A Different ‘Assumption’ About Bodies
This 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.