I was struck this morning by something I read in another blog (see here). When a woman bears a child - or multiple children - each child actually leaves behind a bit of itself in his/her mother. This is known as "fetomaternal microchimerism." The blogger used this scientific fact in order to highlight the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven (just yesterday Western Catholics celebrated the feast of the Assumption, and Eastern Catholics celebrated the Eastern equivalent, the Dormition). The argument hinged on a passage from one of the Psalms, "You will not suffer your beloved to undergo corruption." In light of this passage, argued the blogger, it would make sense that God would assume the body of the Theotokos into heaven because her body physically continued to contain within it the body of Jesus even after His birth, and that body was not to undergo any form of corruption.
To me this sounds like a perfectly logical conclusion. It also illustrates something that we as Catholics and Orthodox have believed since the earliest periods of the Church: all veneration we give to the Theotokos is given to her not because of who she is, but because of Who her Son is. We glorify the Theotokos because she is the one who bore God in her womb. God the Word became incarnate in her body, and through her He was born into this world in order to save humanity from sin and offer to us the possibility of salvation and glorification in Him.
But for me, such lofty dogmas and beliefs always have to have a certain down-to-earth practical significance. So I got to thinking; if God glorifies the Virgin Mary (at least in part) because she continued to bear Christ's body in her even after His birth, the same can be said even of us, who receive His Body and assimilate it into our bodies when we receive Holy Communion. Too often we have either too careless an approach to Communion, or, dare I say, too "spiritual" an approach. On the careless level we may receive Communion when we are in a state of serious sin (what Western Catholics call "mortal sin"), or we may simply approach in a careless and near-indifferent way, not realizing the great gift that is being given to us in Communion. I'm sure we've all encountered such approaches to Communion in the past. And I know I, for one, have been guilty of approaching Communion at times very carelessly in sin or without a grateful awareness of the gift being given.
What about this "overly spiritual" approach to Communion? So often in general well-intentioned and pious people approach the spiritual life as though the body does not matter at all. The mantra that I've heard over and over throughout the years has been, "I need to save my soul," or, "what can I do to save my soul." There are two problems with both those comments. First, you and I do not save our souls. Christ Jesus is our only salvation. What we do is open ourselves up to receive the gift of salvation offered to us by the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This "opening up" to receive the gift implies a conversion to God, a metanoia, a turning from our former ways and embracing the life given to us in Christ Jesus. Obviously this does have moral consequences for our actions as well as our thoughts.
The second problem with the above statements is that Christ did not come into the world to save our souls. He came into the world to save us. When God made us He did not make us as merely spiritual beings. Humans are both physical and spiritual. We were created as the mediators between the physical world and the spiritual world. That is why God gave us dominion over the physical world and made us stewards of this world; because we are meant to orient this world to the spiritual world. When the second Person of the Trinity, God the Word and Son of the Father, took flesh and became man, He restored to mankind that vocation to orient this world to the spiritual, not so that this world might become spiritual, but so that it might be transfigured and become what it was truly created to be.
So what does this have to do with Holy Communion? Well, when we receive Communion it is not a purely spiritual act. We don't receive Christ into our souls. We receive Him into our bodies. And we don't receive Him so that our souls might be transformed. We receive Him so that we might be transformed, body, mind and soul. There's a famous saying, "You are what you eat." When we receive Christ's Body into us through Communion, our bodies assimilate Him. We truly become physical temples not only of spiritual realities, but of the physical Body of Christ given to us in Communion! If such is the case - and it is - how much care ought we to take of our bodies! I don't mean here that we ought to be hyper-sensitive about eating all organic foods, clothing ourselves in the best clothes, maintaining a regular exercise regimen, etc. Those things are all well and good, but can become a disorder. Rather, what I'm talking about here is how we live in and through our bodies. The fact that we become physical temples of Christ's physical body makes the moral standards that we as Christians uphold make so much sense! We have such a high moral standard because of the Gift that we have been given, a Gift that is both physical and spiritual.
In assimilating Christ into our bodies in Holy Communion, therefore, we are called to go out and be Christ in the world. As St. Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, we await a future glorification of our bodies, and while we await that glorification we prepare for it by being constantly renewed and turning fully to Christ and pointing all creation to Christ.
With regards to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, we too await a similar end because we too have borne Christ in us physically, and God "will not suffer His beloved one to undergo corruption." We too, like the Virgin, have given birth to Christ in the world by being continually transformed into Him through Holy Communion and by conforming our lives to His. This is why all spirituality, to be truly "spiritual," must also be "incarnational." It must have consequences in our day-to-day lives. The Faith we profess is not a list of dogmas or syllogisms carried to their logical conclusions. These things are important, but ultimately our Faith is an encounter, a life-changing event! If we are not transformed in body, mind and spirit by the realities of our Faith, then we have not yet fully understood the Good News preached and offered to us by Christ.
May heaven consume us!