Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?
In 1954 a science fiction story appeared in a series of installments in Collier’s Magazine, a prominent U.S. magazine. It was called the Body Snatchers, and its plot was quite simple. A species of intelligent creatures from outer space begins to invade the earth in the form of seeds that produce and then inhabit perfect duplicates of the bodies of human beings who are then reduced to dust. The book was popular enough to be adapted for the movies and was reproduced 4 times over the years. Indeed, this plot of the human body serving as the nesting place for aliens has had many different versions in science fiction, and it is curious as to why this theme is so popular among a good many people.
Hopefully, this plot has been successful because it horrifies people, a successful form of fiction for centuries, and especially popular since the movie version of Mary Shelly’s horror novel Frankenstein. The very idea of the human body being an incubator for some alien life form is horrifying to any normal human being, as is cannibalism or a terrible mutilation of the human body. But why are these things so horrifying to normal people today? The answer surely has to be found in the influence of the revealed truth about man which over centuries eliminated horrors like cannibalism and mutilating form of punishment.
Respect for the human body as such was not the norm in pre-Christian societies anywhere in this world. Cannibalism was practiced in many places on this earth among our ancestors, and torture and desecration of the bodies of enemies were normal occurrences in war. If American immigrants were horrified by the scalping perpetrated by Native Americans, it was only because their own cultural evolution had removed such horrors from their past, and it was Christianity that caused that evolution by transforming their barbaric ancestral practices by inculcating in their souls the truth that man, the whole man, was made in the image and likeness of God.
The implications of that great revealed truth about man, that he is the image of God, took a great deal of time to transform those ancient cultural barbarities when it came to the body. It did not instantly transform the religious culture of Israel who first received that great truth about man. All we need recall is the action of David, who was truly a man after God’s heart, who beheaded Goliath as a war trophy, and who mutilated the enemies he killed to bring their foreskins to King Saul as a wedding offering for his daughter.
But the teaching of Jesus regarding the body, as we see in the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, at last brings out the full implications of the meaning of man, body and soul, as the image of God. The body, just like the soul, is sacred, precisely as an effect of the salvation accomplished by Jesus. The Christian believer clearly affirms the sacredness of the human flesh of Jesus, the flesh offered up for our salvation on the Cross, the flesh raised from the dead so we could enjoy a new form of life, rooted in and made possible by that risen humanity of the Lord Jesus.
Paul on this basis teaches us: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with
him. If by virtue of Baptism, our bodies become true members of Christ, grafted onto his humanity, then our bodies must indeed become sacred because they share in the holiness of His risen flesh. Then Paul explains this more fully:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price.
In the first passage Paul teaches us that because we are members of Christ [by Baptism], we also become one Spirit with him. But to make sure that we correctly understand what it means to become one Spirit with Him, He adds that the spirit is the Holy Spirit, and thus our bodies like our souls becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. He means that quite literally, and thus is the ultimate dignity of our bodies established. God, from whom we receive the Holy Spirit, has determined that the human body is forever to be His temple. Thus we must no longer view the body as our own, in the sense that it is something we can do with whatever we choose. It is, by Baptism, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and thus must be treated as such and honored by our actions, just like the Temple in Jerusalem.
However, the Spirit taking possession of our bodies is not to be thought of like the aliens taking possession of the bodies in that fictional account. First, the deed is accomplished only if we wish it, unlike the “invasion” in the horror story. Secondly, by this possession the Spirit does not steal our bodies or destroy them or degrade them in any way, but rather the Spirit perfects them unimaginably and makes them live forever as God’s holy temple. It is all a matter of freedom and utterly transcendent perfection. And finally, the One who takes possession is no alien to us; for our divine guest is ultimately our creator, the one who sustains our existence, and the One who redeemed us. Thus He is truly, as St. Augustine says, closer to us than we are to ourselves since God is the wellspring and foundation of our very being.
Sadly, even centuries after this revelation, there still have been instances of things like bodily mutilation and bodily torture practiced, or at least tolerated, by some Christians. Hopefully that is something now overcome by a more accurate understanding of the implications of the doctrine that the baptized body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and member of Christ’s mystical body, and not simply by the Geneva Conventions!
But lest we to readily condemn our Christian ancestors, we must note that the desecration that what Paul focuses on here is not that kind of horror, but on what he calls immorality in the body. The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Paul here and elsewhere is talking about the reduction of the body to an instrument of immoral pleasure in sins of the flesh. The Christian must not fornicate or commit adultery or commit any sin of the flesh not simply because it is against the natural, moral law, the 6th commandment, but more importantly because the body is not longer simply ours, to do with as we wish, but is now truly the Lord’s and the temple of His Spirit! Indeed its true dignity will grow precisely by doing what Paul concludes this passage with as a command: Therefore glorify God in your body. Indeed, we must all keep our bodies holy because they are in fact, by Baptism, holy temples of God. And likewise we must honor the body of every person, even the unbaptized. For their bodies, though not yet temples of God, are nonetheless already marked out for holiness because being God’s temple is their true destination just like ours, whether they reach it soon or later, or not at all. God created all of us for this great and noble destiny, to be His dwelling place forever, and we must work diligently to keep that dwelling place holy here and now, until at last it comes to perfection as God’s Temple in Heaven, in the resurrection of the blessed.