Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who is also a Syracuse native and a well-known peace activist, is famous, or infamous, for having said (and I hope you will pardon the colorfulness of this metaphor), “Faith is not where your head is at, and rarely where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!” Today the church celebrates “Divine Mercy” Sunday – typically celebrated in remembrance of the devotion of St. Faustina – you might recognize the pictures of Jesus with the red and white rays of light coming out of his chest. Anyway, the way she talks about mercy is mostly about getting plenary indulgences and eliminating purgatory time, and believe me, I’m all for forgiveness, but mercy in the life of Jesus is way too focused on people’s bodies to reduce it to something that happens only in your head or your heart, let alone after the grave. When we talk about Jesus as the presence of God, we use the term “Incarnation” – coming in flesh. When we talk about Easter, we don’t say his spirit goes to heaven – we talk about the resurrection of the body, the transformation of this fragile stuff. So today I want to talk to you about bodies; for a church that talks about Incarnation and eating the body of Christ and being the body of Christ, we are awfully good at acting like Jesus just came to save souls. How many of us think that spirituality is about feeling it in our hearts rather than living it with our bodies, or imagine that having faith means believing the right things, or think that religion and politics (which is all about people’s bodily reality) don’t mix? Nothing is more embodied than Christianity done right.
And look at the readings – there are bodies everywhere: What does mercy look like for the disciples in the gospel? It looks like a body – the body of Jesus, three times offering them peace, making himself available to Thomas, breaking up the fear that has paralyzed this group of people since his death. What does mercy look like for the people in the first reading? It looks like being healed: these bodies that had been hiding with fear have become so saturated with the mercy of Jesus that even Peter’s shadow has power to heal these broken and diseased bodies. I think I have mentioned before that the Greek word for compassion literally means that the person’s guts are churning inside them, and the Hebrew word for compassion, rehem, comes from the same root as the word for womb, rahamim – mom love, I-carried-you-in-my-body-for-nine-months-and-this-is-the-thanks-I-get kind of love. Any mother knows that mercy is not just in the head or the heart - any mother knows how bodily mercy actually is.
We are all familiar with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and I don’t have any particular need to slam that reality in itself, but the biggest danger I see among both “spiritual” and “religious” people is that when people say, “Well, I believe in God/a higher power/whatever,” they mistakenly think that what you BELIEVE is the most important thing. Belief makes no sense at all apart from where you put your BODY. Now, that doesn’t mean that just showing up for church, your body being in the seat, is all it is about; it’s about the commitments you make and what “belief” actually looks like when it is written in human flesh. We miss the point of that because we hear the word “believers” so often in the readings today – believers in the Lord were added to the community, happy are they who have not seen and have believed. The words they are using in Greek are cognates of the root word pistis, which doesn’t mean faith the way we think of it as “what you believe,” so much as faithfulness in the sense of fidelity, “being there” for people, being “count-on-able.” I am so happy that we greet one another at the Catholic Center, but I hope that none of us treat that moment as a formality. I hope there is an actual community, an actual body being created here, the body of Christ, that we are coming to know one another and be available to one another – to take care of this body, not just that “I’m going to church,” like a blip on our radar screens, but to celebrate and strengthen what we are trying to be when we leave this building, for each other and for the people we will meet who need mercy. Augustine is remembered as having held up the consecrated host during the Eucharist and saying, “Christians, see yourselves”; that is, become the body of Christ, individually parts of the reality that is greater than any one of us.