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14th Ordinary Sunday (A), 05.07.20: The Spirit in the Flesh

These next four Sundays, we will hear from the very beautiful chapter 8 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul explains in the four excerpts we will hear four ways in which the Spirit of Jesus works in the world: first, in our bodies; second, in the “body” of creation; third, in our spirits, in the context of prayer; and fourth, in bringing the whole of creation to share in the eternal glory of Christ.

St. Paul is teaching us that the Spirit who abandoned creation because of original sin, is now back. Jesus destroyed sin to breathe the Spirit back into us. The paradox is that, as Christ died on the Cross, his Spirit gave life back to the soul of man and to the “soul” of creation. At the creation of the world, the Spirit brought order out of the deep chaos of the elements; at the redemption of the world, he now brings order out of the deeper chaos caused by sin.

The Spirit does not just work in the spiritual realm, but in the material realm, too. He is the “Creator Spirit.” The spiritual and material belong to each other, are ordered to each other. We ourselves are proof of that, for we are not just spirit or flesh but both together. Our very bodies and the created world itself are destined to share in the life of God, the most spiritual thing there is.

St. Paul starts today with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our flesh. When we were conceived in the womb, our bodies and souls were created together. Our soul was directly created by God, our bodies were indirectly created by him. Conception is a wonderful and holy collaboration between God and the beautiful act of love between a husband and wife who become mother and father in that same moment. While our body as well as our soul participates in the image and likeness of God, you could say that, in our souls we bear more properly the image and likeness of God; in our bodies, we bear the image and likeness of our parents.

When we were then baptized, which is a new conception in the spiritual order, the Holy Spirit made present within us the grace of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, the grace of Redemption. He freed us from sin, made us adopted children of the Father, part of the Mystical Body of Jesus, the Church, and filled us with the life of grace. But not only our souls were baptized: our whole being, including our body, was baptised, too. As St. Paul says today, the Spirit of Christ in us means that we belong to Christ, the whole of us, body and soul. We have become living temples of the living God, not just of the Holy Spirit but also of the Risen Christ. The Spirit of God has made his home in us, to stay! Our very flesh is fed with the Body of the Son of God. Through him we are united with the Father.

If you were to dissect the body, you would not find the soul in this or that part of it. Our spirit resides in the whole of our body. So, if the Holy Spirit has a footing in our spirit in particular, then by definition he resides in the whole of our body, too.

The uniqueness of our bodies comes from the uniqueness of our souls. Each shapes the other. We are not who we are without both of them. Our body and soul become more themselves as they work together across the arc of our life. That is why death is such a violent and absurd thing, because it separates them. We normally say of marriage “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder”, but it is equally applicable to the individual human being. Even though death divides them, they are destined to be reunited at the end of time when death is destroyed for ever. And because each soul and body is unique, we will be raised in the self-same body in which we were conceived in our mother’s womb. We have no other body! That’s why the Catholic tradition has been so careful to treasure the human body, even in death. Some will say that it’s impossible for our souls to be reunited with the exact and precise body we had in this life, because we end up as dirt and dust and ashes. How can our souls find again the combination of molecules in which it lived? Is it really impossible for the Creator who can create from nothing to bring back what has changed to what it was originally? We don’t need to worry about that. We don’t understand it, but we believe in the power of the Creator.

The Spirit works in us is to bring us to share in eternal life, body and soul. So, although our souls go to the Risen Jesus when we die, and if we have lived under the Spirit in this life, there is no question, as Paul says, that the Spirit will also give eternal life to our bodies on that Day. Otherwise, we will rise to condemnation.

