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In the Flesh

“You seem like a very spiritual person,” I’m told from time to time when I meet someone new. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience. Sometimes it’s said (with either awe or contempt) to mean “Oh, you’re one of them.” Sometimes it’s said conspiratorially to mean “Oh, you’re one of us.”

In the second case, it’s somewhat like what Yoda says to the neophyte Luke Skywalker: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

I don’t know about you, but I never know how to respond to that kind of pronouncement. It’s nearly always meant as a compliment, and it would be rude to correct the well-meaning person. But what I would like to say is that I am not a spiritual person (that would be an angel) but an embodied person (a human being).

But the idea of leaving behind “this crude matter” is quite seductive. How wonderful to escape the muck of this world, to be free of the rot and decay of human life. More than that, how wonderful to discover that I actually belong to a special class, a higher level of being than the poor drudges around me who must farm the land and run the factories—and obey the moral law.

But the Psalmist says, “I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” He isn’t just talking about his soul. The language is very corporeal:

For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well.
My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance . . . (Ps 139:13-16)

If God had wanted us to escape crude matter, he would not have become man; he would not have taken on flesh; he would not have been born amongst farm animals; he would not have obeyed Joseph, Mary, and the Law; he would not have worked as a carpenter, had dirty feet, or used spittle to heal. He would not have submitted to a cruel and unjust execution. He does not call us to be “spiritual” people—whatever that means. He called us to serve him in our bodies and with our bodies. Moreover, he made the path to holiness out of physical signs: the sacraments and the Church. That is (to borrow David Lang’s phrase) why matter matters and why the Church fiercely protects the physical means of those spiritual realities.

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