2nd Sunday Ordinary Time 2018
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit
In 1954 a science fiction story appeared in a series of installments in Collier’s Magazine, a prominent U.S. magazine. It was called The Body Snatchers, and its plot was quite simple. A species of intelligent creatures from outer space begins to invade the earth in the form of seeds that produce and then inhabit perfect duplicates of the bodies of human beings who are then reduced to dust. The book was popular enough to be adapted for the movies and was reproduced several times over the years. Indeed, this plot of the human body serving as the nesting place for aliens has had many different versions in science fiction, and it is curious as to why this theme is so popular among a good many people.
Hopefully, this plot has been successful because it horrifies people, a successful form of fiction for centuries, and especially popular since the movie version of Mary Shelly’s horror novel Frankenstein. The very idea of the human body being an incubator for some alien life form is horrifying to any normal human being, as is cannibalism or a terrible mutilation of the human body. But why are these things so horrifying to normal people today? The answer surely has to be found in the influence of the revealed truth about man which over centuries eliminated horrors like cannibalism and mutilating form of punishment.
Respect for the human body as such was not exactly a moral norm in pre-Christian societies anywhere in this world. For instance, cannibalism was practiced in many places on this earth among some of our ancestors, and torture and desecration of the bodies of enemies were normal occurrences in war. It was only because of their own cultural transformation brought about by Christianity that such horrors from our past were abolished, and it was Christian morality that caused that transformation by instilling in the souls of new Christians the revealed truth that man, body and soul, was made in the image and likeness of God.
However, the full implications of that great revealed truth about man, that he is the made in the image of God, required a great deal of time to fully transform even Christian cultures in their attitude toward many ancient cultural barbarities when it came to the body. One has only to consider the torture practices of medieval Christian kingdoms and the barbaric punishment of drawing and quartering practiced for treason in Christian England from the High Middles ages until fully rejected in the late 19th Century.
Still, the teaching of Jesus regarding the body, as we see in the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, over time finally will bring out the full implications of the value and dignity of man, body and soul, because he is made in the image of God. Paul teaches that the body just like the soul is divinely valued, and it is even to be seen as sacred precisely as an effect of the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. The Christian believer clearly affirms the true sacredness of the human flesh of Jesus, the flesh offered up for our salvation on the cross, the flesh raised from the dead as the first fruits of the new life given to man through Christ. What the soul receives from Christ, and then the body as well, is a new form of life for man, a share in the divine Life, a Life rooted in and made possible by that risen humanity, body and soul, of the Lord Jesus.
Thus, St. Paul teaches us this great implication of that truth: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.” So, if by virtue of our baptism, our bodies actually become true “members of Christ,” grafted in a mysterious way onto his humanity, then our bodies must indeed themselves become truly sacred because they now share in the holiness of Christ’s own risen flesh.
Then Paul explains this implication of the true image of God being made even greater, more fully an image, sacred, because it is joined to Christ:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price.
In the first passage Paul teaches us that because we are members of Christ [by Baptism], we, body and soul, also become one Spirit with him. But to make sure that we correctly understand what it means to become one Spirit with Him, He adds that the spirit is in fact the Holy Spirit, and thus our bodies like our souls become a true temple of the Holy Spirit. He means all that quite literally, and thus does he proclaim the ultimate dignity of our human bodies.
God, from whom we receive the Holy Spirit, has established that the human body is forever to be His temple. Thus, we baptized must no longer view our bodies as our own, in the sense that it is some “thing,” and thus we can do with it whatever we choose. The body is now, by virtue of Baptism, a living temple of the Holy Spirit, and thus it must be treated as such and honored by our actions, just like the Temple in Jerusalem.
However, the Spirit taking possession of our bodies is not to be thought of like the aliens taking possession of the bodies in that fictional account above. First, the “possession” is accomplished only if we will it, unlike the “invasion” in the horror story.
Secondly, by this “possession,” the Spirit does not steal our bodies or destroy them or degrade them in any way, but rather the Spirit utterly and unimaginably perfects them and makes them live forever as God’s holy temple. It is all accomplished in perfect freedom and ends in an utterly transcendent perfection.
And finally, the One who through the Spirit takes possession of our humanity is not in any way alien to us. For our divine guest is, in fact, our Creator, the One who sustains our very existence, and the One who has redeemed us. Thus He is truly, as St. Augustine says, more interior to us and closer to us than we are to our very selves since God is the wellspring and foundation of our very being.
Sadly, however, even two millennia after this divine revelation, and more than a century after things like bodily torture and bodily mutilation have been abolished in Christian countries as well as many others, the desecration of the body continues in other ways and is practiced, or at least tolerated, by many Christians even today.
So, lest we become too ready to condemn our Christian ancestors, we should note that the actual desecration that Paul focuses on here is not that kind of physical horror, but on what he calls immorality “in the body”: The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Indeed, St. Paul here and elsewhere is specifically talking about the reduction of the body to an instrument of immoral pleasure in sins of the flesh. The Christian must not fornicate nor commit adultery or sodomy or any sin of the flesh and not simply because it is against the natural, moral law, the 6th commandment. More importantly all this to be avoided because the baptized body is not longer simply ours, to do with as we wish, but is now truly the Lord’s and the temple of His Spirit! Indeed its true dignity will grow precisely by doing what Paul concludes this passage with as a command: Therefore glorify God in your body.
Thus, leaving aside the obvious sins physically desecrating the body, we Christians must also take care not to desecrate our bodies by the sins of the flesh St. Paul speaks about. Again, our bodies are holy temples because they are made so in Baptism, and we not desecrate them by engaging in such sins of the flesh. And likewise we must also respect and honor the body of every other person, including those not yet baptized. For their bodies too, even though not yet made temples of God, are nonetheless already called to holiness. In their human nature, they are made in the image of God which opens them to the redeeming action of the Spirit. Thus, becoming God’s temple is their divinely willed destination just like ours, whether they achieve that destiny soon or later, or not at all. God created all of us for this great and noble destiny, to be His dwelling place forever, and we must work diligently to keep that dwelling place holy here and now, until at last it comes to perfection as God’s Temple in Heaven, in the resurrection of the blessed.
Yet today the desecration of the body by the sins of the flesh has become a cultural pandemic that has infected untold numbers of Christians’ who no longer see or value the body’s true holiness and true destiny as God’s Temple. Beyond that awful development, we see the ultimate desecration of the body in the slaughter of countless children in the womb, a sin that cries out to Heaven and morally degrades the perpetrators while desecrating the victims. We may have gotten beyond certain physical and moral horrors of previous ages, but we have now, as a culture, fallen back into other physical and moral horrors that mark and mar our contemporary world cultures.
There is ever only one path to recovering the true Christian vision of human value and dignity that has been so compromised if not destroyed in our era. That path obviously includes a return to Christian truth, both anthropological and moral, and a deep commitment to exhaustive prayer for our poor world. Hopefully the new morality and its degrading vision of the person, body and soul, can eventually be overcome by a renewed and more accurate understanding of the implications of the doctrine that the body is meant to be a temple of the Holy Spirit and member of Christ’s mystical body. With abundant prayer and serious doctrinal reflection, the victory of life over death and of virtue over sin can be won. But that victory involves the cross and it will never be easy.