10 June 2007
Fr. Robert Weiss
“Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, etc…” Translated: “Sing out the mystery of the Glorious Body and Blood of the King of all peoples on earth.” This melody and these words you will hardly download on your Ipod! The hymn was composed in 1263 by St. Thomas Aquinas, who is widely considered the most eminent scholastic theologian in church history. He articulated its thoughts for the creation of the feast of Corpus Christi, Latin for “the Body of Christ.” The words reflect the Church’s belief in the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ.
What is a “body?” My modest dictionary gives at least 15 definitions of the word “body.” One is “the flesh or material substance, as opposed to the spirit.” Another meaning is what we have here today: a body that is a group of people. As such we are “the people of God.” We are His Body. The Body of Christ is sacred. We are body and soul. We too are sacred.
Yet how sacred are our bodies? Our bodies are more than our sexual parts. When we read the biblical Canticle of Canticles or Song of Songs, we sense a lyrical freedom and appreciation of the bodies of lovers as creations of God. Yet, in contrast, the attitude and teachings of the Church relative to our bodies has been negative over the centuries.
One sign of this is found in the Sacramentary – the red-bound book on the altar. Almost every day of the year a particular saint is commemorated at Mass. Yet none of the famous people from the Old Testament is designated a saint. There is no Saint Judith, no Saint Rebecca – patron saints of my wife and daughter. None of the famous women and men from these early days of the ancestors of Jesus were virgins. We never hear of Saint Moses or Saint Abraham or Saint Sarah. In the Sacramentary, a female person designated “saintly” had to be a queen, a virgin, a martyr or a religious nun. To become a male saint, one had to be king, priest, bishop, pope, theologian, missionary, martyr or monk. None are named as father, mother, devoted married couple, mature adult or child. Even on All Saints Day, there’s no clear mention of dedicated lives of parents or families with children. Only on July 26 do we have the feast of Joachim and Ann, parents of the Mother of Jesus; and glaring omissions are also obvious in the Litany of Saints.
Growing up, my sisters and I and the youth of our day were given to believe that the private, sexual parts of our bodies were unholy. Playing with our bodies and touching ourselves were sinful and had to be confessed. Much of this attitude goes back centuries to the “Fathers” of the Church – especially to St. Augustine in the 4th century. Augustine had been heavily influenced by the Manicheans who emphasized the dual character of human existence. The Manicheans taught the body and flesh as evil; only the soul, the spirit, was good. Augustine had lived with a woman who was his lover and the mother of his son Adeodatus (a name meaning “Given by God”). He abandoned them both when he “got the Spirit,” and then he went on to teach that “original sin” was passed on by parents in the act of sexual love leading to the conception of their child.
St. Thomas Aquinas said that a woman was a misbegotten, malformed, imperfect male being; this led in part to the exclusion of women from receiving the sacrament of Orders. Earlier still, some church leaders branded Mary Magdalene a prostitute, a woman of the streets, a person unholy and unworthy to share the dignity of being a close and devoted friend of Jesus, even though she was among the women who never abandoned him.
In medieval castles, the sanctuaries of family castles were never found under the same roof as the bedrooms; they were instead an outward extension of the building because the expression of sexual love above or below was considered an unworthy gesture toward the holiness of Eucharist.
Today we live our lives contemplating and experiencing the enigma of our sexuality. The idea of Wisdom or the Holy Spirit as feminine in Catholic theology is seldom heard, again indicating the Church’s negative attitude. The 1968 Encyclical of Pope Paul VI condemning artificial birth control caused a major upheaval in the thinking of Catholics the world over. Today the use of condoms to help control the spread of AIDS is still controversial. Men and women have done their own reflecting in conscience on the use of contraceptives in their private and family lives.
Cultures and religions different from ours also reflect centuries old attitudes towards sexuality. The chador in Islam symbolizes many things but certainly provides a degree of modesty. The banks of the Seine River in Paris or the outdoor swimming facilities in Duesseldorf (where Judith and I took our young children in years past) are places where being “topless” is the accepted public norm for sunbathing. On the North American continent, the bikini, the Speedo brief and six-pack abs are standards of beauty; yet breastfeeding – a beautiful gesture and expression of mother love – is a scandal when done in public. The “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl that caused so much notoriety in the USA didn’t even get a nod in Europe.
As parents, we watch and guide our children into maturing sexuality. Seen positively, they have flirted, wooed, courted, dated, kept company, gone together, fallen in love and maybe married. We warned them about seduction, temptation, harassment, shacking up, exploitation, abuse and other things carried out by people having little respect, reverence and responsibility for the wonder power of sexuality in our lives. Now we pray for their happiness as full-grown adults.
This being said, we celebrate the reality of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. “Sanguinisque pretiosi, quem in mundi pretium…” the hymn continues, pointing to the Eucharist as foreshadowed in the gesture of Melchizedek in the presence of Abram in today’s reading. The Eucharist is again foreseen in the feeding of the 5000. All four Gospel writers relate the events of the Last Supper at which Jesus took two basic forms of human nutrition (bread as food and wine as drink) and made them into Eucharist. This Eucharist, this Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, remains the source of our nourishment of the Spirit and the inspiration for our beliefs and actions.