We Catholics have the strangest religion that has ever existed.
There have been a lot of religions in the history of the world, and there are lots of different kinds of religion today. Some of them are “ultra-spiritual,” as a funny YouTube video I once saw put it. These religions treat the body and the material world as if it were all evil, all something to be avoided, escaped, and forgotten as we seek a new and totally spiritual state of being. Other religions over the centuries have been very earthy, treating material things — say, the sun, for example — as if they were gods to be worshipped.
The Catholic faith is the strangest religion because we believe God created all things, visible and invisible. And we believe that the same God, Who is 100 percent spiritual and invisible, chose to take human flesh and become a part of His own visible, material world in order to save us and bring us to Himself.
We believe that God has made us as spiritual and physical persons, and that both of these dimensions of ourselves are good and belong together. We believe that the way God saves us is by the power of His grace, which is invisible, but that His grace is given to us through sacraments we experience with our five senses.
At my first parish assignment, Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington, there used to be t-shirts for the small children that said on the front “I’m no angel …” and on the back “I’m a saint!” The shirts were printed by the parish’s athletic department because its sports teams are known as “the Saints.”
I always liked those shirts because, though they were meant mostly to be a cute reference to the teams’ name, they said something true and important about who we are.
At my first parish assignment, Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington, there used to be t-shirts for the small children that said on the front “I’m no angel …” and on the back “I’m a saint!” The shirts were printed by the parish’s athletic department because its sports teams are known as “the Saints.” I always liked those shirts because, though they were meant mostly to be a cute reference to the teams’ name, they said something true and important about who we are.
Angels are wonderful creatures of God, powerful and holy helpers to each of us on the Christian journey. But God chose to create a different kind of creature when He made us. While angels are pure spirits, we have been made with spirits and bodies, and that wasn’t some kind of mistake on God’s part. We are called to be saints, not angels, to be holy according to our own nature and God’s grace, which builds on our nature and perfects it.
I hope this helps us to understand this Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20), in which St. Paul writes about the importance of the body — that the body is not made for immorality; it is for the Lord. That our bodies are members of Christ, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that we are to glorify God in our bodies.
All the good things we do with our bodies, receiving the sacraments and praying, fasting and performing acts of penance, serving people in need, working hard at our jobs or in school, showing love and affection in holy relationships with other people, in the gifts of marriage and life-giving sexuality, even things like physical exercise and pursuing good hobbies, sports and recreation, all bring us closer to God. They are not just good, but they can be holy.
At the same time, every bad thing we do with our bodies — skipping Mass or our prayers, asking God in my heart to forgive my sins but not getting my body into the confessional, being lazy instead of helping others or doing my share of work at the office or at home, using our bodies for pleasure apart from God’s purpose, sexually or with excessive food or drink, wasting time or looking at the wrong things on the internet — all drag us away from God, corrupting not only our bodies but our souls.
You might know that we Catholics have the very ancient practice of honoring the relics of the saints. A relic is a piece of a saint’s body, usually very small, which is displayed in a beautiful vessel called a reliquary. We pray before relics, venerate them by kissing the reliquary, and sometimes are blessed with relics by priests or deacons. If people sometimes find the Catholic faith in general to be strange, they often find our practice of honoring relics to be mega-weird!
In one who has been baptized, his or her body, and not just the soul, has become holy. And when a person becomes a saint, that body becomes more and more completely a temple of the Holy Spirit. And we believe that the bodies of all the saints — not just of the canonized saints, but of all those who have lived holy lives — will be raised up and reunited with their souls to live with God forever.
But the reason we venerate relics comes right out of St. Paul’s teaching on the holiness of the body. In one who has been baptized, his or her body, and not just the soul, has become holy. And when a person becomes a saint, that body becomes more and more completely a temple of the Holy Spirit. And we believe that the bodies of all the saints — not just of the canonized saints, but of all those who have lived holy lives — will be raised up and reunited with their souls to live with God forever.
What’s going on in Sunday’s first reading (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19), when Samuel hears the Lord’s call and answers by saying, “Speak, your servant is listening?” What’s going on in Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:35-42), when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” and when Andrew and Peter spend time with Jesus and come to realize He is the Messiah?
What’s happening is that by using their bodies to hear and answer the Lord, to point Jesus out to others, to spend time with Him, they all do God’s will. They all move forward on the path of holiness.
God is asking us to take another step down the path of holiness today. God calls us together to receive, not just some vague form of spiritual enlightenment, but the Body and Blood of the Son of God, the Light of the World. Jesus allowed His Body to be broken, His blood to be spilled, in order to give us this Gift of new life. May we allow it to change our lives for the better, to make our bodies and souls holy temples for His Spirit.
Our religion might be strange, but only with the strangeness of the truth in a world of falsehood and confusion. It is strange in the way that light is strange in a place of darkness. To be holy is to be weird, but it is infinitely better to live weird with Jesus than to die normal without Him.
Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.