Flesh and Spirit and the Atlanta Shootings

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A Scrutiny readings)

Cornelis de Vos (—1651), “The Raising of Lazarus”
Cornelis de Vos (—1651), “The Raising of Lazarus” (photo: Public Domain)

On this fifth Sunday of Lent, with the commemoration of our Lord’s Passion on Good Friday still a dozen days away and Easter not for two weeks, our readings speak to us of resurrection — of the triumph of life over death.

Even during this penitential season, every Sunday — the Lord’s Day — is a little Easter, a celebration of “the crowning truth of our faith,” the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Not mere reversal of death, like the raising of Lazarus in today’s Gospel — or the daughter of Jairus, the widow’s son at Nain, and others who came back from death, only to die again at some later date.

What we celebrate every Sunday is not the reversal of death but its defeat. Death swallowed up in victory. Our mortal flesh, the human flesh of Jesus, re-clothed in immortality. Sown in weakness, buried in weakness, but raised in power. Sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.


Our Hope is Not Merely Heaven

This is what we celebrate and believe; this is our hope as Catholics. Our hope is not merely the salvation of our souls. Our hope is not merely heaven.

Our hope as Catholics — the hope inherited from our elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people; the hope proclaimed by Jesus in his debate with the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection of the dead; the hope inaugurated by our Lord on Easter Sunday — our hope is not merely the salvation of our souls, but the redemption of our bodies as well. 

Not merely heaven, but new heavens and a new earth. Creation itself — earth and sky, sun and moon, planets, stars, galaxies — all of creation set free from death, decay, disorder, entropy, sharing forever in the glorious freedom of the children of God when all of humanity follows Jesus Lord in rising from the dead at the end of history.

This is the hope we confess in the Creed when we say “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” When Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he speaks not raising her brother later that day but of this future resurrection of all of humanity. Christ is the first-fruits; the rest of the harvest is still to come.


Redemption and Celebration

This great work of redemption of humanity and creation began with the great mystery of the Incarnation, with God the eternal Son joining our human nature to his divine nature — the mystery that we celebrate this coming Thursday, on the great Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, at her fiat, “Let it be to me according to your word,” the eternal Word became flesh within her womb. 

Our redemption is accomplished in the mysteries we celebrate next week: the mysteries of Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, death, and Resurrection.

We are each initiated into this redemption through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die with Christ and are raised to eternal life. This is what our catechumens have been preparing for in their formation and in the scrutinies these three Sundays.

In the waters of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, our catechumens be initiated body and soul, as all Catholics are, into the redemption of Jesus Christ. God created us body and soul, and both body and soul share in redemption.


Flesh and Spirit

Some people are confused on this point by the sort of language that we hear in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

Some people read words like these and get the idea that spirit is good but flesh is bad. We’re good spirits trapped in evil flesh. 

No! That’s not at all what St. Paul means by “in the flesh.” He means we must not be controlled or led about or directed by our bodily appetites and passions and natural impulses, which are often distorted or inflamed by concupiscent tendencies toward sin. Rather, our spirit, in communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit, must govern our passions and appetites and impulses, not the other way around. 

This is part of the reason for Lenten penance: to practice governing our (sometimes concupiscent) appetites and not being governed by them.

We are not souls in bodies. We are body and soul, a unity broken in death but restored in resurrection. 

This is why St. James tells us we can’t love our neighbor and not care about their bodily needs: if they’re hungry or in need of clothing or shelter.

This is why Pope St. John Paul II, in his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), quoting the Second Vatican Council, condemns not only crimes “opposed to life itself” — murder, abortion, euthanasia — but also crimes that “violate the integrity of the human person” or “insult human dignity”: torture, slavery, prostitution, human trafficking.

How many such crimes were connected in some way to the terrible shooting last week in Atlanta?


Insulting Human Dignity

We don’t yet know the 21-year-old killer’s motives. We know he talked about wanting to “eliminate temptation” and said the establishments he targeted, which he seems to have visited, provided an “outlet” for what he called his “sex addiction.”

He also talked about plans to attack some type of pornography industry. And, while six of the seven women he killed were of Asian heritage, he claims his motives were not racial. We don’t know yet what’s true or false here.

Here are some things we do know.

Murder, of course, is a crime directly opposed to life itself. What about lust? According to Pope St. John Paul II in his theology of the body addresses, lust objectifies the other person, it reduces them to an object of one’s own pleasure and desire — a crime that insults human dignity. That’s true of using pornography and having recourse to prostitutes.

Too often such sins are thought and talked about only in terms of one’s own purity, not the other person’s dignity. 

Once we do that, it’s easy to reduce people to “temptations,” blaming them and how they look or act or how they’re dressed as a sin against us, rather than holding ourselves responsible for respecting the dignity of others in all circumstances. For being “in the spirit” rather than “in the flesh.”


Holding Women Responsible for Men’s Thoughts and Actions

Too often this leads to holding women responsible for the thoughts and actions of men, blaming women when their dignity is insulted in words or actions. Girls are blamed for leading boys astray. Wives are blamed, or feel guilt, if their husbands are unfaithful. 

And sometimes this can lead to violence, especially against women.

“Teacher,” the crowd said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery.” Oh. All by herself? Presumably a man was involved, but they didn’t bring him to Jesus.

Pope Benedict XVI, describing King David’s sin with the wife of Uriah, wrote accurately

“Blinded by his passion for Bathsheba, he wrenches her from her husband, one of his most faithful warriors, and then orders his assassination in cold blood.”

David’s sin with Bathsheba was a violent act. He was the king; she had no say in the matter. But so often Bathsheba has been misrepresented as a seductress rather than a victim.

I’m sure many women here — and, for that matter, many men — can confirm from their own experience that there is no “safe” way for women to dress or behave to prevent men from objectifying them and insulting their dignity.

And of course women also can and do objectify men and insult their dignity, although more often it’s women who suffer violence, especially deadly violence.


Taking Responsibility

Obviously I’m not saying that dress and attire don’t matter. The Catechism (2522) talks about the importance of modesty in how we dress and act. “Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. … It is discreet.”

But if our right eye, or our right hand, causes us to sin, the problem is not the other person. Our Lord holds each one of us responsible for our own eyes, our own hands, our own hearts. “Live in the Spirit,” St. Paul says, and you will not gratify the concupiscent desires of “the flesh.”

I’m not saying this is always easy. “The flesh” and “the spirit” struggle against each other all our lives. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. This is part of what Lent is all about: practicing self-mastery, doing penance.

Redemption began with the Incarnation. Our Lord came both to reconcile fallen humanity to God and to reconcile humanity with itself. Body and spirit. Male and female. People of different social groups, classes, racial and ethnic groups. 

This is what each of us is called, by the grace of God, to work for in our own lives and in our world, each of us taking responsibility for ourselves and upholding the dignity of others, as we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.