THE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY:
What if I
told you that the key to understanding God’s plan for human life
is to go behind the fig leaves and behold the human body, naked and
without shame? What if I told you that the only way to see the
invisible mystery of God is through the vision of the human body in
its masculinity and femininity? What if I told you that the
Christian mystery itself is simply unintelligible unless we understand
the meaning of sexual difference and our call to sexual union?
The Pope’s thesis,
if we let it sink in, is sure to revolutionize the way we understand
the human body and sexuality. “The body, and it alone,”
John Paul says, “ is capable of making visible what is invisible,
the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible
reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time
immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it” (Feb 20, 1980).
This is what Adam and Eve experienced “in
the beginning.” The very sentiment of sexual desire as God created
it to be was to love as God loves in the sincere gift of self. Since
this call to love is the summary of the Gospel, John Paul can say
that if we live according to the nuptial meaning of our bodies, we
“fulfill the very meaning of [our] being and existence”
(Jan 16, 1980). It is for this reason that a man clings to his wife
and they become “one flesh” (see Gn 2:24).
The entrance of shame indicates a radical
change in their experience of embodiment. It indicates the loss of
grace and holiness. “Original man” gives way to “historical
man” who must now contend with lust in his heart.
What about the experience of embodiment and
our longing for union in the eschaton? Didn’t Christ say we’ll
no longer be given in marriage at the resurrection (see Mt 22:30)?
Yes, but this doesn’t mean our longing for union (marriage) will
be done away with. It means it will be fulfilled. Sacraments are merely
earthly signs of heavenly realities. We no longer need signs to point
us to heaven, when we’re in heaven.
THE CHRISTIAN VOCATIONS
Only by understanding who man is originally, historically, and eschatologically can we understand how man is to live. In other words, having outlined an “adequate anthropology,” the door is now opened to a proper understanding of the Christian vocations of celibacy and marriage.
Those who are celibate “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) are choosing to live in the heavenly marriage on earth. In a way, they’re “skipping” the sacrament to participate more directly in the real thing. By doing so, they step beyond the dimension of history – within the dimension of history – and declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Authentic Christian celibacy, then, is not a rejection of sexuality or a devaluation of marriage. It’s the expression on earth of its ultimate purpose and meaning!
As a vocation to holiness, marriage is meant to prepare men and women for heaven. But in order for it to be adequate heaven preparation, the model must accurately image the divine prototype. The sacramentality of marriage, then, consists in the manifesting of the eternal mystery of God in a “sign” that serves not only to proclaim that mystery, but also to accomplish it in the spouses (see Sep 8, 1982).
All of married life constitutes this sign. But nowhere is this sign more dramatically manifested than when husband and wife become “one flesh.” Just as the body expresses the soul of a person, the “one body” that spouses become in conjugal intercourse expresses the “soul” of their married life. “Indeed the very words ‘I take you to be my wife – my husband,’” the Pope says, “can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse” (Jan 5, 1983).
NEW CONTEXT FOR SEXUAL MORALITY
John Paul’s original insights provide
a whole new context for understanding the Church’s teaching on
sexuality, particularly her teaching against contraception. This is,
in fact, the linchpin of all sexual morality. For as soon as sexual
union is divorced from its inherent link with procreation, any means
to sexual climax can be justified (the sexual revolution of the 20th
century has certainly demonstrated this in practice).
BATTLE FOR THE MEANING OF LIFEIf, as John Paul teaches, the body and it alone is capable of communicating the mystery of God’s love to us; and if there is an enemy of God who wants to keep us from God’s love – where, then, would he go to do it? The Church Father Tertullian says that Satan attempts to counter God’s plan of salvation by plagiarizing the sacraments. And where better to begin than with the “primordial sacrament”?
Satan’s goal is to scramble the language of our bodies. And look how successful he’s been. How many people, for example, think that the body and the gift of sexuality are the last places to look for the presence of God?
Much is at stake in our failure to understand the language of our bodies. As John Paul II says, this is obviously “important in regard to marriage.” However, it “is equally essential and valid for the understanding of man in general” (Dec 15, 1982). The theology of the body is, in fact, according to John Paul, the basis of the most suitable education in what it means to be a human being (see Apr 8, 1981). Yes, the battle raging in our Church and our world regarding sexual morality is nothing short of a battle for the very meaning of human existence.
Hence, the theology of the body should not be considered merely a minor discipline among many in the overall scope of Catholic teaching. Again, according to the Holy Father, what we learn by reflecting on Christ’s words in the theology of the body “is, in fact, the perspective of the whole Gospel, of the whole teaching, in fact, of the whole mission of Christ” (Dec 3, 1980).
The theology of the body is a clarion call
for the Church not to become more “spiritual,” but to become
more incarnational. It is a call to allow the Word of the Gospel to
penetrate our flesh and bones. When this incarnation of the Gospel
takes place in us, we see the Church’s teaching on sexual morality
not as an oppressive set of rules, but as the foundation of a liberating
ethos, a call to experience the redemption of our bodies, a call to
rediscover in what is erotic the original meaning of sexuality which
is the very meaning of life. And this is the first step to take in
renewing the world.
As John Paul asserts, man and woman’s call to form a communion of persons “is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture” (Oct 22, 1980). Thus, the dignity and balance of human life “depend at every moment of history and at every point of geographical longitude and latitude on ‘who’ she will be for him and he for her” (Oct 8, 1980). In short, a culture that does not respect the truth about sexuality is doomed to be a culture that does not respect the truth about life; it’s doomed to be a culture of death.
This is why John Paul made the theology of the body the first catechetical project of his pontificate. At the heart of the new evangelization, at the heart of building a civilization of love and a culture of life, is marriage and the family. And at the heart of marriage and the family is the truth about the body and sexuality.
Let us live it and proclaim it. If we do, we will not fall short of renewing the face of the earth!