Let’s talk about the challenge of not accepting our bodies. All of us have experiences of not being satisfied with the way we look. We’re self-conscious about our size, shape, or appearance. Perhaps people have made fun of the way we look. Sometimes, even if people don’t say anything, we have imperfections that we don’t want others to see. Priests have this problem, too, believe me! I just don’t talk about it.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
Related to this is the topic of transgender issues. This is much more complex, and I don’t intend to cover the whole issue. I want to do it in a respectful way, not hurting anyone, seeking the truth as much as possible, and situate it in the larger context of accepting our bodies.
Also, please pay attention to how you respond internally when you read this, because the feedback I received from the team that helps me prepare these homilies was very interesting: many brought up issues and experiences that were connected with this topic, but weren’t directly related to something I said. So, please be aware of what I’m saying, what I’m not saying, and, if what you’re feeling is based on what I’m saying.
The goal today is finding freedom in Jesus, and accepting our bodies and the male and female body in general! Jesus says in the Gospel, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest [Being dissatisfied with our bodies is a burden that He doesn’t want us to carry]. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me [What we want to do today is approach our bodies the way Jesus does and learn from His perspective]; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls [God wants us to be at peace with our bodies]. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30).
The reason we’re focused on the body is because the First Reading, which corresponds to the Gospel, has marriage imagery with themes of masculinity and femininity. God says to the people of Jerusalem, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” Why? Because “your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zech 9:9). Dr. John Bergsma, a scripture scholar, points out that the terms ‘Daughter Zion’ and ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ symbolize the people being “one of the royal virgin daughters of marriageable age: a young woman of wealth and royal birth, at the prime of her life and beauty.” And the king is the bridegroom. So, today is a celebration of marriage and being made male and female, and thus, accepting our bodies.
I remember seeing a young woman I knew who just had plastic surgery to improve her appearance. Yet she was just as self-conscious after as she was before—that’s tragic, isn’t it? The problem wasn’t with her body. There was a wound in her heart that hadn’t yet been healed.
Jason Evert, a speaker on theology of the body, tells the following story that a surgeon wrote in his journal: After performing an operation on the face of a young wife, he was standing by her bedside, and her face was drooping on one side. One of the muscles in her mouth had been severed in order to remove a tumor in her cheek, and she was now paralyzed in part of her face. The doctor, however, marveled at the husband who was there, still loving his wife. When she asked, “Doctor, will my face always be like this?” he said, “Yes,” and she nodded in acceptance. Then her husband smiled and said in sympathy but with sincerity, “I like it. It’s kind of cute,” then bent down to kiss her on the mouth. Seeing this amazing act of love, the doctor wrote, “I hold my breath and let the wonder in” (Jason Evert, How to Date Your Soulmate, Track 3).
Deep down, we all know that’s how we’re meant to be loved and how we’re supposed to love. That’s the freedom Jesus is offering us today, that, even in spite of our many bodily imperfections, we are still loved, as male and female, and we are still good, strong, and beautiful!
Jesus wants that young woman who had plastic surgery to have that freedom, and it comes from an experience of being loved as she truly is.
There are three truths from the Gospel that will help us:
1) The relationship between parents and children. In the Gospel, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt 11:27). What we have here is intimacy between Father and Son. For our purposes today, we want to extend this love of the Father for the Son to all parents loving their children, because this is foundational to accepting our bodies as male and female. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, who has written much on the topic of gender identity disorder, says, “Children are born with a drive to seek love and acceptance from each parent… If this need is met, children develop a positive identification with their masculinity or femininity”. This doesn’t mean accepting bad moral behaviour or sin, but accepting our children with their weaknesses and being aware that sometimes we can be unfairly critical of those weaknesses.
Some of us are aware of how parents don’t always affirm their children in their masculinity or femininity. As children, maybe we heard or felt that our parents wanted a child of the opposite sex, were dissatisfied with our abilities, that we somehow didn’t measure up as a boy or girl, or that they didn’t think we were strong or beautiful. There are some fathers who don’t affirm their sons because they aren’t good at sports, or there are emotionally distant, angry, depressed, or critical mothers who fail to bond closely with their daughters.
So, Fitzgibbons writes, “Each parent should regularly compliment their daughter and affirm her goodness as a female that enriches their lives”, and fathers’ “affirming their son’s special God-given gifts and [for boys who perhaps struggle with sports] by minimizing the importance of sports in masculine identity is very important”.
It’s of great import that young men learn how to be masculine from older men, and young women learn how to be feminine from older women, because this helps us accept who are we. At the same time, we all need nurturing women and protective men, without ever being smothered.
I was blessed to learn how to be more truly masculine at my youth group in Richmond. There were strong male role models who showed me how to be manly, Christlike, and comfortable with myself, without trying to be macho or feeling insecure. The women there were also feminine, beautiful on the inside and out, and to see the interaction between the guys and girls who were dating was a treat to experience.
2) Humility in accepting truth. Jesus says today, “I thank you, Father… because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Mt 11:25). Transgender thought is very popular among academics and on university campuses, but fails to accept some basic truths of the human body.
