this is also not the point. We are called to be integrated people. To be Christians in the true sense is to incorporate (literally, to bring into the body) that what we believe and profess. Jesus’s teaching in this Gospel passage is not encouragement to compartmentalize our lives and faith.

Today’s Gospel can be understood according to a hermeneutic of the distinction between “means” and “ends.” The Law itself is not problematic, but overtime interpreters of the Law have forgotten its true purpose: that it is a human tool given to women and men in order to better maintain the covenant with God, which requires justice and mercy for others, care for the downtrodden and forgotten, a preferential option for the poor.

What has happened instead is the treatment of the Law as an end in itself rather than the means toward maintaining right relationship constitutive of the Covenant. This is what Moses predicts others will see when they see the Law lived out among the people of Israel. Moses believes observers will say:

‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?”

Yet the actions of the inheritors of the Law are in direct contrast and observers, not the least of which is Jesus himself, sees not justice but injustice and abuse.

This is what compels Christ to call them hypocrites:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

You disregard the point of God’s Law, treating it as the ultimate end and not the means that God intended. Your new god is human tradition and interpretation, not justice and righteousness.

In this way, we might say that Jesus critiques the “hearers of the word” who do not do the word that James admonishes in our Second Reading today (James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27).

The Hebrew word for “word,” Dabar, bears both a static and active meaning. In a sense, James’s exhortation for us to be doers of the word is redundant in this light. It should go without saying that conforming to the word requires action, but it’s clear that need to emphasize this explicitly suggests that in fact people aren’t living or doing the word.

Rather than commit oneself to painstaking adherence to dietary or other customs and laws, as if God desired this, James echoes Jesus’s message to us in the Gospel about what God really cares about, if in reverse. Jesus points out all the ways that strict adherence to rules and the letter of the law does not account for what is really upsetting to God:

…evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.

James offers us a clue, a reminder of what is important, what it looks like to be a doer and not just a static or passive hearer of the word:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

There are many ways that we too can mistake means for ends, or as St. Augustine classically put it, mistaking the Uti for the Frui, that which is used for that which is enjoyed or loved. Jesus is calling us back to the true role of the Law, that it should serve humanity and not the other way around.

Photo: File

Woe to Whom?

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on August 26, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

hypocrisyHave you ever noticed that in the Gospels Jesus never condemns the contrite sinner? You never hear “Woe to you adulterers!” or “Woe to you tax collectors!” and the like. What really provokes the ire of Jesus is the hypocrisy of those who either imagine themselves or present themselves to be without sin, those who place themselves in a position of judgment over others.

In today’s Gospel the condemnation is directed at the scribes and pharisees, the scholars of the law and religious leaders, who go about their society pointing the finger at others, criticizing those for splinters in their eyes without acknowledgment of the massive plank in their own.

Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.
(Matthew 23:27-28)

This passage should give all Christians and people of good will pause. It should remind us of how we are, as St. Paul says in today’s First Reading, called to “walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12).

I’m reminded of how Pope Francis responded to the first question in his now-famous interview published in America magazine. Here is the full text, told in first person by the interviewer, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ:

I have the first question ready, but then I decide not to follow the script that I had prepared for myself, and I ask him point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask…. He nods that it is, and he tells me: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This is exactly what Jesus is calling us to realize in today’s Gospel (as in so many of the narratives of the Good News). We are not expected to be perfect, to never sin. Such an expectation is unrealistic and futile. We are all human, imperfect, finite, and prone to sinfulness.

However, hypocrisy can be avoided. It is an insult added to the injury of self-righteousness and compartmentalization. Hypocrisy arises in the cold hearts of those who project their own guilt, shame, and sinfulness onto others without a willingness to accept their own need for forgiveness, without owning their own desire for mercy.

Jesus nowhere signals that he is cool with human sinfulness, but he does understand it. He doesn’t suggest that things are perfectly ok as things are, but he’s not surprised by the reality of adulterers and tax collectors and even his own murderers, whom he nevertheless forgives from the cross.

Who he cannot stand are those who, unlike Pope Francis in our time, cannot admit their own guilt and sin yet still condemn others for their wrongdoing or imperfection.

I am a sinner, and so are you. Together may we work to live our baptismal vocation more sincerely and, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).

