Write In Between

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Body Language: What the Body Reveals

The second article in a series on “Theology of the Body.”
[To read the first article, click here.]

My simple gold wedding band is one of my most cherished possessions. I almost never take it off. Even when I clean it, it is never off for long. Its few prolonged absences from my finger were in the last weeks of each pregnancy. For me, my wedding band isn’t just an adorning piece of jewelry; it’s a symbol of the vowed life that I lead until my death or the death of my beloved spouse. I am a happily married Catholic woman. My wedding ring is the visible sign of the invisible reality of my life in all its forms—spiritually, physically, and materially. My ring represents my deepest beliefs about God, myself, marriage, family, Church, and the world.

In the way that my ring reflects the context of my vocation, so, too, our bodies—our sexes as masculine and feminine—point to deeper, more profound truths. Pope John Paul II’s expanded teaching on these deeper truths is summarily known as “theology of the body.” The pope writes: “The body, in fact, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” (General Audience of Feb. 20, 1980.)

Indeed, our very physical bodies, and the way we use them, point to sublime, invisible—even mystical—realities. And as such, the body of Jesus points to something even greater.

One of the deepest mysteries of Christianity is Christ’s incarnation. His taking on of flesh, a human body, has ramifications for our own bodies. This incarnational context is key to understanding the theology of the body.

John’s gospel opens with this profound proclamation: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…” (John 1:14). The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this truth: "The flesh is the hinge of salvation… We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and the redemption of the flesh.” (CCC 1015).

Despite these bold affirmations of the body–that, even the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth in the form of a human body–there are still people who think ill of the body. They characterize the body as something bad, or sinful, or useless in the spiritual life. Throughout history the Catholic Church has disapproved of such negativity and combated heresies regarding the sanctity of the human body. While we may sin using our bodies, we must recall that the body itself is created by God to be good, and is intended to communicate greater, higher things, just like Christ’s body.

Indeed, the body of Christ allows us to encounter God through our bodies. The stuff of earth—including people, the Church, the sacraments, and all of creation—is encountered through our bodies, our senses. So much so, that on a personal level, depending on how we use our bodies, we may find our own bodies to be the instruments through which we may gain or lose our salvation. By the merits of Christ, if we respect, love, and master our bodies, they can reflect the glory of God, not just on earth, but, someday, in heaven.

As Christians seeking to follow Christ, we must always look to his example as our perfect teacher. Like Christ, we must live a human life in a body, and it is to be a life of self-giving love and sacrifice. We are not fear to make a sincere gift of ourselves to others, even unto death. The secret to life is in understanding this way of love.

The loving life of Christ reflects the love of the Trinity. It is here that Christ reveals God’s innermost secret… the secret that “God is Love.” It also reveals our destiny. The Catechism says, “God's very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.” (CCC 221).

God is a communion of love and we are called to that communion. This has profound implications for us. Among them is this nugget: by God’s grace, sexual love in marriage becomes an icon of the Trinity.

In Theology of the Body for Beginners, Christopher West writes: “God imprinted in our sexuality the call to participate in a “created version” of his eternal “exchange of love.” In other words, God created male and female so that we could image his love by becoming a sincere gift to each other. This sincere giving establishes a “communion of persons” not only between the sexes but also—in the normal course of events—with a “third” who proceeds from them both. In this way, sexual love becomes an icon or earthly image in some sense of the inner life of the Trinity.”

What an elevation of sexual love!

Yet there’s more: in the context of the marital union, the sanctity of sexual love images God’s union with humanity. In sexual love, spouses give up their bodies to one another, a literal “laying down” of one’s life before one’s spouse in mutual communion. In other words, the life inside the bedroom ought to reflect the life outside of the bedroom. Christians are called to radical self-giving—we give ourselves up for one another. Just as Christ gave himself up for His Bride the Church. When we live this way, we are living “eucharistically”: This is my body, given up for you.

Think about this the next time you receive Jesus in the Eucharist: In Holy Communion, your body receives the Body of the Lord. You are uniting bodily with Christ in a most profound way. Catholics truly believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. His Body and Blood are contained in the Sacrament we receive. This truly is, as Vatican II teaches, the “source” and “summit” of our faith.

John Paul II calls the Eucharist “the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” Theology of body makes extensive use of “the spousal analogy.” The scriptures, as well as great saints and mystics, use the familiar language of husband-wife and lover-beloved to describe the relationship between God and us. (Of course, analogies have their limitations. We are not to infer that God is a sexual being, and yet it is he who placed his image on us in creation. It is necessary to recall that we are made in God’s image, not the other way around.)

The sacredness of marriage proceeds from the spousal analogy that is found in the Bible. It is first found in the earliest pages of Genesis with the creation and union of Adam and Eve. Later, the final pages of Revelation refer to the marriage of the Lamb of God with the Bride, (a.k.a Christ and the Church.) From beginning to end, in between these two marriages, the Bible reveals the greatest love story of all time. God loves us and plans for an eternal marriage: that of ourselves united with the Trinity. This is the joyous good news of theology of the body!

Like the band of gold on my finger reveals something more than simple adornment, the theology of the body reveals something more than anatomy: a divine plan for men and women in relationship with one another and with God.

©2007 Patricia W. Gohn
Our next topic takes us deeper into the Bible, with a look at man and woman’s origins in Genesis and its implications for our lives today.

For more detailed presentation of the themes explored in this article, see chapter one of Christopher West’s book, Theology of the Body for Beginners. (Available through Ascension Press.

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