There is a lot of excitement here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because seven weeks from today Pope Francis will lead us in the closing Mass of the Eighth World Meeting of Families. He will be with us in person—that is, in the body.
There are any number of ways in which we can be present to one another, for example: through photographs, letters, cards, emails, text messages, tweets, phone calls, Skype, FaceTime, etc.
While each of these vehicles are in some way and in some sense forms of “personal presence,” the only way in which we human beings can be fully present to another human being needs to include the real presence of the body. The fullness of personal presence cannot omit the body. The person in his or her fullness and the person in his or her body are inseparable.
This Friday, August 15, we Catholics will celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary. If Mary’s body were not yet present in heaven, then Mary in the fullness of her person would not yet be enjoying eternal life. No body, no complete human presence. No body, imperfect human presence. No body, impeded and diminished human presence.
I never thought much about cemeteries until I was assigned to a parish with twenty acres set aside for the care of the bodies of its deceased members. Every time I was in our cemetery I’d see people visiting the graves of their loved ones, caring for and spending time with the bodies of their beloved. I still kid that we should have a signal light installed by the cemetery’s gate to accommodate the volume of traffic. In time, though, I began to perceive another level of activity which is now expressed on the sign that welcomes visitors (Italics added):
Welcome to Saint Ann Cemetery, an Act of Saint Ann Parish.
Here the bodies of our beloved await the Resurrection and the Life of the World to come.
Here we acknowledge their mark on this earth and in our lives.
Here we pray for the repose of their souls as we pray for the repose of our own souls.
Here we come to seek and profess faith, to have hope renewed,
and to continue our love in the Communion of Saints.
In and through these bodies Christ himself has loved and was loved.
Today we reach the third installment of our five Sunday unpacking of the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. In this chapter Jesus opens for us the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. We call the Holy Eucharist the “Most Blessed of the Sacraments”, in part, because of the quality of Christ’s Presence that is available to us only here. While Jesus is truly present to us in many ways—in creation; in those who suffer; in prayer; the Scriptures; the other Sacraments—it is only in this Sacrament that Christ is truly Present to us in the fullness of His Person—in his Body.
In heaven there will be no sacraments, not even the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In heaven signs and sacraments will be replaced by the reality toward which these earthly signs pointed us: full, complete, personal, bodily union with the Resurrected and Bodily Person who describes Himself in today’s Gospel with these words: “I am 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.”
Why all this talk about body and flesh, isn’t the spirit, our soul more important? Well, the body is good and holy because God created it, as well as the soul, in His Image, which St. John Paul II talks about extensively in his beautiful work called “Men and Women He Created Them–The Theology of the Body.” In it St. John Paul II talks about our true, inherent dignity, what is was like before the fall of Adam and Eve, our redemption by Christ and what this means for our afterlife. It is not “body bad and soul good.”
In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians we hear: “So be imitators of God….as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering…” In order to hand over himself, Christ had to hand over his body. We, each of us, are on a journey to eternal life, to personal, bodily union with the God who through the Incarnation has made Himself available for personal, bodily union with human beings. In today’s first reading we heard how Elijah was enabled to continue on his journey because of God’s care in the form of a miraculous meal.
May the miraculous meal we receive today—Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Flesh for the Life of the World—help us over the next seven days to be imitators of God and so “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven (us) in Christ.”
Rev. John J. Newns was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1974 and is pastor of St. Ann Parish in Phoenixville, PA. Father Newns has attended the Theology of the Body I and II courses, as well as the TOB & Priestly Identity Retreat.