The third-century pagan philosopher Porphyry wrote that his master Plotinus was ashamed to be seen in a body. No passage in literature better summarizes the attitude of the ancient educated classes toward death and our humble mortal frame. In a worldview based on cosmic tragedy, the soul getting stuck in the trap of flesh was a cruel joke played by the Fates on lowly human beings. It is no wonder, then, that cremation was so common in the ancient world. That the dead human body could have any real presence of a person was an idea as repulsive to them as incest and cannibalism still are to us. The sooner our remains could decay and disappear, the better.
Two thousand years later, after the rise and fall of Christendom, Western society has arguably come full circle. In spite of all pretensions to the contrary, modernity only cares for the flesh if it is perfect, cleaned up, and youthful. Otherwise, it can be thrown out like so much decaying garbage. That is why we keep our old and our sick out of sight, and then hopefully out of mind. That is why we spend so much money on products that allow us to appear unwrinkled and strong, why we spend so much time and effort in pursuit of the picture-perfect body. Like the Greek sculptor of the ancient world, we like to draw our idea of humanity from an abstract idea of pure form untainted by the actual heft of matter and age. Regardless of what our personal beliefs are, we all speak this language of the disembodied image.
But our Catholic Faith calls us to remember another language, one more informed by the traditional premises of our religion. A tibia from the body of St. Mary Magdalene is making its way across the United States, and I was privileged to see it when it came to New Orleans. Such an event drew large crowds of devotees who wanted to see and touch the woman who dried the Lord’s feet with her hair and first preached the resurrection to the apostles. Many people, including myself, brought humble objects like rosaries or prayer cards to touch to the relic; many of us put our petitions at her feet and reverently kissed the glass behind which lay the bone of the saint. Quite a few were moved to tears, and people waited an hour in a line going out the door just to get a chance to spend a few seconds with that piece of bone.
Coming out of one’s personal “Catholic box” and back into the world of 21st-century American modernity, one can find such displays unfashionably primitive or even uncivilized. Why worship the living God by kissing a piece of dead bone? Why summon His presence and power by venerating fragile, decayed flesh? Indeed, it is the premise of Protestantism — and, by default, our American culture — that no earthly vessel can be a proper container of the divine. Or rather, Jesus is present in the hearts of all believers as a good feeling or a burning in the breast, but no particular person or object can have more or less of Him.
Even the doctrines of our Catholic Faith can lead us to question such acts of piety. Is not Our Lord Jesus Christ truly present — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — in the Blessed Sacrament that we receive every Sunday? Does not the Holy Ghost dwell in the hearts of the faithful who are in the state of grace? Are we not exhorted to see the risen Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones most in need? Of what use is this piece of bone, even if it did belong to a very important person?
As in all questions about the Faith, the answer comes in the mystery of the Cross, that place where God reveals to us that His power is most manifest through our human weakness. The stone that the pagans had rejected — the mortal human body — has become the cornerstone of a new heaven and a new earth. Our faith rises and falls upon Christ’s resurrection from the dead and, by extension, our own.
That bone of Mary Magdalene, the greatest female saint after the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, is a sign of that new world, where God has drawn all things to Himself and where He has wiped every tear from every face. Only the eyes of faith can see it, but God has meant our entire existence to be a parable that teaches us that without God, we can do nothing. But for all of this to be the case, there have to be small things: a piece of bone, a trickle of oil, a cupful of water, or a small wafer of bread. For it is only in small and at times unappealing things that God can work wonders.
Perhaps the reason why we Catholics defend life in all of its stages is the same reason we venerate this dead piece of bone. For if God’s power is manifest in small things, are not the lives of those who cannot help themselves some of the smallest and most precious things that we have? Is not the heartbeat of a child in her mother’s womb just as mute to us as that piece of bone? Are not the groans of an elderly man in a hospice just as morbid to the modern eye as a part of a dead body lying in a church? Is not our first impulse to look away, just as it is our first impulse to look away from those most in need in our society — so dirty, poor, and unattractive? It is ironic that, in this world of ours, the institution most vocal about the sanctity of human life is the one that has enshrined death in its altars and imagery. But this death is not an end unto itself, as St. Paul says, but is something sown in defeat that will rise in victory.
So I can only thank all those people who came out with me to pray before the living bone of this great saint. They all preached this truth of our Faith, if only by going to plead for themselves, their family, their city, and their nation in front of the remnants of a woman two thousand years dead. For in that bone, they saw that she is still alive in Christ, who raised her from her spiritual death, and He seeks to do the same for all of us. In the weakness of man and in the Cross, they saw the power of God.
Photo: St. Mary Magdalene, by antmoose