"The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up to heaven." St. Mark, 16:19.
For years, ever since 1924, the Russians had kept and honored a dead body, the body of Lenin, god of the Communists. At his death the Soviet leaders ordered two scientists to embalm their founder for the ages. For months they worked on other corpses to find a method. What they finally did to the remains of Lenin is a holy Communist secret. At first the anatomist and the chemist assigned the task, expected the body to last only two years. When they succeeded for that long, they boastfully predicted that it would last forever.
At first the body lay in a wooden tomb before the Kremlin. Then it disappeared for 18 months while a new tomb of dull red granite was built at the same place. Many millions of Russians have filed past the remains, getting no closer that 10 feet from the coffin, which lies in an air-conditioned room. Close observers have noted, however, that the body is decomposing and discoloring despite all efforts to preserve it.
What a far cry this almost disgusting effort to keep a dead man's body in a state of preservation, from the glory of this Ascension day. What a contrast between what happened to the body of Lenin, god of Communism, and to the body of Christ, God of Christianity. The cruel Lenin and the kindly Christ offer no sharper contrast than in that which happened to their bodies.
The corpse of the Communist founder rotted, despite every effort to preserve it; whereas the body of Christ ascended, rose up and returned, glorious and triumphant, to His eternal home. Today we honor the fact that Christ ascended into heaven. And today it would be well for us to think a moment about the dignity of the human body, especially since we are considering the Fifth Commandment, which demands respect for the human body.
Of all material things, the human body is the Creator's most marvelous work. The bright spring sunshine is no more radiant than the tender smile of a human being. Beautiful as is the dawn, it is dull beside the clear, open face of an innocent youth. Who has not admired a clear, blue cloudless sky? Yet, the clear eyes of a little child are much more beautiful. The song of a bird is delightful, but the song of a human is still more thrilling. The human body is God's greatest material creation.
But the dignity of the human frame arises not from this alone. It comes from spiritual reasons:
1. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul tells us: "Do you not know that your members are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have from God?" I Cor. 6:19. In the next verse he tells us: "Glorify God and bear him in your body."
2. That is what we do literally when we receive Holy Communion. Your body becomes the living tabernacle of the Son of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit take up their dwelling in you when you receive the Eucharist. How we honor the tabernacle on our altar. How we protect and adorn it. How much more so the body which becomes the living and loving home of the All-holy.
3. Your body takes its dignity from the fact that it is the co-worker of your soul. Of the two the soul is more important, but still the body is the instrument, the case, the tool of the soul. Your body cooperates in the good you do and in the bad you do. In the same way your body will share in merit and blame.
4. The human body was honored especially when the Son of God came down from heaven and took to Himself a human form from the Immaculate body of His beloved Mother. What a perfect body Christ must have had. What perfect cooperation there was between His body and His soul.
That body was cut and broken on the cross, buried in the earth. But the third day Christ rose triumphant and glorious, His body was beautiful and dignified in its resurrection.
And today we see that matchless body of Christ ascending, rising up into heaven, there to be seated at the right hand of the Almighty Father. Today is an occasion for us to realize the beauty and dignity of the human frame. Today is a time for us to see why God gave us a Fifth Commandment, demanding respect for the body of every man.
Because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the tabernacle home of Christ, because your body is the intimate partner of your soul, because your body was honored by the Incarnation, by the Resurrection and by the Ascension of Christ, the Son of God, for all these reasons your body and every human body is worthy of dignity and honor.
That is why murder, suicide, abortion, mercy-killing, mutilization, sins against chastity, sterilization, other criminal killing or maiming of the human body are against the wise law of God.
We have seen the followers of Lenin lined up against the followers of Christ. We see on the one side feeble men trying feebly to keep from decaying and rotting the dead corpse of a mere man.
Today we also see - and what a thrilling sight it is - the glorious, beautiful, living body of the Son of God ascending into heaven.
May this Ascension day prompt us to renew our allegience to Christ and to reject everyone and everything that is against Christ. Particularly may we today pledge our respect for the body which God gave to man - your body and the body of every other human being.
Adapted from Talks on the Commandments
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (© 1948)