YOUR BODY IS THE TEMPLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (1 Cor 6:19)
If you were to take a stroll along a typical high street in a modern city, you would notice the exaggerated importance given to the care of the human body. One could have the same impression if they surveyed the shelves in a typical supermarket. Besides food and medicine, we have a vast variety of products for the care of beauty and wellness of almost every part of the body, from toe-nails to the hair on our head. Products meant for care of skin, nail and hair themselves amount to a huge market. In brief, we spend far more resources (including time) to care for our bodies, as compared to taking care of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual dimensions of our self.
For sure, the body is worth taking care of. It is what defines our tangible selves. And even if we speak of the human spirit, we know that we are actually “embodied spirits”.
The second reading of today, from the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, invites us to recognize the sacredness of our bodies. “Do you not realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you and whom you received from God? (1Cor 6:19. Of course, St Paul makes his statement with the intention of inviting the Corinthians to avoid sexual immorality (porneia in Greek). However, the same statement invites us today, not only to avoid sins of sexual nature, but closely related to it, to appreciate the sacredness of our bodies.
In the following reflection we wish to focus on three aspects of our body being the temple of the Holy Spirit. These three dimensions include both the rationale for, and the implication of, the sacredness of our bodies.
The body is the temple that enshrines the image of God
The Book of Genesis states a fundamental truth about our self and, by extension, our body: “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). We are in the image of God. The embodied spirit is the image of God. We can say that the human body is the temple that enshrines the image of God. This is the foundation of the sacredness of the human body.
Perhaps it is from this fundamental belief that sexuality itself has acquired sacredness in most religious and cultural traditions. Some people argue: why do we make such a fuss about sexual sins? After all, sins against charity and justice are more common, and hardly do we speak about them. True! However, there is something more to this. Any sexual behavior does not only involve the body in its physical dimension, but it involves the spiritual, social, moral, psychological (mental), emotional dimensions. It involves the whole self. That is why, perhaps, there is more guilt attached to sins of sexual nature. And therefore, St Paul tells us in the reading of today, “All other sins that people may commit are done outside the body; but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1Cor 6:18).
The temple that is the tabernacle of Christ
In the Christian belief and practice, the sacredness of the body takes on a deeper meaning. It goes even beyond being in the image of God. At the heart of the Temple of Jerusalem rested the Holy of Holies. This was hidden behind a black curtain. No Jew (except the High Priest, that too once a year) could behold it with his eyes. However, in the Catholic tradition the Eucharist offers us the possibility of not only seeing the Holy of Holies face to face, but receiving that which is Holy into our own bodies. We become the tabernacles of the Body of Christ. We are the new temples. The Body of God in Christ becomes part of our own flesh and blood. The image of God in us is fed by the body of God Himself. That is the wonder of the mystery of the Eucharist.
In this light, St Paul’s statement, “Do you not realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1Cor 6:19), could carry many levels of significance: one, that we are in the image of God; two, that by virtue of our Baptism, we have received the Holy Spirit; three, through the Eucharist that is an outcome of the action of the Holy Spirit, we have become the Body of Christ.
The temple where we can encounter God
Flowing from the above reflection, we can also say that we encounter God through and in our bodies. One of the beautiful examples of the bodily encounter between God and man is the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Gen 32:25-33). The scene is like two kids rolling over in the mud in a love-hate encounter – in a very intimate and innocent manner. At the end of that very physical encounter, Jacob would declare: “I have seen God face to face and have survived.” That seeing was not just with the eyes, but an experience that involved the whole body. In the infancy narratives of the Gospels, we could also imagine Mary giving birth, nursing, and fondling the Body of God in Jesus. That encounter involved her very body.
Even today, when we encounter God deeply, that experience involves the body: whether it is in a ritual, or a communitarian moment of praise and worship, or in private contemplation. Let us focus on contemplation. Contemplative prayer might begin with the mind – in terms of meditation, but slowly it moves to the center of emotions (‘heart’), and when we are deep in contemplation we realize that we are serene, our body is relaxed, and we feel that we are in God and God is in us. The body itself could feel elated. This is a deep form of prayer: it is an encounter that involves the whole self through the body.
Thus, we realize that being temples of the Holy Spirit, as St Paul acknowledges, is not an abstract article of faith, but could be a tangible experience. And ideally our own moral behavior will flow from that experience.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.