The Incarnational Nature of Life, Death, and Catholicism
Not long ago, I read an article an article by Rabbi Marc Gellman of “God Squad” fame about cremation, (cf. View of Cremation Varies Widely Among Religions by Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Media Services). It was in response to a question from a Protestant woman in Florida who had written to ask, “Is it OK for a Christian to be cremated, or must my husband and I be buried? Rabbi Gellman replied that generally it is allowable for Christians to be cremated, but that on a personal level he is “…vigorously opposed to cremation and especially so if the intention is to scatter the ashes somewhere. I have seen and I know the spiritual value of a grave. A grave is a place where mourners can come before holidays and on special occasions to pay their respects and focus their memories.”
First of all, let me say that I completely accept the Church’s allowance for cremation. The Church speaks directly on this in the Code of Canon Law, which is the official listing of the laws of the Church. The following is the direct quote from the relevant canon (#1176 paragraph 3), in the Code on cremation.
The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed, nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.
Note: One obvious example of a reason “contrary to Christian doctrine” would be a person being cremated due to a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body.
That said, the article by Rabbi Gellman resonates with me on a deep level.
The reason the article resonates with me so deeply is that I have a very “incarnational” (in flesh) sense of life, death, and religion. This is one of the things I most love about our Catholic Faith. Catholics are not deconstructionists and we see the reality that we are not purely spiritual beings like angels, but rather that we are body-soul composites. Not only the soul, but also the body is important and good. It is constitutive of the human person. So much so, that originally we were never meant to be without it. Now, due to the effects of original sin, we will be without it for a time, but only until the Second Coming of our Lord. Our Lord gives us a preview of this in His risen and glorified body and we get a glimpse of it as well in Our Lady’s Assumption, in which, at the end of her earthly life, God took the Mary into heaven body and soul. We have to wait for this reality, but, as we state each Sunday in the Creed, we believe in the resurrection of the body for ourselves as well. Not only that, but those who die in God’s grace and friendship will have glorified bodies, with magnificent characteristics and properties. The fact is, the current state of separation of body and soul at death is a very unnatural state and also a temporary one.
God imprints the “Incarnational Principle” throughout His Creation and throughout the Church. It is imprinted most especially in His own Incarnation, cf. Gospel of John 1 Prologue, 1John. 1: 1-4. Even in terms of Sacred Scripture, the Incarnational Principle is at work. The Holy Spirit does not simply drop the books of the Bible from the sky (though He surely could have), but rather, inspires human authors to write what He wants them to write, while making full use of their own talents, personalities, and experiences, to convey His eternal truths.
I love the fact that the Incarnational Principle is in play in Catholic art and architecture. We Catholics are not iconoclasts. That heresy was condemned rather early in the Church’s history. Rather, we have always realized that depictions of God and of sacred persons, places, and things can help us to come to a greater love and knowledge of Him. It is not that they replace the Creator, but that they help us creatures (albeit creatures in His image and likeness) to raise our minds and hearts to Him. We make full use of physical matter and so does God. Not only that, but the physical matter, as well as the spirit are both good.
This Incarnational Principle at work in the Church and in creation corresponds to our nature. It is how Jesus established the sacraments, which give us spiritual gifts through physical signs. It is why our church architecture, church music, and sacred art, etc. should be beautiful, not simply pragmatic or functional. It is why we pray and worship with body and soul. It influences why we do things like genuflect, fold our hands, make the Sign of the Cross, use holy water, bow, etc. That is, what one does with his body can and very often does affect the state of his soul.
Many heresies have fallen under the general category of “body bad, spirit good” (the genus here is “dualism”, the individual species are legion). This dualistic mentality is not Christian and certainly not Catholic-Christian.
One of Jesus’ signs noted in Scripture that is both interesting and sacramental, as well as Incarnational, is the manner in which Christ restores the eyesight of the man born blind recorded in chapter 9 of St. John’s Gospel. In working this miracle, Christ spits into dirt, thereby making mud. Then he rubs the mud on the man’s eyes and he is made to see, cf. Jn. 9. Did Jesus have to work this miracle in this manner? Certainly he did not. He chose to do it this way, I think, because he is intending to show us something of the sacraments, i.e. invisible graces given through physical signs. He is working out a healing, both physical and spiritual, through material means. He knows that this sacramentality is helpful to us. It is helpful to us because it corresponds to our human nature.
For the same reason, I think that burial of the dead and reverence for the body, even after death, is important and good. It corresponds well with a sacramental way of looking at things – of looking at life and of looking at death. I think that this is, for instance, important to remember for those who have died that in their older years, grew weak, blind, lame, and possibly even disfigured. Maybe it is even more important in these cases because it helps to illustrate that these people, including their bodies, did not lose their value when, perhaps, their bodies were no longer able to function properly or as they once had. Being takes precedence over mere function. Reverence for the body, including the burial of the dead, shows that no matter what, the body, as well as the soul, was and is always a gift. I think this was one of the great blessings that Pope John Paul II taught us in his teaching early in his pontificate on the Theology of the Body, and through his own example as a “suffering servant” in his later years. There are many others, perhaps people we know personally, who teach us this as well.
I think that reverence for the body after death helps family and friends to pray for the deceased. I think it also helps remind people to pray for themselves and their family members who are still alive. And finally, the reverence and burial of the body can help to pave the way for the fervent hope that when God raises our bodies, they will be glorious and beautiful beyond belief, that they will have power, given by Christ, beyond our wildest imaginings. And that when this happens, God’s definitive victory over death will be consummated and God will be all, in all (1 Cor. 15:28)!
By Jim Gontis