Between our baptism and our hoped-for resurrection from the dead, then, our calling is to live our lives in the body as the Spirit desires. Our bodies and souls still suffer from the effects of original sin, so we often experience conflict between what the “flesh” wants (which is not just our body but also the darker or rebellious side of our souls) and what the Spirit wants. But St. Paul tells us that, because the Spirit is in us and with us, we are not indebted to the flesh. We are instead indebted to the Spirit. Paul expresses this as “putting an end to the misdeeds of the body” by the power of the Holy Spirit in us. That will involve a struggle. It will involve some hard choices. It will involve saying some serious “no’s” in order to say some serious “yeses.”

The accusation made against the Church that she is always saying, “no, no, no” in matters to do with the body fails to understand that she does so, not because she denigrates the body, but precisely because she treasures it. If you had a beautiful rose garden and people were in the habit of trampling all over it, you would fence it round and put up “no entry” signs. The “no’s” to do with sexual morality in particular which the Church enjoins upon us, and which common sense enjoins upon us, are in function of a far greater “yes” to the true, worthy and lasting beauty of the meaning of the human body in all of its dimensions, including the sexual. But because the sexual drive is so strong and its attraction so great, it needs all the more care in being guided and, at times, restrained, in being healed, in being properly ordered and directed in the way that the God who created our body intended from the beginning. We require to be educated in how to live our bodies as the Lord desires: we need a spirituality of the body.

So, there will be a struggle and sometimes we will fail and fall; we can experience limits on our freedom by our circumstances or because of psychological difficulties. Yet, because the Spirit is in us, if we engage sincerely with him, and don’t allow ourselves to be crushed by our failures, but keep trying and keep going, then the Spirit of God will eventually win in us – which means that we will win because of him! St. Paul adds the sobering remark that if we listen only to the flesh, we are “doomed to die” because it is only the Spirit who gives life.

The Holy Spirit loves our flesh and will raise it on the last day if we live in it as the he wants. He knows better than we do how we should live in the body. The body is God’s idea, not ours! The enemy of our flesh is not the Spirit of Christ but the spirit of selfishness and of a false and deceptive autonomy from God. The enemy of our flesh is not the law of Christ. His law is its greatest friend. The many and beautiful gifts of the flesh can only find their truest expression when they are received and lived as the Holy Spirit of Beauty himself directs.

Take time this week to become aware of the Spirit of Jesus as present gently but powerfully in your soul in all its parts: mind, will, conscience, memory and imagination. “Tune in” to the presence of the Spirit who is there within you!

Take time to then become aware of that presence overflowing into your entire body in all its parts, giving it life and strength and peace and healing. That’s what the Spirit comes to do: to bring that sense of wholeness and reconciliation between body and soul, to get rid of  the fights, the struggles, the antagonisms, the divisions that we often experience between body and soul. Your whole body belongs to the Spirit of Christ. He is in every part of you.

Identify one sin of the flesh that you may have, or have had, and hand it over to the Spirit.  The sins of the flesh are not just the sexual ones. You can go through all the senses and come across the sins associated with them: listening to things you shouldn’t hear, seeing things you shouldn’t see, speaking things you shouldn’t say; the sins of the throat, drinking and eating too much or gluttony; addiction to alcohol, drugs and almost anything else; sins of the hands such as stealing, being violent, sexual sins, touching that is not healthy, appropriate or life-giving; sins related to the sexual faculties; sins associated with where you let your feet take you. Other sins can be behaviours such as addiction to looking good, be it in terms of make-up or in terms of obsession with exercise. There is no sin when any of these things is done in moderation and in ways which are coherent with the purpose for which God gave them to us. It is excess and obsession which damage and which break the balance between body and soul and can lead to death rather than life.

When you have chosen one sin, then with an act of simple trust and confidence, say, “Holy Spirit, I surrender this sin to you. I surrender this part of my flesh, this dimension of my body to you who gave it to me in the beginning, at the moment of my conception. Give me your love and keep me true to you.”

We hold the treasure of the Spirit in the earthenware vessels of our bodies, but we are earth, o so dear to God. Let us then hold our own earthenware vessel just as dearly in return and surrender our bodies and souls to the glory of God.