by Fr. Denis Lemieux.
Remember man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Last month we talked about getting ready for Lent. Now it is almost upon us, and soon this traditional formula of the Ash Wednesday liturgy will be resounding in our ears. Or perhaps it has resounded already, depending on when you read this article.
Last month, en route to talking about why we fast, I introduced the basic distinction of flesh and spirit—two ways of being that come together, as far as we know, only in the human being.
To review, the flesh is finite, divisible, corruptible, incommunicable; spirit is potentially infinite, indivisible, incorruptible, and ordered to communion, to gift.
Flesh is that dust of which we are made and to which we shall return. The Church invites us to contemplate that reality as we enter Lent. We are mortal flesh; we are corruptible; we do not last forever.
Or do we? It seems to me that the whole deep reality of our life is caught up in this mystery of flesh meeting spirit, of our human corruptibility being taken up into the incorruptible.
That in us which speaks of mortality and death and the grave—the flesh—is met by that in us which is immortal and eternal—the life of the spirit, which in turn is held in the life of the Spirit of God. And this is the resurrection of the body.
When we look at the reality of our humanity, the mystery of the human person, we see in it something very profound: it is the in-spiriting of the flesh.
We are material beings endowed with an immaterial spiritual soul. This meeting of flesh and spirit in us is crucial, I maintain, to understanding the deep workings of God in his creative and redemptive work.
Remember: we are made in God’s image and likeness. The human person is a revelation of God.
What I want to explore, then, is how this fundamental human revelation of flesh and spirit sheds light on the whole picture of who God is and what his action is in the world. Because I am covering a lot of ground in this short article, my references will be succinct and incomplete.
First, there is creation, when the spirit, the breath of God hovered over the waters (Gen 1: 2). Already we see here God’s spirit moving over the material stuff of creation, water being a symbol of this unformed matter.
In Genesis 2, we see the human person made from the dust of the earth, but then with a living spirit breathed into him.
We see how the woman is taken from the side of the man, which reminds us of the divisible and finite nature of matter, but that the man and woman enter a communion of persons and of love, that most spiritual of all goods. And so we conclude that the fleshly nature of man and woman is meant to open up into a spiritual life of love and gift.
We see in Genesis 3 that this is broken, and it is broken precisely by the pair deciding that knowledge and sharing in God’s life (spiritual goods) were something to be grabbed at, plucked, taken as food (a material good). And so we see the tragedy of humanity: a collapsing of spirit (communion) into flesh (greed, lust, possessiveness).
Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 show us that this same collapse of spirit into flesh yields violence and murder, as God’s favor and love are seen as finite goods that Cain must kill his brother to usurp.
And so the whole redemptive work of God can be seen as a constant reaching out of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love and communion, into the world of human flesh, to raise us up out of this collapse of our created spirit into the flesh, into a life of love, gift, and communion.
We see this is many ways in the Old Testament. I want to highlight one that may not be obvious and that has some relevance to the question of fasting. Namely, why did God ask for food sacrifices in the law?
This question is complex, but I think in part it is because food is a primordial example of a material good, the life of the flesh, with all its finite, divisible, corruptible reality.
By taking food to the Temple and giving it to God, this very material good becomes a vehicle of spiritual communion—a way of worship, of atonement, of praise and thanksgiving. Flesh is raised up to spirit in a very concrete tangible way.
It is in Christ, though, that we see the deep working of God in this whole dynamic. The Word become flesh. God’s own inner being, the very truth of God assumes to itself the flesh of humanity.
The Spirit of God hovered over the waters, and brought forth the first creation; now the Spirit overshadows the woman, Mary, and from her flesh brings forth the new creation, the life of the world.
The whole mystery of Christ can be seen as an in-Spiriting of the flesh by God. His very death on the cross is the event of God, who is spirit and life, extending his spiritual presence into the very heart of the flesh and its mortality.
The resurrection is the great sign and fact of the triumph of the spirit in the flesh, the genuine salvation of the world by raising up humanity into a true spiritual communion with God in the risen flesh of Christ.
The whole of our Christian religion can be understood as a living out of that spiritualized flesh. The sacramental life is obviously this: the matter of the sacramental elements becoming by God’s good pleasure a vessel of spiritual grace.
The moral life, too, can be seen this way. All the actions of the flesh—how we dispose of our property, the expression of our sexuality, all the actions of the body—are to become open to, informed by, shaped by a spiritual openness to communion with God and neighbour.
The whole life of consecrated people in the Church is a witness to the redeemed spiritualized flesh. We are no longer limited to earthly and temporal realities even now, and the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience bears witness to this.
Fruitful, faithful marriage is a great sign (Eph 5) of this same flesh-spirit reality, God making this most human of relationships into a sacrament and a genuine living out of his love and communion with mankind.
And our whole eschatology—the life of the world to come—has to be understood as the final elevation of fleshly human life into a wholly spiritual mode of being (cf 1 Cor 15:35-50).
All of reality without exception will be a matter of love and gift and communion, and we will experience this in our bodies, our glorified resurrected flesh.
So from this rather quick and dazzling survey of the whole of creation and redemption, I think it is becoming clear what fasting is and why it is such a crucial part of our Christian practice.
See you next month to talk about that!
to be continued
Part 1 can be found here on our website under Monthly Archives, January 2013
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