Gospel For Today


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There are many examples in history of Christians attempting to purge themselves from any attachment to the physical.  Some of these attempts have been healthier than others.  On the one hand you have the more ascetical religious congregations, such as certain Carmelite communities, Trappists, etc.  On the other hand you have heretical groups such as the Cathars of medieval Europe.  
What makes one group holy and another heretical?  And what about those of us who don't live in medieval monasteries, but in modern homes with our families?  Are we, as Christians, required to eschew material goods and pleasures?
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians (today's second reading) that "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."  This certainly suggests that he is no longer attached to material concerns; they have no more hold over him.  
Likewise in today's gospel reading from Luke we hear Christ telling the seventy-two He sends out to carry no money bag, sack, or sandals.  They were to have nothing with them, depending entirely upon the charity of those they meet.  It certainly seems that for the Christian, a certain detachment from material goods is expected.
But the Cathars we mentioned before preached a radical detachment, and they were condemned as heretics.  In fact, the great Dominican order was founded to go and preach among them and convince them of the error of their ways.  What gives?
The Cathars certainly did teach that the Christian should have no attachment to physical things of this world.  But they did so for all the wrong reasons.  They taught that the physical world — all of nature — was evil.  This included not only food and drink, material wealth, and other goods; it also included our very bodies.  
The Cathars were a medieval revival of an even more ancient heresy called Manicheism. The Manicheans were dualists.  This meant they believed in two gods.  In their view, the lesser evil god was responsible for creating the physical world, while the good god of light was responsible for creating the spiritual world.  Thus things of spirit were good while physical things were evil.  A human being, in their view, was a good soul that was trapped in an evil body.  Salvation for the Manicheans and the Cathars meant freeing the soul from the body.
In this life, strict practitioners did this by living very ascetic lives, detached from any physical goods.  They ate only the bare minimum to sustain them.  And they forbade marriage, as the purpose of marriage was to unite two (evil) physical bodies in an (evil) physical union, the result of which was to create a new (evil) physical body in which another (good) soul could be trapped.  
Of course this view of creation is all wrong.  Even though it may appear that these heretics have certain things in common with ascetic religious orders (living simple lives, detachment from material goods, celibacy), their theology is miles apart.
We believe in one God.  We profess this each and every time we recite the Creed.  It is the first and foundational article of our faith.  And this God created the entire universe, all that is visible and invisible, as we also recite in our Creed.  This means God is creator of both the physical and spiritual realms.  All creation comes from Him, and that means all of creation is good.
God made us as creatures with physical bodies and spiritual souls.  This is why it is so wrong for us to think of our existence in heaven (or hell) as disembodied spirits.  We are not meant to be ghosts.  We are human beings, and we will be human beings in heaven (or hell).  Human beings have bodies and souls.
St. Paul mentions a "new creation" in his letter today.  This current world and everything in it (including our bodies) exists in time, and everything in time has a beginning and an end.  It will pass away.  We will pass away.  But our faith tells us of "a new heaven and a new earth" that will exist in eternity.  Christ's Resurrection is the first fruit of the future resurrection in which we will all rise from the dead in our new bodies.  Our ultimate destiny is not to live as ghosts for all eternity in some dimension of pure spirit.  We will exist in eternity as we are now, with physical bodies – but perfected and glorified.
God even uses the physical to communicate His love to us.  Think about the Sacraments.  We are baptized into Christ with water poured over us.  We receive God Himself in the form of bread and wine.  Our priests are ordained by the laying on of hands.  These are all very physical acts.
Think of the Incarnation.  This is the doctrine that makes Christianity absolutely unique among all other religions.  We believe that the God who made the universe Himself entered into His creation to be born of a woman.  This means God resided in His mother's womb; He nursed from her breasts; He crawled around, and later walked, ran, played and worked on the ground of this earth.  He breathed the same air we do, drank the same water.
So the Christian rejoices in the physical world.  We look upon it as a great work of art created by the hand of God.  We look upon it as a wonderful gift which has been put into our care, for us to enjoy responsibly.  But even more importantly, the Christian realizes that the goodness of this world is only a reflection of the goodness of the One who made it.  
It is precisely because of its goodness that the physical world can be such a temptation for us.  We may begin to see material things as good in their own right.  Holy ascetics live lives of detachment from material goods, not because they think the physical world is evil but because they recognize that it is not the greatest good.  They practice self-denial as a discipline to prepare themselves for the perfect world to come.

Those of us who are not called to a life of strict asceticism can still learn a lot from this practice. It is important that we understand that the material things we use and enjoy are only good inasmuch as they reflect the goodness of God.  When we enjoy a good meal, a good glass of wine, good music, a lovely mountain view, or even the feel of rain on our faces, we must realize that these things are gifts to us from the Creator.  We should allow the good things of this world to draw us closer to Him.  

This is why it is appropriate from time to time (such as Fridays and the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent) for us to practice a little self-denial as a reminder that these physical things, as good as they are, are not the ultimate good.  There is a greater glory for which we strive.
That greater glory is described to us in our first reading today from Isaiah.  God tells of the comfort that we will find in the new Jerusalem.  Listen to the very physical language He uses.  "Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!… As nurselings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you…"
Yes, our Catholic faith is a physical faith.  We surround ourselves with images and incense, bells and smells, art and architecture.  And we throw some glorious parties.  Unlike the Cathar, we can enjoy this creation as a gift from God.  But unlike the materialist, we recognize its goodness as a mere shadow of the goodness to come, the goodness of the new creation, which will even more perfectly reflect the glory of its maker because unlike this world, it will not pass away.
I hope to see you there!

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723