The Lord understands the need we have for the tangible.
We have a soul gifted with intellect and free will. In this way, we share in the likeness of God. Yet we also have bodies and this is no small part of who we are. We are not to have a Puritanical mindset that declares the body is bad. Our bodies matter. This physical world matters. And God reaches out to us in the midst of what we know and understand.
Over the past few days, I have soaked in the beauty of the tangible in the Catholic faith. On Ash Wednesday, we have a cross of ashes inscribed on our foreheads. We hear, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Remember, remember the brevity of life. It is hard to miss the symbolism–our bodies will return to dust, like the dust from which Adam was formed. Our life is fleeting and we do not hold within ourselves the meaning for our own existence. Civilizations and generations will return to nothing. We are called to remember that our treasure should rest in something other than these earthen vessels, something that will survive time.
Even as we are told to look beyond the physical, the very means of this heavenly gaze is found in the physically tangible. The black ashes that seal your forehead. The words we hear that speak of the end for our physical bodies. Physical signs point to spiritual realities and truths.
That evening I went to a funeral home for my uncle’s wake. My four year old nephew wanted to touch my ashes and so I tried to keep him at an arm’s length. When he saw me the next day at the funeral, he noted that the thing on my forehead was gone. Sometimes kids have the appropriate response. Familiarity leads adults to see the ashes as commonplace, but my nephew was intrigued by the smudge on my face. In a way, he saw that the ashes said something significant.
At the funeral there were numerous tangible elements. The body is reverenced in a way that might surprise us if we pause to think about it. No longer is this the person we knew, but yet we bring the body into the church. The casket enclosing the body is nearest the altar, as we hope that this person is nearest the throne of God, participating in the eternal Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. We cover the casket with a white cloth, remembering their baptism into the death of Christ and into His everlasting life. The pallbearers, an honor given to a few friends or relatives of the deceased, carry or follow the body from the church to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave site. This isn’t a task relegated to people paid to help with the funeral, but rather is seen as an honor. The importance of the body causes us to have a committal ceremony where we place the body into the ground. We mark it and return to visit this place even though the body will return to dust and the person as we knew them does not remain.
Our physical body matters. The physical world matters. The Catholic Church has a beautiful tradition of keeping this in mind. Whether it is investing in beautiful basilicas or commissioning great works of art, the Church sees the beauty in calling to mind the spiritual through the physical. Other churches see it, too, but I would say the Church has a deeper understanding. Weekly, we come together to be nourish by the Bread of Life, by the Body of Christ. We enter a room or a box and we hear the words that declare that our sins are forgiven. In entering the the mystical Body of Christ, we are plunged into water as a sign of the cleansing of our soul.
The Catholic Church is all about the incarnational. Jesus Christ entered into the physical and the tangible. Of course, we can say that God would completely understand human nature even if He never took it on because He is all-knowing. But it adds a depth when we acknowledge that He chose to take on human nature so that His knowledge would be experiential and His experience salvific.
By doing this, He shows us that holiness is pursued through the physical and the spiritual realms. It isn’t only about the soul and deep meditative prayer. It isn’t necessary to retire to a desert cave to live on little food and spend days in ecstasy, although He does call some to that life. The Church has the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy. It is not enough to admonish the sinner, we must also give drink to the thirsty. It is insufficient to teach/instruct the ignorant (although important and, technically, my job) but we must also bury the dead. In the Catholic tradition, we have the great both/and. We are called to pursue the delicate balance of body and soul, both seen as important aspects of who we are as human beings.
At times, we want to accuse God of being silent or distant. We ask Him why He does not reveal more of Himself to us or why He requires such faith to believe in Him. Yet He gives us many signs of His presence with us. The sanctuary candle that burns in every Catholic church, indicating that the King of Kings is present. A hand raised in absolution also involves a voice audibly telling you that all is forgiven. The nearly scandalous declaration of love and sacrifice found in each depiction of the crucifixion. We belong to a church that firmly declares that Christ walked with us yesterday and still walks with us today in a very concrete way.
God knows what we need. We have one foot on earth and one in heaven. And He meets us in both ways. He is a God who is tangibly with us. Emmanuel. God with us. Our foreheads have been sealed with ashes where we declare that we have sinned and that we are destined to return to dust. He encounters us, mercifully, in that declaration. We seek Christ in this desert walk, in these forty days of sacrifice. How will we tangibly encounter Him? How will our body and soul be in the union they were created to live in?