[NOTE: This two-part series of blog posts are excerpted from Christopher’s new book Word Made Flesh: A Companion to the Sunday Readings (Ave Maria Press). The book highlights the next liturgical cycle (C) beginning with Advent, and subsequent cycles will be released before Advent in 2019 and 2020. Order the book individually or at our exclusive 50% parish bulk discount here (US shipping only at this time). Order the e-book version here.]
Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living” (St. Bernard). If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45).
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 108
The sacred words of Scripture are, of course, critically important to our faith. “Still, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book,’” as the Catechism insists (108). It is the religion of the Divine Word that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). Scripture, in fact, will remain a dead letter unless every word of it is read in view of the Word made flesh.
That is the purpose of the volume you now hold in your hands. Inspired by the scriptural vision St. John Paul II unfolded for us in his 129 Wednesday audiences from 1979 to 1984 that came to be known as the “Theology of the Body” (TOB), the brief, prayerful reflections on the Sunday readings in this book are intended to “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures” by reading them in light of “the Word which is incarnate and living.”
Ultimate Meaning Is Made Flesh
Have you ever paused to ponder what the Bible actually means by referring to the eternal Son of God as the Word? “Word” does not quite convey all the richness of the Greek Logos. “Logos” refers to the rational principle governing the universe—the ultimate meaning, reason, logic, and beauty behind everything. And the astounding claim upon which all of Christianity rests is that the human body is God’s chosen vehicle for communicating his Word, for communicating ultimate meaning, and for communicating who he is, who we are, and his final plan for the universe.
Just as in Jesus’ day, when people hear how important the body is to Christian faith, they often respond like some of the first disciples: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). This response is understandable. How could something as earthly as the human body convey something as heavenly as the Mystery of God? And yet, if we believe in the meaning of Christmas, we should also believe this claim. For those with eyes to see, our bodies are not only biological; they’re theological—they reveal the logic of God; they reveal the ultimate meaning behind everything.
This is why St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, despite how it is typically framed, is not merely a papal teaching on marital love and human sexuality. It is that, to be sure, but it is also so much more. As John Paul II himself said, what we learn in his TOB “concerns the whole Bible” (TOB 69:8) and plunges us into “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ” (TOB 49:3). Through the lens of spousal love, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body leads to “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence . . . the meaning of life” (TOB 46:6).
Having spoken since the 1990s to Catholic audiences around the world, it is clear to me that we are often unaware of what is really happening in the liturgy. We “look but do not see and hear but do no listen or understand,” as Jesus is quoted saying in Matthew 13:13. Reflecting on the Sunday Mass readings with the help of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is like putting on a pair of glasses that brings the entire biblical story (and the liturgy itself) into focus. Familiar passages and parables suddenly “pop open,” enabling us to enter their inner mystery and meaning as never before. We come to see that the whole of the Christian life is an invitation—as Jesus proposed in Matthew 22:1–14 and Luke 14:15–24—to a wedding feast!
God Wants to Marry Us
Scripture uses many images to help us understand God’s love for us. Each image has its own valuable place. But as St. John Paul II shared, the gift of Christ’s body on the Cross gives “definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love” (Mulieris Dignitatem 26). In fact, from the beginning to end, the Bible tells a nuptial or marital story. It begins in Genesis with the marriage of the first man and woman, and it ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Right in the middle of the Bible, we find the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. These bookends and this centerpiece provide the key for reading and understanding the whole biblical story. Indeed, we can summarize all of Sacred Scripture with five simple, yet astounding words: God wants to marry us. Consider:
For as a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride,
so shall your God rejoice in you. (Is 62:5)
I will betroth you to me forever:
I will betroth you to me with justice and
with loyalty and with compassion;
I will betroth you to me with fidelity. (Hos 2:19)
God is inviting each of us, in a unique and unrepeatable way, to an unimagined intimacy with him, akin to the intimacy of spouses in one flesh. In fact, as Pope Francis observed, “the very word [used in Scripture to describe marital union] . . . ‘to cleave’ . . . is used to describe our union with God: ‘My soul clings to you’ (Ps 63:8).” Because of the supreme bliss of union with God, “a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: ‘All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love’” (Amoris Laetitia 13, 142).
While we may need to work through some discomfort or even fear to reclaim the true sacredness, the true holiness of the imagery, the “scandalous” truth is that Scripture describes “God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images” as Pope Benedict XVI explained in Deus Caritas Est(9). Elsewhere he declared, “Eros is part of God’s very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride” (Lenten Message 2007).
We are probably more familiar (and more comfortable) describing God’s love as agape—the Greek word for sacrificial, self-giving love. Yet God’s love “may certainly be called eros,” asserted Benedict XVI. In Christ, eros is “supremely ennobled . . . so purified as to become one with agape.” Thus, the Bible has no qualms employing the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs as a description of “God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God.” In this way, as Pope Benedict XVI concluded, the Song of Songs became not only an expression of the intimacies of marital love but also “an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration” (Deus Caritas Est 10).
NEXT POST: Pt. 2: The Essence of Biblical Faith
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