What is a Body?

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

Bottom line: By his human body, Jesus connects with us in the deepest possible way.

Today Jesus makes some bold and dramatic statements:

--I am the living bread that came down from heaven

--The bread that I will give is my flesh

--Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man...you do not have life within you

--The one who feeds on me will have life

These statements have dramatic, even shocking, content. As we shall see next Sunday, Jesus had no desire to soften their impact. Now, you and I know that Jesus is speaking about the necessity of receiving him physically in the Eucharist. Otherwise we do not possess his life, eternal life. Two thousand years of Christian teaching and practice have clarified that teaching. Still, we do have a problem. We have heard the words so often that they tend to go over our heads. We can become blasé about what we do at Mass.

As a help for avoiding that pitfall, I would like to ask you to take a closer look at the word flesh. Jesus tells us we must eat his flesh if we are to have real life. 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.*

To define flesh (sarx) in a precise manner, one could say that it is "the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood." Flesh is a concrete anatomical reality, but it also has a broader sense. 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.

If flesh, then, stands for the entire physical body, we must obviously ask a further question: What is a body? I have to admit that this question has taken on a greater urgency for me in the past couple of weeks because of my sister's stroke. In an instant, my sister Melanie lost control over the right side of her body. She could not walk or move her arm and she spoke with some difficulty. Little by little she is regaining power over her limbs and her facial muscles. All of this made me reflect on the mysterious nature of our bodies and to ask the question, just what is a body?

Since all of us have spent our lives inside a body, on one level we know what a body is: the bones, muscles, sense organs and vital organs that make us who we are. We are our bodies. If someone touches my shoulder, they touch me.** At the same time, we sense that we have a living core which is distinct from one's physical body. If I lose my arm or leg, I do not lose my essential nature. The one who receives a heart transplant does not become a different person. We are our bodies, but we are something more than our bodies.

What then is a body? If you go to a college dictionary - the kind they display in libraries - you will find some thirty definitions of the word body. Rather than select a single definition, I would like to focus on function, that is, what a body does. Our bodies enable us to be present in space and time. Because I have a body (or, if you prefer, am a body) I can stand before you in this pulpit on this Sunday morning - and, I hope, communicate something to you. You likewise are able to be present to me and to those around you. Our bodies are wonderful things!***

Nevertheless, awesome as our bodies are, they are at the same time subject to great weaknesses and limitations. Our very bodies restrict us. Because you and I are bodily present in this church, we cannot at the same time be hiking on Mount Rainier. I can think about it, but thinking doesn't make it so. Even though I can think about hundreds of different times and places, I am always confined to one particular moment and spot. My body also limits me in other ways: my voice, the amount of energy I have, the ability of my brain cells to make connections, all these things influence my ability to communicate something to you.

Jesus, though he is by nature unlimited, made a choice to accept the limitations of a human body. He did it (as far as I can tell) so that he could be present to us in time and space - as a man living in first century Palestine. At the end of his life he underwent a process which enabled him to break through the barriers of time and space. For that reason he is able to offer us his body even though we live twenty centuries and thousand of miles apart from him. And the most marvelous thing this Sunday is that he gives us the opportunity to connect with him on the deepest possible level.

He is the living bread come down from heaven. If we eat his flesh, we will have his life within us, the only life which endures forever.


*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 Peter Kreeft, the scholastics had a more ample sense of body than we do. They saw that, beyond flesh and bones, the body includes other things which enable us to extend ourselves in space and time: e.g., our clothes and various possessions. (see Summa of the Summa) In Luke's Gospel, a sick woman merely touches the edge of his cloak and yet Jesus asks "who touched me?" (8:45)

***George Gallup, the founder of scientific opinion polls, had an interesting comment about the marvel of the human body. He said, "I could prove God statistically. Take the human body alone-the chances that all the functions of an individual would just happen is a statistical monstrosity." Gallup has a good point. The human body seem like a miracle - or a statistical improbability, as he puts it. The more we learn about the human body, the more we appreciate what a marvel it is.

Final Version

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for 20th Sunday, Year B):

2003: Two Approaches to Sexual Morality
2000: The Jews Quarreled Among Themselves

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (More on Melanie, Petitions for Pharmacists, Tuna Fishing Trip)


Request prayers for my sister Melanie

Pictures from Parish Renovation Project


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