Photo: Stock

Lynn White, Jr. on the Community of Creation

Posted in Laudato Si with tags , , , , on August 25, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Lynn-White-JrMany may recognize the name Lynn White, Jr., who was a prominent scholar of medieval technology and best-known for his 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” in which he shed light on some of the ways his own religious tradition — Christianity — was partly culpable for environmental problems. He blamed, rightly, the inappropriate emphasis of the dominion model of creation, according to which Christians would read the bible and the tradition in such a way as to justify human sovereignty over all non-human creation (an interpretation that Pope Francis rejected once-and-for-all in Laudato Si). White wrote other essays, though few have read his expansive corpus. In one essay titled, “Christians and Nature,” published in the journal Pacific Theological Review (1975), White makes a powerful, even poetic, statement that aligns so well with the Franciscan vision of creation that I wanted to share it with you all here.

We are not alone. We human beings are here in exactly the same sense, and for the same purpose, that the sea urchins, banana trees, icebergs, quartz crystals, asteroids, interstellar hydrogen clouds and astronomical black holes are here. Our purpose, and that of all our fellow creatures, is, as the Psalmist so often proclaims, to praise our Creator with all of our being.”

Amen.

Photo: File

The Humility of Pope Francis

Posted in Pope Francis with tags , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

pope-bSo you know that things are different and have reached a “new normal” when news outlets and periodicals more accustomed to covering the latest presidential candidate’s awkward adventure at the Iowa State Fair invite a notable papal biographer to write a lengthy feature piece on the humility of Pope Francis. This is precisely what The Atlantic did when it published an essay by Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (2013) and Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (2015), titled: “Where Pope Francis Learned Humility.”

I, like so many other observers, have been fascinated by the world’s nearly uniform interest in this Argentinian Jesuit who was elected Bishop of Rome less than three years ago. Pope Francis, from the moment of the announcement of his name and his now-famous appearance on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, has sent a clear message of humility in both word and deed. Though there is something deeply habitual about his preferences, Vallely has signaled that the new status quo of papal presence is as much a deliberate and calculated decision as it is an inherent reflex. In his Atlantic essay, Vallely writes:

It’s a new normal: Francis has presented himself to the world as an icon of simplicity and humility, eschewing papal limousines and the grand Apostolic Palace, and instead being driven in a Ford Focus and living in the Vatican guesthouse. But being simple can be a complex business if you are the leader of one of the world’s largest religious denominations and also a head of state. And Francis’s life story shows that humility is not an innate quality of his, but a calculated religious, and sometimes political, choice.

One should not read this opening qualification, the hinge-teaser following the lede, as a criticism. On the contrary, what follows demonstrates the importance of approaching the Pope’s actions with an attentiveness and seriousness that hitherto has been water downed or dismissed by those who would prefer the more decadent pontificates of ages (or decades) past.

Vallely traces Pope Francis’s recognizable humility and decision-making as far back as his youthful ambition and rapid ascendency in the Society of Jesus’s leadership. His time as Provincial was not without problems and, though I disagree with Vallely’s choice of the word “exile,” the younger Father Bergoglio was something of a controversial figure among his Jesuit brothers after his tenure in leadership.

What accounts for this dissatisfaction? Well, as Vallely tells it, the would-be pontiff was stubborn and somewhat self-righteous as a younger man.

Bergoglio had strong support within the Jesuits when he became provincial superior in 1973. But by the time he ended his leadership role as rector of Buenos Aires’s Jesuit seminary in 1986, those who loathed him had begun to outnumber those who loved him. By 1990, his support within the order had been eroded by his authoritarian style and his incorrigible inability, in the words of the Jesuit, Father Frank Brennan, “to let go the reins of office once a [Jesuit] provincial of a different hue was in the saddle.” Another senior Jesuit told me: “He drove people really crazy with his insistence that only he knew the right way to do things. Finally the other Jesuits said: ‘Enough.’”

It seems that there was quite a reaction from Bergoglio’s superiors in Rome. Vallely explains:

In response to these cleavages within the Argentine Jesuit community, Jesuit leaders in Rome eventually decided to strip Bergoglio, then 50, of all responsibility. In 1990, he was sent to Cordoba to live in the Jesuit residence, pray, and work on his doctoral thesis. But he was not permitted to say Mass in public in the Jesuit church. He could only go there to hear confessions. He was not allowed to make phone calls without permission. His letters were controlled. His supporters were told not to contact him. The ostracism from his peers was to be complete.

Pope Francis has, since his election as Bishop of Rome, remarked on this period of time, noting that it was a period of “great interior crisis.” Through his limited ministry in the confessional and time to reflect and pray, it appears that he was humbled and embraced a spirit of real humility.

As a result, it appears that his younger predilection for conservative views and anti-comunism were left behind for a pragmatic awareness of the poor and marginalized in the world around him. As a bishop, his interest was more closely identified with the scriptural tenets of liberation theology than with strict hierarchical leadership and obsession with perfect liturgy.

