Sunday, July 3, 2011

The second reading for the fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Beginning today and for the next five Sundays our New Testament reading for Mass is taken from the eighth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. I suppose the best way to describe today's reading, Romans 8:9,11-13, is that it tells us what it means to be truly "spiritual" (a word that is as overused as it is misused).

When reading passages from Paul's writings, like the one we encounter today, it is necessary to know a few terms so as not be mistaken about what is being communicated. Hence, there are four key Koine Greek words that are very useful to know: soma, the word Paul employs to simply refer to our physical bodies; sarx, by which Paul means the "natural" person, the instinctual, or animal part of us, given to impulse and self-gratification (i.e., "flesh"); psyche refers to "soul" by which Paul means the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body (all animate creatures have a soul); pneuma, which is spirit and the word, as in today's passage, Paul uses to refer to the Holy Spirit, which animates our human soul, which, unlike the souls of other physical creatures, has a spiritual dimension that seeks the higher things and not just survival and/or physical gratification.

In verse eleven of our passage, when the apostle writes that "If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also," the word he uses for "bodies" is the plural of soma, somata. It is also interesting to note that the word translated as "mortal" is actually Greek for "dying": thaneta. So, literally, the verse says, "your dying bodies." The four times the apostle refers to our "flesh" he uses the appropriate form of the word sarx. In verse 13, Paul uses somatos to refer to "the body," the fleshly deeds of which we put to death by the power of the Spirit.

This is important because too often we use the word "flesh" as synonymous with body, which leads us to conclude that our bodies are bad, sinful, matter that needs to be cast-off. This, of course, is gnosticism plain and simple, something Christians have rejected and fought up to our very day.

The take-away line is the final line: "For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." To put to death is to mortify. Take the virtue of chastity, for example, we all have sexual impulses, it is part and parcel of being human. Because being sexual is a necessary component of being human, it is not bad. On the contrary, it is good. The goodness of sex for human beings does not lie only in the physical pleasure that we derive from it, or even that we might seek to give. For the those in whom the Spirit of God dwells, its goodness lies in higher things, which do not exclude what we can truly call the lower things, but actually serve to enhance them. So, if we get into the habit of gratifying our impulses as often as we have them, or gratify them in order not to have them grip us so strongly, then we are living according to the flesh. The same can be written about eating, about sloth, about any of what we traditionally term "the seven deadly sins." Hence, we mortify our flesh and also positively practice the spiritual disciplines, like prayer, fasting, alms-giving, solitude, study, confession, et al.

As James Kushiner, who is an Orthodox Christian, put it- "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace." This succinctly captures why and how our conscious and active cooperation with God's grace is necessary. Grace builds on nature, which means that life in the Spirit does not skip over experience because experience, as the theme of the Communion and Liberation assembly of Responsibles in 2009 set forth- experience is the instrument for our human journey.

What does it mean to be spiritual, then? I think the skipped verse explains this well: "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness" (Rom. 8:10). Jesus, in today's Gospel, invites us to verify this through our experience.

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