Two important religious holy days occur in August: the feast of the Transfiguration, on Aug. 6, and the Solemnity of the Assumption, on Aug. 15. Those holy days are feasts of the body.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus gives us a foretaste of the resurrected body. He is transformed before the eyes of Peter, James and John. They recognize it’s him, but his body is different, changed and transformed.
Theologians explain that the Transfiguration was intended to help the apostles to bear the horrible suffering and death Jesus would suffer because this is what it leads to. The Transfiguration is not some momentary change or unique privilege of Jesus’; rather, this event has an intrinsic relationship to the Resurrection: Jesus conquered death in his human body. What he did and what he has become is where we are called to follow.
In that other August celebration of the body, the Assumption, Mary “at the end of her earthly life,” was taken body and soul into heaven. Not just soul. Body and soul. The Resurrection was the “first fruits” of Jesus’ conquest of sin and death, and the Assumption is the “second fruits.” Once upon a time, we focused on the Assumption as a special privilege of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and, indeed, it is. But — to expand on Gaudium et Spes (22) — if Jesus as the “final Adam” “fully reveals man to himself,” then so, too, does Mary as the final Eve.
The Assumption, in other words, like the Transfiguration, is not meant only to communicate a special privilege given to Mary as the Mother of God; this mysterious event also serves as a signpost pointing to our own ultimate destiny — body and soul — beyond this earthly life.
Since Vatican II, Marian theology has focused on Mary as the model disciple, the example par excellence of what it means to be (and what follows from being) a follower of Jesus.
What began with Jesus’ resurrection continues with Mary’s assumption. They are inherently connected. They show the destiny, the “freedom and glory,” God wills for his children, even as they “await the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:21, 23). What began on Easter Sunday ends on the Last Day, with the general “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Mary’s assumption shows us a glimpse of that same glorious final moment.
But perhaps we may be confused about how the heavenly reality is also one that our bodies will enjoy. We live in a time profoundly confused about the body, a period where, as the French say, les extremes se touchent (“the extremes meet”). But how do the extremes meet on such matters of the body?
On the one hand, we live in an era that attaches seemingly overweening attention to the body: The hypersexualization of modern culture, the cult of the body and the worship of the physical all suggest the body has a paramount value.
On the other hand, as a culture we are children of the West and of Descartes, reducing the person, the “I” to consciousness and thought, and treating the body as sub-personal, a tool attached to “me” that has no intrinsic or inherent meanings other than the ones I give them. So “parenthood” becomes whomever you have the most affection for: the gamete donor, the womb incubator or the college tuition payer. Sex is “only” biological, while one’s “authentic” identity is a state of mind. An unborn baby or child with disabilities is not “really” human because he cannot think at the level we expect. When we stop thinking (or at least being able to express that thinking) because of age, illness or condition of dependency, we change into a “vegetable.” And now it’s the latest thing to take the body we claim to value so much and turn it into compost to fertilize our flowerbeds.
So the body is all and the body is nothing, says a profoundly conflicted modern culture. Yes, indeed, we do have a big problem with understanding the body today. We need a time when the Church specifically focuses on that problem.
Pope St. John Paul II tried to focus our attention on it with his “theology of the body,” the topics of his Wednesday general audiences from 1981-1984, which sought to show the genuine value of the body as related to the person. That was in keeping with the larger leitmotif of his papacy: a genuine Christian humanism that recognized that human dignity was in fundamental danger in the contemporary world, and the only way to protect it was to recognize that becoming more truly human and growing more deeply in relation to God are two actions that stand in direct, not inverse, ratio. Humanity and holiness are commensurate, in other words, as Christ, both God and man, shows us.
Unfortunately, the effort to renew a Christian humanism in the years since John Paul II’s death have somewhat cooled. There is a temptation on the part of some Catholics to avoid sailing into the deep, looking instead for insular safe harbors. Lots of contemporary energy is being diverted in the Church by relitigating moral and doctrinal issues that should be clear and settled. On top of that, a good deal of the oxygen in the room is being sucked out by failing to reckon with the internal moral rot in the Church because of what people do with/to bodies.
Nine days separate the Transfiguration and the Assumption. Would it not be an appropriate time to initiate a novena to honor the proper and balanced Catholic teaching on the body, to teach and celebrate the importance of human incarnation? A novena in this period would be a useful observance of the bookend feasts as well as an opportunity, by preaching, by groups, by teaching, to discuss the theology of the body.
The novena even has a fair number of saints to help us along:
Aug. 8, the feast of St. Dominic, gives us a top-rate thinker who contends with the problem of body, soul and the human act of the human person.
Aug. 10, the feast of St. Lawrence the Martyr, shows us the willingness the clergy should have to bear witness to the truth in good cheer … even on a blazing griddle (not entirely inappropriate for bishops on today’s hot seats). That martyr also teaches us the value of bodily suffering.
Aug. 11, the feast of St. Clare, is an opportunity to speak of the value of virginity, which, as Don Williams already observed in 1980, “is not as common as it used to be.”
Aug. 14, the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, reminds us of the saint who presented his body as a “whole burnt offering” that went up a Nazi chimney in German-occupied Poland.
Since 2012, we’ve taken the two weeks before the Fourth of July as a “Fortnight of Freedom” to highlight growing threats to religious liberty in America. We might consider these nine days of August in a similar manner as an opportunity to highlight the dignity of the body.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from
Falls Church, Virginia.
All views expressed herein
are exclusively his.