Simplicity and humility didn’t come easily or quickly for the pope, just as true, ongoing Christian conversion doesn’t happen overnight, but is the cumulative result of a daily practice of prayer, reflection, and charitable practice.

Vallely ends his essay (which I encourage you to read in its entirety) with this statement: “As became clear a few months ago, when the pope published his major encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, he is not just addressing Catholics or Christians but, in the words of that document, ‘all people of good will.’ Having changed himself, it appears he wants all the world to undergo a similar conversion.”

It seems to me that this is precisely what Jesus also had in mind when the Gospels recount that he came to “set the world on fire” (Luke 12:49). May we be ignited by the passion of a similar conversion — oh, what a world that would be!

Photo: AP

God is Not Fair (In the Best Way)

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Social Justice with tags , , , , , , , on August 19, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

winery-vineyard6I’m always struck by the zealous insistence of “fairness” as rule that first appears in childhood when parents pronounce a decision that some child renders unjust: “That’s not fair!” Though this sort of protestation arrives on the scene during one’s youth, the socialization that led to this way of viewing the world began a very long time ago. Sometimes one is in fact not treated fairly and that is certainly an injustice. However, fairness as a rule tends to be more subjective than most of us would like to admit and it’s almost always, at least when invoked by the comfortable or privileged, a cover for selfishness.

The Gospels are replete with illustrations that uncover our selfish impulses, which is usually masked by the ruse of “fairness.” This morning’s selection from the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) is exactly this sort of thing.

You will recall how Jesus announces that, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” This fictive landowner, the usual stand in for God, then goes out periodically throughout the day to hire more laborers. He orders that all the workers be paid the same wage, which provokes the ire of those who were first hired in the morning. We know how it goes.

So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

The “fairness rule” rears its ugly head in the contestation of the workers who labored all day. Surely, they insist, we deserve more than those who worked but a few hours.

But why? As Jesus’s narration makes abundantly clear, the landowner has cheated absolutely nobody.

‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’

Again, let us look to yet another Gospel illustration, this time from Luke’s account (15:11-32). One of the most-famous parables of Jesus again reveals what’s really at play in our own self-righteous thinking. This is of course the narrative of the “Prodigal Son.” After the younger child wishes his father dead and demands his inheritance, which he squanders, what would be fair is for that son to be dismissed and left for dead. Or, in the best-case scenario, as the son himself imagines, he might be hired as a servant on his father’s estate.

However, what happens in the Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite of our base human impulses disguised as “fairness.” The gratuitous father is entirely “unfair” by worldly standards and welcomes the son back without punishment or shame.

Like the vineyard workers who began early in the day in Matthew’s narrative, the older son in Luke’s parable seethes with anger at the spectacle of his father’s blatant unfairness.

What is to be learned here? What does this say to us?

First, God’s sense of what is fair and what is not fair does not, at all, align with our human sense of “fairness,” which again is typically a thin veil covering our own self-centeredness. The Reign of God is marked by everybody having what is necessary. In both parables, God does not withhold anything from anyone. All parties are accounted for and given what is necessary for human flourishing.

Yet, it is a sense of of selfishness and entitlement that drives those who have what is from the outset fair (an agreed upon daily wage or all that already belongs to the father) to feel they deserve so much more. Perhaps this impulse goes all the way back to our mythical parents in Genesis, who were not content with their humanity and desired to have and be even more.

Second, these parables and an awareness of the selfishness that is called “fair” today spawns other narratives that justify real injustice in our world. The wealthy, comfortable, and powerful spin tales of “fairness” that justify their grandiosity in the shadow of poverty and injustice around them. Like the vineyard workers hired in the morning, many justify their greed and desire for more as a comparable reward for their hard work.

But unlike the parables, the landowners and father (or mother) figures are usually not prodigal in their generosity and or love. Most landowners operate according to the logic of those first-hired workers. The rules then get set to benefit a few, while the system and the rhetoric of society explain inequality, abuse, poverty, and injustice as merely a real-world reflection of “fairness.”

It is difficult for many of us to accept the gratuitous love, generosity, and mercy of God. We hold one another accountable to rules of “fairness,” sometimes even baptized in the water of religion, but it is not the radical unfairness of God; it is not the radical justice that is equivalent to God’s infinite mercy.

What our world desperately needs, and that the forthcoming year of mercy may offer, is a serious reconsideration of what we consider to be fair.

