‘Is eating well and dressing swell a ticket to hell?’ Not exactly, says Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph Chancellor Monsignor Bradley S. Offutt. But this Sunday’s readings do have something to say about the American obsession with perfect bodies. See what in the Scripture reflection from this week’s paper edition of The Catholic Key:
The Real American Idol
By Msgr. Bradley S. Offutt
Many years ago I completely gave up on network television. Scenes like an angular young cowboy marking his territory with beer from a bottle, poured in a careful circle around his chosen buxom beauty, are what did it for me. And it’s not that I am so thoroughly sanctified, it’s just that such messages are so far from what I have discovered to be true about love and beauty that they are not even worthy of my fantasies, let alone my conscious attention. To put it another way, I guess I just got to where I found the chronic focus on toned body parts and sexual innuendo phony and tedious. So, I quit the networks. I haven’t missed them.
Trouble is, it’s looking like I might have to give up on the rest of the TV too. It has dawned on me again, of late, that so many commercials I encounter are for some exercise machine promising weight loss, or some miraculous lotion promising hair gain, or some “male enhancement” potion promising, well, I’ll leave you to decipher it. I don’t think I want to because it is beyond ugly. It’s even beyond offending my sensibilities. It’s just stupid. I know I sound like a curmudgeon, but whatever happened to sweet Janie hawking potato chips for Milgram’s and “See the USA in your Chevrolet”? Man, have we fallen fast! Fallen into a civic puberty, an abyss of bodily preoccupations.
And it is not that our bodies are unimportant. No, quite the opposite. Our bodies are precious God-given vehicles through which we encounter the majestic Truth of time and eternity. Your body is a veritable canvass upon which you paint statements about your values, style, art, and history. The body is a clock and a roadmap. It is a fantastic sign of our time and our place. Our bodies are exciting in the opportunities they enable and the sheer beauty they convey. But, of course, no one really disagrees about the importance of the human body. It is just what is most important, and most lovely, and most provocative; that’s what we disagree about.
Like Tarzan standing on a jungle limb, yelling and beating his bare chest, Saint Paul begins today on a loud, curious note. He pulls his pen right out of his pocket and writes the Philippians, Join with others in being imitators of me. Perhaps the Apostle had to be so brazen to get the attention of his audience. He goes on to make a careful point with the eloquence of a meat cleaver. He writes, Many. . .conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is their destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is their “shame.”
Do not be lulled into the too easy trap of interpreting this passage as Paul’s sermon against those who like to over eat. He is talking about much more than gluttony. The Apostle is addressing those who like to eat too much and those who like to diet too much. He is lecturing those who suffer daily addictions to what is oh so properly powdered, perfumed, primped, poised, pumped, and put on. Paul is writing even in tears to all of us when we make idols of our body.
Now, lest I paint myself into a hopeless corner, I hasten to say the Apostle’s message is not a call to be primitive. It is an admonishment, not a prohibition. So, is make-up bad? Is exercise evil? Is eating well and dressing swell a ticket to hell? No. I do not believe we can legitimately infer anything like that from this passage. Instead Paul means that our walk through the world is a talk with the Lord. As we walk and talk God registers the lessons of life in the evolving contours of our body. Healthy, faithful people prayerfully strive to understand and accept this dialectic of embodied life, not habitually outrun it or supplant it.
Finally, the Apostle directly addresses the revelation of God written upon our flesh as he writes, (Jesus) will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. Do you suppose this change Paul mentions is reserved for some abracadabra instant in the precincts of the netherworld? No. This change is happening every single day of our life. The dimming of our eyes and the broadening of our mind indicate it. Did you catch that fleeting glimpse of grandma in the mirror not so many mornings ago? It is a sign of the Truth that whispers in your ear even as it claims us all. That Truth always wins the race of time. Saint Paul would have us endorse Its victory and share in it.