What is a Body?

(Homily for Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Bottom line: Jesus' gift of his flesh (body) calls us to reverence for the human body from its first moment (conception).

Jesus speaks some dramatic words this Sunday: I am the bread come down from heaven. The bread I give is my flesh. You must eat my flesh to have true life. These statements are dramatic, even shocking.

The crucial word here is obviously flesh. The Greek lexicon of the New Testament defines flesh (sarx) as "the soft substance which covers the bones and is permeated with blood." To put it bluntly, flesh means muscles and organs.* Jesus tells people they must eat his flesh in order to have life. Those are heavy words. We can understand why most left him.

When Jesus speaks about eating his flesh he is referring to his whole body. It is like the line in Shakespeare: "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt." Flesh refers to the entire body, ones whole self. In inviting us to eat his flesh Jesus is offering us his body, his whole being.**

I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of body since my sister's stroke. She seemed so healthy, but in an instance was struck down. Our bodies are very fragile. At the same time they are so marvelous. When you think about it, it not surprising that things go wrong, but that they go right. George Gallup, the founder of modern scientific polling, considered that the functioning of the human body provided a statistical proof for the existence of God. He said, "the chances that all functions in an individual would just happen is a statistical monstrosity."

Whether we believe in evolution or a more direct creation, it is reasonable to think that some kind of force is behind it all. In the case of the human body, the more we learn about it, the more mysterious it becomes.

Regarding Jesus body, it is even more mysterious. He offers his body, his very self as bread to nourish us. This has important implications. Our faith is not some purely spiritual religion. We value both the body and the spirit. This has many implications, but I would like to mention just one. Jesus ongoing bodily presence in the Eucharist means that we must have a reverence for the human body - from the first moment of its existence.

Some people argue that the human body only has value when it has consciousness, perhaps when it is born or two years old or maybe six. I don't want to get into this whole debate now, but I would like to note that Jesus does not say he will give us his consciousness. He simply says he will give us his flesh. With the flesh, the body comes everything else. The body exists before a child is born. In fact, at the moment of conception it becomes a distinct human body: part from its mother, part from its father, but distinct from father and mother.

You might hear someone say that the embryo does not look like a human body - no arms, legs and eyes. Well, the Host at Mass does not have visible arms, legs and eyes - but it is the Body of Christ. In the case of the Host, it require faith to know that. But with a human embryo, all it takes is the right environment and little bit of time - and you will know for sure it is a human body. I will say more about this at the end of Mass when I tell you about a brave group of young pharmacists who are resisting a new assault on tiny humans.

What I want to underscore today is how Jesus desires to give us his physical body. He expresses this desire with dramatic and beautiful words: I am the living bread come down from heaven. The bread that I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you cannot have life within you.

**********

*The word flesh might fail to register because in English we rarely use the word in ordinary conversation. At dinner no one says "please pass the flesh." This is different from Spanish which uses the same word - carne - for both flesh and meat. I understand that German is similar. In the fleisch section of their markets, you can purchase steaks, kidneys, pork chops, and so on. The biblical word for flesh (sarx) was closer to the Spanish and German usage; it referred to the muscles and organs of a body. (Sarx of course has other meanings in the Bible, according to context. It often refers to the downward pull of fallen human nature. St. Paul lists the works of the flesh, such as envy, idolatry, factionalism and sexual impurity. These he contrasts with the works of the spirit: patience, joy, fidelity, self-control, etc. In the chapter of St. John's Gospel from which we have been reading, Jesus states "flesh begets flesh, spirit begets spirit." There he is employing the word flesh in a sense similar to Paul in Galatians 5.)

**According to the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, the word flesh (in the Bread of Life discourse) is a figure of speech called a metonym: a word which stands for something with which it is associated. For example, because the president of the United States lives in the White House, we hear things such as, "Today the White House sent a strong message to North Korea..." The building didn't send a message. White House of course stands for the presidency. Another example of a metonym is the use of the word dish to refer to food because food is associated with the dishes or plates on which it is served. Similarly, the word flesh, which refers to muscles and organs, stands for the whole human body. So when Jesus speaks here about his flesh, he is indicating his physical body.

Earlier Version

Spanish Version

From Archives (20th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2015: Dimensions of the Eucharist Week 4: Fission
2012: What We Must Do
2009: Unless You Eat
2006: What is a Body?
2003: Two Approaches to Sexual Morality
2000: The Jews Quarreled Among Themselves

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