 Photo: File

More than Meets the Eye (and Stomach)

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 16, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Bread and wineWe are now coming to the end of the Johannine summer interlude to our usual Cycle B readings from the Gospel of Mark that includes the “Bread of Life” discourses. For the last month, beginning with the narrative of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, we have been hearing Jesus speak about bread, leading up to what we hear today, how he is “the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6).

Earlier this week I was talking with a friend about how I wasn’t sure how to approach preparing my homily for the weekend because it seems that you can only say so much about the Bread of Life and that I wasn’t particularly excited about still having to preach on John’s Gospel when I wanted Mark to return to the lectionary. Her response was one of both empathy and wry theological humor: “Yeah, I guess I can see how the Bread of Life discourses can get a little stale after a while!”

Bad though the joke may be, it got me thinking about how true it is that we can let things so familiar bore us, becomes objects or beliefs we take for granted, turn out to be subjects we’d just as well not address because we think it’s “all been done before.” This is how I was approaching this week’s readings. I felt like the temptation to fall into some predictable homily on the Eucharist was unavoidable.

But then the Spirit is still full of surprises.

Take for instance the wisdom that comes to us from the Book of Proverbs in the First Reading (Proverbs 9:1-6). Throughout the Hebrew Bible references to wisdom (hochma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek) are symbols of divine immanence, allusions to the God who draws near to creation. In this passage, Wisdom is personified and calls out to us:

“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To the one who lacks understanding, she says,
Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.”

This is an invitation for us to dine at the table of the Lord and become what we eat! We forsake the worldly foolishness and live imbued with the Wisdom of the Lord.

Jesus’s teaching about the Bread of Life picks up on a similar theme, but expands it such that what we are called to eat and drink is the sacramental presence of Christ himself (John 6:51-58).

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.

We are again called to become what we eat, but this time it is not Wisdom; it is the Body of Christ!

The Catholic Church teaches that Christ is made present in the celebration of the Eucharist, not just in the Eucharistic Species of bread and wine (though these certainly and firstly), but also in the Word of God (the scriptures) and in the Assembly and Presider! “He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7).

Perhaps there is no greater teacher on this subject than St. Augustine who, in his wisdom and eloquence, preached to catechumens about what is happening in the celebration of the Eucharist more than sixteen centuries ago.

My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! (Sermon 272)

Augustine exclaims that what we celebrate is far more than what meets the eye (simple bread and wine) and far more than what meets the stomach (the presence of Christ in the eucharistic species). Indeed, we say amen not just to our belief in the True Presence in bread and wine, but we say amen also to the recognition that we are also the body of Christ!

He continues: “When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are” (Sermon 272).

This is not just poetic or ‘cute’ language, this is the profound truth of our faith, which was taught by St. Paul through St. Augustine through the Second Vatican Council and today.

What it means to be the Body of Christ by virtue of our Baptism and communion with Christ and one another in the Eucharist is profound. And it is not without implications for our everyday living.

If we approach the Eucharist and respond “Amen” to the proclamation of “The Body of Christ,” we are affirming our responsibility for living our Gospel vocation to follow in the footprints of Jesus Christ. We are affirming the duty we have to care for each other and the rest of creation. We are affirming that we are willing to live up to the name we have received as Christians, acting in service of others in the way that Jesus himself did — loving, forgiving, healing, embracing, reconciling.

There are many ways we can put this faith into action, living as the Body of Christ in the world. One important way is by listening to the teaching of Pope Francis who called for the church to renew its commitment to one another and all of creation according to what he calls an “integral ecology” (Laudato Si). Pope Francis highlights the deeply connected relationship between the experiences of the global poor and the environmental crises of our day. We are called, as the Body of Christ, to hear both the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

How can we claim to be the Body of Christ, to say “Amen” at communion, if we do not say amen and respond to our sisters and brothers in need? If we do not say amen and respond to the rest of creation?

We are indeed called to become what we eat, true members of the Body of Christ. May that vocation never become stale for us!

Photo: Stock

A Different ‘Assumption’ About Bodies

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

dormiton_iconThis is A version of a reflection for the Vespers service on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was delivered at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Richardson, TX, on the evening of 14 August 2015. This was also the occasion of the blessing and installation in the church building of a newly commissioned painting of ‘The Death of St. Joseph.’

Body image is a real problem, especially for those in the United States. Though self-consciousness in terms of appearance, weight, age, and so on has recently begun to affect men and boys, our culture seems deeply committed to sending messages of inadequacy and negative judgment into the minds and hearts of women and girls. For example, advertisers flood the television commercial breaks and monopolize highway billboards with images and missives that convey a clear intention: if you do not buy our product, purchase our service, adjust this or that aspect of your life, then you will remain unsatisfactory.

