In his incomparable book on St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton shows that the Angelic Doctor not only argued for the reality of the Incarnation, but also wanted to show the implications of the Incarnation. The Incarnation brought heaven and earth together, but also, in a new way, brought body and soul together. The divine presence filled something created and made it sacred, not temporarily, but eternally.
Even without the Incarnation, we can understand that a man is not a man without his body, just as a man is not a man without his soul. “A corpse is not a man; but also a ghost is not a man.” We tend to think of the soul as eternal and the body as temporal. After all, dead bodies decay. But one particular body did not. When God himself took on human flesh, something new happened, something that Chesterton calls “that most startling dogma: the Resurrection of the Body.”
Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead. His body was reunited with his soul. His sacred body then ascended to heaven. Christ is the “first born from the dead,” according to St. Paul. It means we shall follow him in resurrection. It means our bodies are also sacred, and they, too, will rise from the dead to be reunited with our souls. This has been the dogma of the Catholic Church from its beginning.
Let’s face it: the modern world utterly rejects this dogma. Let’s further face it: most Catholics probably do not think about what this dogma means. Let’s finally face it: neither do we. It is, as Chesterton says, too startling.
The rejection of tradition, whether by the world or by those within the Church, can be either outright and deliberate or passive and thoughtless. Usually it is the latter, as we are lulled to intellectual slumber under the monotonous tone that is the false notion of progress. Old is bad, new is good. Out with the old, in with the new. Everything is getter better, so go with the flow. This sense of “progress” is a combination of mindless optimism and even more mindless determinism. But if we engage our brains and actually think about what we are rejecting, we realize the implications of the philosophy that we have unconsciously accepted. The philosophy of progress is not only a hatred of tradition, but the idea that everything is inevitably getting better by itself. It is used to make excuses for bad behavior. And to call bad behavior inevitable. And a sign of progress.
But history is not a story of progress. It is the story of the Fall and the story of Salvation, of trying to recover something that we have lost. It is why Chesterton says that all the poems that have ever been written could be bound in one volume under the title “Paradise Lost.”
We have lost something. We have to get it back. The philosophy of Salvation is utterly different from the philosophy of Progress. Do we want to restore something that has been lost? Do we want to preserve something that is good? Or do we want to persist in a state of amnesia, of vandalism, of cremation? That is, forgetting the past, destroying the past, and not even burying the past, but burning it.
This is where we have to face the startling dogma of the resurrection of the body. Chesterton predicted that the modern insistence on hygiene (which is a “progressive” idea) would bring back the pagan habit of cremation. Indeed, cremation has returned. It is an attack on Christian tradition. It is burning things up and so forgetting them. It is ironic that the generation that seems to worship health and worship the physical ultimately has no respect for the body. We burn the body because we do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Chesterton says, “We have betrayed the dead.”
Modern cremation is worse than pagan cremation because it is clinical and, if you will, cold. It is purely utilitarian and devoid of ceremony. Chesterton epitomizes it in his poem, “The Song of the Strange Ascetic.”
If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.
The Catholic Church discourages (but does not forbid) cremation because we believe not only in respect for the body, but the resurrection of the body. If cremation is necessary (the exception, not the rule), the Church teaches that the remains should not be scattered, but kept together and buried. Obviously an all-powerful God is able to resurrect the body no matter what state it is in, but deliberately destroying the body amounts to tempting the Lord, insisting our way is better than God’s way.
The modern fad of scattering ashes is also an attempt to forget about death. A grave makes us remember. It makes us prepare for our own death, which helps us live a better life. But more importantly, it helps us think about resurrection. The most glorious grave on earth is an empty one in Jerusalem.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on March 27, 2016.)
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