To historians, the expansion of the early Church is a bit of a mystery. How, in the face of overwhelming persecution, peer pressure, and social isolation, did the Church not only survive but actually overcome the Roman Empire? The Empire had legions, and a will to power, and a violent aggression that was completely unchecked by morality. During their entertainments, a losing gladiator would bleed out on the sand while 50,000 fans cheered and the victor gloated, and if you doubt how violent it really was, St. Augustine went once to watch and afterwards knew he had committed a horrible sin. He includes it in his Confessions about mistakes he had made. Roman women would, without shame, expose newborn babies in the wilderness to die. There was a plant that grew in Libya called Silphium that when ingested would poison a baby in the womb. Silphium is now extinct because the Romans used all of it. Slaves were sentenced to death by working in the copper mine or as rowers chained up in the bowels of Roman ships. They were used as objects and thrown away.
You can see why the ruling class of Roman society would have hated the Church. The world created by the Romans was based on power and pleasure, but even though those vices sound good in the beginning they are intensely dehumanizing. Here come St. Peter and St. Paul, both talking about how God made us to be happy, and virtue is more valuable than power, and that God loves slaves, and women, and widows. God loves the poor, the crippled, the prisoners. In other words, God loves not only the entire concept of humanity. He loves you, exactly as you are.
Christianity is the Word of Life that destroys class structure, racism, and tyranny. This is why the Church grew; not because of clever marketing, or cooperating with the government, or warfare. The Church offers a human way of life. We see this in the very structure of the way God chooses to save us from sin. He takes a human body, not as a shell for his spirit to inhabit, but for the flesh to become really, truly part of himself. Jesus is incarnated. He is not a religious idea. He is a person. And yet he is God, the bridge between human and divine, and through him the human body is revealed to be sacred.
Christianity requires faith, yes, but it isn’t blind faith. It’s built on reasonable concepts, among them the commitment to the dignity of all persons as a human right. It’s funny, the Church is mocked for being unreasonable, but it’s actually the world that is unreasonable. We see it in the way that the Roman Empire ran on pure power and violence…not reasonable decisions about creating an equitable, free society.
Jesus is the example for us of how our reasonable faith must find expression in the physical realm, it must become incarnate. The Word has become flesh and we live by the way we think. St. John writes, “Let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” In other words, put flesh and bones into your love and make it real.
This is where theology of the body comes from. What we do with our bodies and how we treat the bodies of others really matters, because salvation is not a purely spiritual escape to heaven. Our Lord is redeeming the entirety of the physical world and our resurrection will be physical.
It’s easy to talk about theology of the body when it’s about the beauty of the marital relationship, having beautiful little babies, eating well, exercising, that sort of thing, but there’s another side to it.
I recently read an article on the website Mama Needs Coffee (amen), and a mother writes about how pregnancies have wrecked her body and she is struggling physically with the burden of motherhood, about how she doesn’t like her image in the mirror. We could come up with more examples of less than perfect bodies. How about when we get older and become frail. How about those who are chronically sick, or losing their memory, or those who are developmentally delayed? Are those persons important, even though their bodies are less than perfect? The world likes strong bodies, healthy bodies, athletes and movie stars, but as soon as that body passes some arbitrary line wherein it becomes a burden to society it becomes disposable or a source of shame.
We’re seeing this right now with Alfie Evans, a little boy in England who has a neurological disorder – you may have seen this in the news – Taking away all parental rights, the hospital and government have decided to starve him to death because he’s a burden. Pope Francis is begging to let the little boy come to Rome where the Vatican hospital will take care of him. The boy’s father and mother are frantic. They know their boy, they know his value, how much he is loved. This is theology of the body. That little boy, that mother who knows she has sacrificed her youth for her children, consider how they are the purest imitation of Christ, his battered body hanging from the Cross, a sacrifice of love. His body, your body. They are connected.
Who is worth saving? Alfie Evans? Is there a reason that children with Down Syndrome are no longer being given a chance to be born even though they’re among the happiest, sweetest human beings I’ve ever met? Is there a reason that certain older people are denied treatment because their lives are not considered valuable anymore? When we reject the Cross, we reject humanity, and that is so sad.
It isn’t simply that we are supposed to be such good people that we are willing to tolerate the less fortunate. The point is, we don’t know how to make that judgment, only God does. God says everyone is worth saving, and if that’s the case, then every life has value, a way in which they make the world better. There’s a documentary out right now about L’Arche, which is a place where people with disabilities live together in community. One reviewer says shows a series of “encounters to be unveiling a great secret of life: the mysterious pull of being itself toward love. Even the simplest moments—a picnic in a sun-lit field, residents feeding one another around a table, a stroll through the woods—draw both the residents and caretakers into a pattern of giving, of sharing, of willing another’s good. Presence draws L’Arche into love, and love into the joy of the present, offering a kind of foretaste of the rhythm of heaven.”
Perhaps it is the weak who are actually strong.
St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”
“I am the Vine and you are the branches,” says Our Lord. We all belong to each other, members of the same flowering, vital, life giving Body of Christ. We don’t throw each other to the lions. We care for the weakest among us, no matter what anyone else says, and in fact this is how we conquer the world. We know that this is how human beings treat each other. The very God of the universe shows this to be true, and his Body broken for us proves that in the weakness of love, he is the strongest of all.