The body is not a single part,
 but many

Readings: Neh. 8.2-10; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 12.12-30; Lk. 1.1-4, 4.14-21

A Negro Spiritual from the late 1800s proclaims a message similar to St. Paul's message in this morning's second reading: "the body is not a single part, but many." This ancient message applies to us in our time and place.

The Negro spiritual song is named: "Dem dry bones." (tune ascends up in half steps)

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones (3x)
Oh hear the word of the Lord.
The foot bone con-nected to the (pause) leg-bone,
The leg bone connected to the (') knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the (') thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the (') back bone,
The back bone connected to the (') neck bone
The neck bone connected to the (') head bone
Oh hear the word of the Lord!

The words of this song come from the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 37. In 700 BC, the Israelites recently had been defeated by the Assyrians. The Israelites lay defeated, discouraged, depressed. They were as if dead. God asks the prophet Ezekiel to bring these people back to life. Ezekiel prays for them, and they become revived by the grace of God.

St. Paul writes to the Christian community at Corinth which he had founded in 50 AD. He had approached this seaport people in "fear and trepidation" because they were infamous for their immoralities. Paul preached and all seemed well. After a couple of years, however, Paul received unsettling news about Corinth. The community had divided into factions. They had forgotten that they were all one church. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, or Apollos, or St. Peter. Some elitists claimed that Jesus' message was intended for them but not everybody. One mother and son couple were living together as husband and wife, but the community lacked the moral strength to confront this couple to obey God's laws. Women came to the house churches without wearing the traditional veil and wanted to address the community. Sometimes when the community gathered for prayer, some wealthy people tried to shut out the poor. Certain people ate and drank too much while others had too little to eat and drink. Some charismatics thought that speaking in tongues or prophesying was more important than performing works of charity. All believed in the resurrection but some believers taught falsely that our physical bodies would rise too. Some people gave bad example by eating meats that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Lots of people had become confused about sexuality; some followed one extreme of practicing religious prostitution like the pagans, and extremists on the opposite side rejected sexuality and marriage because they expected an imminent end of the world.

In that context, St. Paul preaches "we are many parts but one body." A foot belongs to the body just as much as a hand does. An ear belongs to the body just as much as an eye does. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? Paul adds, "If one part of the body suffers, all the parts of the body suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy." Paul communicates that just as the physical body needs all of its parts, so too does the Church body. Paul writes, "You are Christ's body, and individually parts of it. Some people, God has designated in the church to be first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance and administration." Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? No. Paul wants us to respect and appreciate all the different parts of the Church's body.

In 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote a famous encyclical called Mystici Corporis, which is translated as the Mystical Body of Christ. The pope chose the metaphor of body because the Church is a living body. This church body was founded by Christ and he is the head of the body. It is mystical because we are neither only physical nor only spiritual. We are mystical because God's invisible grace permeates the Church's visible body. The historical context of this encyclical was World War II. The pope pointed out that everybody in the world is welcomed into this mystical body; no external distinctions can make someone excluded from this body. No born or unborn handicapped person was to be treated with less dignity than anyone else. WWII was the period of the super-race and experiments in eugenics. Pope Pius XII who did more good for the Jews than anyone else in the whole world bluntly opposed the popular Nazi teachings against certain peoples. We all make up the Mystical Body of Christ on earth.

As Ezekiel preached, let God give new life to our old dry bones. Remember that St. Paul preached, "we are many parts, but we are all one body." And the encyclical Mystici Corporis teaches that everybody in the entire world is welcomed into the Mystical Body of Christ. In this body, there are many parts. Let's respect and appreciate the roles and responsibilities of each member of the body. We need to overcome confusion and to heal division. Just as in the time of Ezekiel, Paul, and Pope Pius XII, we need strong moral leaders, clergy and laity, who will urge the universal and local churches to be all that the Church is intended to be. We trust that just as God helped his people in past times, so too God will help us in our times to attain new life, fuller truth and greater unity.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley