At Sunday Mass, we find ourselves in the middle of a three week tour of St. Paul’s treatise on love and unity. Next Sunday, Mass will be like a wedding. The second reading will be I Corinthians, chapter thirteen.
This Sunday, we hear the second part of the twelfth chapter, which contains one of the most entertaining passages in the entire Bible: Body parts begin talking to each other, like members of a self-pity support group.
The goofy-looking foot miserably laments, “I am not a hand, so I really don’t feel included!” The hand just sits there quietly, looking graceful and debonair.
Then the ugly, lumpy ear jumps in: “Look at me! I am not luminous and iridescent like the eye over here. So I just get shut off to the side and used as a kind of doorstop for people’s glasses!”
Let’s focus on this: In writing this section of his letter, St. Paul focused his imagination on the human body with the meticulous eye of a portrait painter.
The portrait painter wants to capture the details of all the various parts of a person’s human form, in order thereby to present the unique and distinctive whole: the personality of this particular human being.
If you don’t mind, let’s take an example. My favorite portrait painter is El Greco (as you can tell, because he is in the Hall of Fame to the right). He painted a portrait of a friend of his, a priest and Trinitarian friar, whom the king of Spain had appointed preacher to the royal court.
You can tell by looking at El Greco’s portrait that the young priest is very learned. He is mesmerizing, pious, and overly intense. He is an extremely attractive man, but a little too sure of himself. It is clear that He is willing to spend himself altogether in the Lord’s service, but his eyes are not 100% honest.
El Greco has communicated all this personal information by depicting with paint the various parts of the young man’s body. And most of his body is hidden by his clothes. But as soon as you lay eyes on the painting, the person himself comes into view, the whole which all the parts make up.
Our bodies are a congregation of many strange-looking organs, but, held together in unity, they shine forth as one single, genuine thing: a person.
Most of our organs are either covered over by other organs—like the prostate and the intestines, the lungs and the grey matter are all covered by bones and skin—or they are covered-over by clothes.
So, really, pretty much we don’t see each other’s bodily organs at all, and that’s as it should be. Yet, when you put the whole package together and dress it up right, you’ve got one single, beautiful object—the most beautiful single object on the face of the earth, a human being.
Now, Christ our infallible teacher, our High Priest, and our omnipotent King: Jesus has brought about the genuine unification of all things into one consummately beautiful Body. God and creation, all the choirs of angels praising, and all the members of the human race, all of us who believe in the triune glory of God: We form a body. Like the spleen, the meniscus, the medulla oblongata, the pyloric sphincter, the upper and lower molars, the tonsils, the diaphragm, the entire thorax, the gluteus maximus, the elbow, the sternum, the aorta, and all the other various organs form a single body that is beautiful. This same ineffable unity that all these anatomical objects have together, we have it together, too, with God, with Christ, with the cosmos.
So…Feet, listen. Ears, listen. Listen, aorta and spleen—and eyebrows, ribcage, sinuses, epiglottis, toenails: We have need of you.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the water reabsorption be? We need kidneys and intestines, as well as pretty eyes. But lumpy ears, don’t get too proud! If the whole body were hearing, where would the mucus membrane be? We need a nose; we need a nasal septum. We need it all!
Maybe sometimes I look at my portrait-painter mental image of my parish, and I think to myself, “In this picture, you can’t even see me, because I am hidden from view by a trouser leg.” Or maybe I think of my picture of the great Church universal, governed by the Vicar of Christ in Rome, and I say to myself, “Well, gosh. Yes, I am in this picture, sure enough. But I’m behind the cuff on the shirt sleeve. I’m just like a little hair follicle on the wrist. You can’t see me at all.”
But: The point is not for me to be the beautiful object seen. I’m a part, not the whole. Think of the five lumbar vertebrae in Sophia Loren’s lower back. These little bones have never thought of themselves, each individually, as potential supermodels. No.
The beautiful whole has many invisible parts that make it beautiful. Every single member of the Body of Christ—everyone praying, striving to live right, loving the neighbor, and tirelessly seeking the truth—every single member, every one, together, united, forms one, single, unified Body. God Himself looks upon this Body—of which each of us is a part—He gazes upon this Body with all the loving ardor of the most besotted admirer.
More on that next week…