For example, if a man feels that he’s a woman, but his body has no physical abnormalities, is it possible that his feelings are mistaken? We should listen to our feelings because they give us information, but sometimes our feelings don’t see reality as it is. If a woman is anorexic and believes she’s fat, she’s not correct. There’s nothing wrong with her body. She needs help accepting the goodness of her body. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is the right direction.
For argument’s sake, could it be that the body is wrong and the mind is right? I don’t see how that’s possible because the body isn’t conscious and can’t be right or wrong; it just is. But the mind can be wrong. Sometimes, for example, we don’t feel loved when we are loved. Or, let’s say I’m convinced I have cancer, but the doctors say that I show no physical symptoms, would it still be right to operate on my body?
Some say that there’s a distinction between gender and sex, where gender is what we identify with and sex is purely physical, so they can be different. But there is a correspondence between the mental and the physical. That’s the point of having sex-reassignment surgery. A man, for example, feels he’s a woman and so changes his body to match his mind. He does that because he knows that sex and gender are the same.
It’s not right to give puberty-blocking drugs to minors, especially given that this can be an unalterable life decision that can’t be taken back. Is it right to do surgery on a healthy body, to remove a man’s penis and testes, to give him breast implants, or to remove a woman’s breasts, to give testosterone to stimulate facial hair, and remove her uterus? Those are healthy parts of the body that we should accept.
Dr. Paul McHugh, at Johns Hopkins University, said that his university pioneered sex-change surgery in the 1970s but he, as chief psychiatrist, shut the clinic down because there was no mental benefit to their patients. And he says that changing one’s sex is impossible: “Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men”.
The reason for classifying humans into two sexes is not only because it’s obvious that there are psychological, hormonal, genetic, and bodily differences, but also because the whole race functions on sexual dimorphism; the human race is built upon this for the continuation of the species.
3) Rest in the truth. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” We need to learn from Jesus what He teaches about the body. The book of Genesis teaches that God intentionally created us male and female (1:27; 2:18-24), and St. John Paul II, in his philosophical analysis, says that “masculinity and femininity… are… two ways in which the same human being… is a body” (Man and Woman He Created Them, Translation by Michael Waldstein, 157). Did you hear that? There are two different ways of being a body—why? One theological reason is because we’re made for marriage. Marriage is God’s symbol of His love for us, that the human race is made for an intimate union with Him. He could have created us in other ways, but chose to make two sexes that were made for marriage (Christopher West, God’s Plan for a Joy-filled Marriage). He wanted us to think about marriage so much that He stamped it into our bodies. Every body is made for marriage, in the sense that the body points to union with another; that doesn’t mean that everyone will get physically married (surprise!), but the human person is made to be married ultimately with God, and our body points to that.
So, our body is not an accident. I was struck when I read this statement: “God prescribed every single detail of your body. He deliberately chose your race, the color of your skin, your hair, and every other feature. He custom-made your body just the way he wanted it” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, 22).
I remember being made fun of in Grade 8 for having no hair on my legs, as if I were a girl. And I don’t have a deep voice like other men. I remember Fr. Nicolas Tumbelaka’s amusement at the sound of the tenors at the seminary, “So feminine!” And I can’t grow an epic beard. But, thanks be to God, I’ve always been loved and accepted by most people. And I know that God allows for unique expressions of masculinity and femininity. There’s a range of expression of masculine and feminine. Try Fr. Anthony Ho. He’s not athletic and not physically robust, but he is masculine and accepts himself.
So why does God allow us to have physical imperfections? He could have made us all stronger and more beautiful—why didn’t He? First, it points us to heaven. We all desire perfect beauty, but it can’t be found on earth. Our discontent with our bodies is a constant reminder that life on earth is a temporary assignment. Second, what is true strength? That a man can bench-press his weight or that he can control his sexual desires? What is true beauty, that a woman is a supermodel, or that she’s kind to strangers, children, and the poor? Third, all of us peak in our strength and beauty in our 20s and 30s. Not everyone can be as good-looking as Deacon Andrew in their 60s—why? It’s time to celebrate others’ strength and beauty. We had our time of physical perfection, and now we point to something more important, spiritual and moral perfection.
Now that it’s July, we’re starting our parish season of the Sabbath Summer. The first thing we want to do is to have a summer of affirmation. Parents, our responsibility is to affirm our boys in their masculinity and girls in their femininity, recognizing that there are different expressions of each and each child is unique.
Second, pray for help in accepting the truth. And pray for healing. Do we hold any resentment towards God for the way we’re made?
Third, rest in the truth that God made our bodies the way He wanted them. Our physical imperfections point to something deeper.
Please remember the story about the wife whose face was left paralyzed after surgery. Grace came through a relationship: Her husband loved her like God, with absolute love. Not only did he see her spiritual beauty but he still saw and loved her physical beauty. That gave her freedom, freedom to accept her body, and a freedom God wants all of us to have.