Ps 145 R/. I will bless your name for ever, my king and my God.
Rom 8:9, 11-13
In our second reading today, St. Paul reminds us: Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit (Rom 8:9). Flesh and Spirit — St. Paul uses these images to symbolise the internal struggle of the Christian: the battle against our tendency to sin. This is a major theme in Paul’s letters.
But he’s not using this to make a commentary on the body, as if to say that the body — or material reality — is bad and only the spiritual is good. He’s using these words to symbolise deeper realities. For Paul, the flesh symbolises the life of sin (elsewhere he calls it the ‘spirit of the world’), and the Spirit symbolises the life of grace.
St. Paul is trying to help us understand the spiritual struggle that lies in each of our hearts. Deep within us, due to original sin, is the tendency to sin — what we call, concupiscence —, and if we look closely at this tendency and where it points, it becomes easy for us to see why St. Paul clumps it all in together under the name the flesh. Our tendency to sin is always directly to pleasure: be it lust, gluttony, greed, pride, anger, sloth or envy, each of these deals with a certain sense of the pleasures of the body. That’s pretty obvious when it comes to lust, gluttony and sloth, but it’s also true of the others. Greed, for example, is really just a lust for money or material things. And pride is really about puffing one’s own ego to make ourselves bigger than we really are. That’s why we give it bodily terms? (i.e., ‘You’re so full of yourself’, or ‘What a fat head’, etc.). These sinful attractions are what St. Paul means by the flesh, and they’re something toward which each of us leans because of original sin.
But St. Paul seeks to remind the Romans (and us, too!), that we’re not slaves to these fleshly desires. No, we’ve been redeemed by Christ! In Baptism, our fleshliness (these sinful tendencies) was put to death on the Cross so that we could receive new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul tells us, You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit.
We’ve been claimed by Christ, and it’s His Spirit that now dwells in us. We’re no longer ‘fleshly’ beings, but born of the Spirit. And it’s this life in the Holy Spirit that ought to direct our lives, not our base inclinations to sin, our concupiscence. That’s why we need to do battle with our tendency to sin, so that the life of grace we received in Baptism can continue and grow even stronger. Because, as St. Paul rightly says, if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Rom 8:13).
Jesus has redeemed us by His Death, and He continues to save us through the forgiveness of sins in Confession, not so that we might continue to die according to the desires of the flesh, but so that we might live according to the grace of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why in the spiritual life we often speak of ‘dying to self’. To die to self doesn’t mean that we become disinterested in ourselves and allow ourselves to be victimised by the sinfulness of others. Rather, it means that we struggle against our desire for sin so that we can truly live according to God’s love as His sons and daughters. It means that we must chose to abandon certain practices, certain likes, certain ways of living — that’s the dying part — so that we can remain faithful to God’s commandments.
We have to let go of our sinful habits, and even grow to hate them, so that we can choose to act in love instead of selfishness. And we call it dying because it’s not easy and often feels like we’re dying when we change our ways. It costs us something. In order to receive the grace God has in store for us, we first have to let go of what we’re already holding. That’s why Jesus said in last Sunday’s Gospel, those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:39).
This, my brothers and sisters, is what God has hidden from the wise and the intelligent but has revealed to little infants (cf. Mt 11:25). We are called to die to sin, to die to self, so as to live for and with Christ. That’s why it’s so important for us to be constantly examining our hearts: are we living according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit? And this is why it’s so important for us to be constantly repenting of our sinfulness and clinging to God’s mercy and grace. Because we can’t win this battle for ourselves, we can only win if we allow the Holy Spirit to take over, to heal and to lead us in the ways of God. No, we are not of the flesh; we are of the Spirit, and therefore we must live by the Holy Spirit.
Breathe into us, Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy.
Move in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy.
Attract our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we may love only what is holy.
Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, that we may defend all that is holy.
Protect us, Holy Spirit, that we may always be holy (cf. St. Augustine).