14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
St. Paul frequently speaks negatively about the flesh in his writings. The second reading this Sunday offers one such example. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that they are not in the flesh, but in the spirit; and that they should not "live according to the flesh," and if they do they will die (Rom 8:9-13).
Is the flesh bad? Does following St. Paul's instruction mean that we have to live strict lives of asceticism, marked by severe fasting and self-denial? Must we all wear hair shirts and sleep on stone slabs? Does salvation consist in liberating our pure souls from our corrupt mortal bodies?
Not at all.
St. Paul is no Gnostic. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that in many ways survives to this day, in certain attitudes, if not in name. Gnosticism was a pluralistic belief system, borrowing elements from other religions, including Christianity. But at its core was a dualistic understanding of the universe. Gnostics believed in two gods: a good god, associated with light and spirit; and an evil god associated with darkness, physical creation, and the body. The human person, according to Gnostic belief, was a good soul trapped in an evil body. Gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge that would free the soul from the body (giving them their name, from gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge").
Different Gnostic sects took these ideas to various extremes. Some practiced strict asceticism, denying their bodies of any and all sensual pleasures in an attempt to live purely spiritual lives. Few signed up for this form of Gnosticism. The more popular sects were hedonistic, operating on the assumption that since the body is evil it doesn't matter what you do with it, so you might as well have a good time! These Gnostics were much more successful in making converts.
Any and all forms of Gnosticism were condemned by the Church in no uncertain terms. Firstly because the Gnostic understanding of God is so wrong: there are not two gods, but one God, who is totally and perfectly good. But Gnosticism also has a very incorrect understanding of the human person. Human beings are not good souls trapped in evil bodies. Human beings consist of spiritual souls and physical bodies joined together in one person. This means that our bodies are just as much a part of us as our souls.
Our bodies are part of our humanity, and therefore they are fundamentally good. At the end of the sixth day of creation, after God made man, He looked upon His creation and pronounced it good -- body, soul and all. Human beings are not evil, but we are fallen, which means we are capable of doing evil things.
This is what St. Paul is referring to when he instructs us not to live according to the flesh. "Flesh," the way Paul uses the word, does not refer to our physical bodies as much as it refers to the human condition after the fall.
After the original sin of Adam and Eve, our primordial friendship with God was broken. We lost the supernatural grace God originally bestowed upon the human race. The consequences of the fall are many. Our bodies are corruptible and subject to death and decay. Our minds have been darkened, our intellect no longer able to perceive the truth as clearly as we ought to. Our wills have been weakened, so that we are no longer able to obey God without the gift of His grace. And we suffer from concupiscence, which is a word that means "an inclination to sin." All of this Paul neatly summarizes by the single word "flesh."
When St. Paul tells warns us not to live according to the flesh, he is not telling us to deny our bodies because they are evil. He is telling us not to live according to our fallen human nature apart from Christ - because that way of life is futile and cannot save us.
He begins this passage by reminding the Romans that they are in the spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in them. They have been baptized. They have put on Christ. St. Paul says elsewhere of his own baptism that "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). We who have been baptized are no longer "debtors to the flesh." That is to say, our fallen human nature no longer holds sway over us. We are no longer destined to the death promised by the fall. But if we live as if we were still in our fallen state, following only after the base and selfish desires of our animal impulses, then we will die -- spiritually as well as physically.
But if we live according to the Spirit -- "the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead" -- then that same Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies also. Far from condemning our physical bodies as evil and corrupt, Paul says that if we live according to Christ our bodies will rise to everlasting life! We will have glorified bodies for all eternity in heaven!
The Christian faith, we must always remember, is incarnational. That word comes from the Latin word carne, which means "flesh." When we say the Son of God became incarnate, we mean that He took on human flesh. God, from that moment forward for all eternity, has a body made of human flesh. God thought the human body was so good, so worth redeeming, that He went and got one for Himself! How could we dare to think of our bodies as something evil!?
This incarnational attitude is reflected throughout our faith. This is why we revere Mary, because hers was the body through which God took His own body. This is why we sculpt statues and paint icons, why we burn candles and incense, ring bells and chant psalms. Through the incarnation, the things of this world have been made holy. Nowhere is this realized more than in the sacraments, which are visible signs of God's invisible grace transmitted to us through the physical things of this world.
We must be careful. Just because our physical bodies have been redeemed doesn't mean everything we do with our bodies is good and holy. We are still capable of sin. We still face temptation. We must avoid vice and illicit carnal pleasure, which is why St. Paul's warning not to "live according to the flesh" is as relevant now as it was when it was first written.
We are not Gnostics of either variety. We cannot do anything we want with our bodies just because it feels good -- gluttony, drunkeness, and fornication are all sins St. Paul specifically condemns in no uncertain terms. We must treat our bodies with respect, because they are good and our bodies matter. Some things may feel good to our bodies but are harmful to our spirits, and therefore we must not do them.
But neither are we extreme ascetics. Catholics can and should enjoy in moderation the good things in life. We can enjoy licit pleasures of the flesh (and there are many) because licit pleasures are good for the spirit. We sing. We dance. We enjoy good food and drink. We are moved by symphonies and sunsets. As the early 20th century writer Hilaire Belloc quipped, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there's always laughter and good red wine!"