Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension Of Jesus And The Importance Of The Human Body

(Ascension Thursday 2007: This homily was given on May 17, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 1-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension Thursday 2007]

When Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made man—ascended into heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead, he did so with his human body.

That fact is significant, because it means that ever since Ascension Thursday, heaven has been inhabited by a divine person who has a body like ours (although his body is already in a glorified state).

This is a truth of our faith—a truth of our faith that has some very practical implications for our daily lives. It’s not just a tenet of the Creed!

You see, if the Son of God had discarded his human body after his resurrection, and gone to heaven as a pure spirit, it would have sent us a message that our bodies are really not very important; it would have said to us that only our souls and spirits matter.

But that’s not what happened. As I just said, Jesus went to heaven with his body! That means our bodies do matter—they matter a lot!

It’s not a coincidence that the Church says we are to respect the human body always—even in death.

Sometimes when a relative dies, an otherwise good Catholic will ask questions like, “Why can’t I scatter grandma’s ashes to the four winds at the beach? Grandma loved the beach!” “Why can’t I keep grandma’s ashes in the living room on her favorite coffee table? She sat in front of that table for years; it was her favorite place in the house.”

Grandma’s ashes are to be interred in the ground or in a mausoleum, as the proper committal prayers of the Church are prayed, because her ashes are the ashes of a human body that will be raised from the dead at the end of time! They’re the ashes of a body that was redeemed by Jesus Christ; they’re the ashes of a body that was made to live forever in a glorified state in the kingdom of heaven. Hence they’re not to be thrown around like confetti at a wedding; nor are they to be used as a decoration for the living room coffee table!

Human bodies are to be treated with proper respect in death, because that’s the way we’re supposed to treat our bodies in life!

Of course, in treating our bodies with respect in life, we need to avoid two extremes: worship and abuse—both of which are extremely common today.

People who “worship” their bodies are people who value their physical health above everything else—including the health of their souls.

It’s a phenomenon that Pope John Paul II and other popes of the past have referred to as “the cult of the body”.

Now what makes this attitude so difficult for us to resist is the fact that our materialistic and hedonistic culture actively promotes it! For proof of that, just watch one of those cosmetic surgery programs on the Discovery Health Channel; or pick up a bodybuilding magazine or the latest issue of Cosmopolitan; or read the statistics on how many people—men and women alike—suffer from eating disorders.

Now don’t misunderstand me here. As one who loves to work out at the gym, I’m a firm believer that maintaining your physical health is good; I’m a firm believer in the importance of taking proper care of your body. But your body in its present condition is not immortal—so its value is not absolute. You can do 1,000 push ups and sit-ups a day, and have plastic surgery on 90% of your body—the fact is you’re still gonna die!

You may “die at your ideal weight” (as the old saying goes), but you’re still gonna die!

Pope Pius XII said it very simply and very clearly many years ago: “Care for the body, strengthening of the body—yes; but cult of the body, making a god of the body—no.”

It’s a hard balance to achieve—especially nowadays—but we all need to work at it.

Which brings us to the other extreme that must be avoided, namely abuse. Those who worship their bodies care for them too much; those who abuse their bodies care for them too little.

Obviously it’s wrong to abuse your body through drugs or alcohol—that’s a given. But it’s also wrong to abuse your body in other ways: for example, by eating too much—or by not eating enough.

It’s wrong to abuse your body by failing to go to the doctor when you’re sick, or by failing to take the medication you know you need to take for an illness that you have.

And it’s wrong to abuse your body by engaging in immoral sexual behaviors.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ reminds us that our bodies are made for heaven, not just for earth.

Lord Jesus, help us all to remember that, and help us to live our lives accordingly—treating our bodies (and the bodies of others) with the respect they deserve, so that someday our glorified bodies will join yours in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.