So often people are made to feel ashamed of their bodies, comparing themselves to the airbrushed and exceptional physiques of women and men on the covers of tabloids and gossip magazines. Fear occupies the minds of many who worry about what their appearance or age, their gender or orientation, their complexion or skin color means for their prospects of finding a partner, securing a job, or generally navigating life.

It is understandable then that so many people may be quick to dismiss their bodies or wish to get rid of them all together. They seem to be a burden of insecurity, a constant reminder of what is wrong with us, what is ugly about is, what is the source of our shame.

In a sense, this is not a new crisis.

There is a longstanding philosophical tradition that, way before the advent of the Mad Men era of mass advertising, also insisted that there was something wrong with our bodies. This tradition goes back to at least the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his disdain for the material world, teaching that what was really important was the spiritual plane of existence, that which was perfected in the world of ideas or forms. The corporeal world in which we live and move and have our being was temporary and an imperfect reflection of that which was perfect, good, and true. The way one moved closer toward the perfection, goodness, and truth was to keep an eye toward the non-corporeal, dismiss the material, and focus on the “real” world far and away.

This way of thinking was amplified by the gnostic tradition, which advanced a dualistic understanding that very clearly distinguished the “spiritual” from the “material,” making clear that the latter was to be looked down upon, abandoned, despised. Furthermore, we human beings were really souls trapped in this temporary material bodies, existing here in this world as a sort of punishment or training (depending on the particular brand of Gnosticism) that would, with hope, lead eventually to our escape from earth and return to the spiritual world.

It is this perspective on reality and the body that set the context for the audience that St. Paul is addressing in our reading this evening (from 1 Corinthians 15:50-57). Whereas much of this letter is focused on the behaviors of the Corinthians, Paul’s focus in this passage is about a belief. The community at Corinth would have been deeply influenced by the Platonic and Gnostic sense that the physical body was a problem and in response, Paul sought to set the record straight.

Brothers and sisters:
When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ

Death was not to be viewed as good because it “freed” the spirit from the body as the culture of the time would have advocated, rather death was now to be understood as that transitus or liminal experience where we move from this life to the next, embracing the hope of a bodily resurrection that God had revealed in Christ Jesus.

The Corinthians, and perhaps even many today, would just as well prefer that after death our bodies – imperfect and problematic, embarrassing and now lifeless – simply remain behind on this planet while “our souls” are transported into some other dimension that we call heaven. Paul says that this is not what Christians believe and not what we have witnessed in Christ.

Instead, God has affirmed the value and importance of the material world and of our corporeal bodies. The resurrection is a bodily one, which means that salvation is not reserved for some spiritual soul alone. The wholeness of who we are, our entire selves, that which is physical and spiritual, all of us is what will participate in the “resurrection of the dead”

Paul doesn’t give all the answers, he admits not knowing exactly what this looks like. But he is pretty clear about what it means. It means that like Jesus, our bodies will be glorified, but not destroyed; our bodies will be raised, but not dismissed; our bodies are good, valuable, important, and essential to what it means to be who it is we are. Our bodies, as the theologian Karl Rahner taught, are the sacramental symbols of who we are – they make real, actual, present that which they represent: us.

It is this celebration of the dignity and value of our corporeal bodies and the material world that is behind the theology of the solemnity of the Assumption we celebrate today. Odd though it may seem at times, there is a foundational Christian principle at the core of the proclamation that Mary the mother of God was ‘assumed body and soul’ into heaven. Promulgated in the immediate wake of the Second World War, the church’s teaching on the Assumption of Mary is the fullest affirmation of what St. Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. Namely, that in God’s eyes everything about creation is good and valuable. When salvation, which the returning of all creation back to God, is complete, it is not only the “spiritual” dimensions of the world that God rejoices in, but that God celebrates our whole being, material and spiritual, body and soul.

As is the case in the equally enigmatic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma of the Assumption reflects that special place that Mary receives in God’s salvific action as the first recipient of the effects of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. Just as Mary was the first to receive fully the effects of redemption (in something of an anticipatory sense) according to what we call the Immaculate Conception, so too Mary was the first to receive fully the effects of the resurrection of the body.

Death is not something to be feared nor should we despise our bodies. As modern followers of Christ, the temptation to be contemporary Platonists and Gnostics is always beckoning us, but recalling the dogma of the Assumption of Mary and the preaching of St. Paul should remind us of God’s love for us, for our whole selves, for all aspects of us!

May we go forward living in the hope of the bodily resurrection, affirming the goodness of not only our own bodies but those of our sisters and brothers, while also celebrating the inherent dignity and value of all material creation.

Photo: File
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