[NOTE: This two-part series of blog posts is 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.]
Let’s try to let this essential message sink in: the Song of Songs, this unabashed celebration of erotic love, expresses the essence of biblical faith. How so? The essence of biblical faith is that God came among us in the flesh not only to forgive our sins (as astounding as that gift is); he became “one flesh” with us so we could share in his eternal exchange of love. In the first of his many sermons on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux aptly described marriage as “the sacrament of endless union with God.” The book of Revelation calls this endless union the “marriage of the Lamb” (Rv 19:7).
But there is more. Remember that pithy rhyme we learned as children: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”? We probably didn’t realize as children that we were actually reciting some profound theology. Yes, our bodies tell a divine story; our bodies tell the story that God loves us, wants to marry us, and wants us to “conceive” eternal life within us. This is not merely a metaphor.
Representing all of us, a young Jewish woman named Mary once gave her “yes” to God’s marriage proposal with such totality and fidelity that she literally conceived eternal life in her womb. In a hymn addressed to her, St. Augustine exclaimed, “The Word becomes united with flesh, he makes his covenant with flesh, and your womb is the sacred bed on which this holy union of the Word with flesh is consummated” (Sermon 291). Mary’s virginity has always been understood by the Church as the sign of her betrothal to God. She is the “mystic bride of love eternal,” as a traditional hymn has it. As such, Mary perfectly fulfills the spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God (see CCC, 505).
Penetrating the Essence of the Mystery
In the midst of unfolding the biblical analogy of spousal love, it is very important to understand the bounds within which we are using such language and imagery. “It is obvious,” wrote St. John Paul II, “that the analogy of . . . human spousal love, cannot offer an adequate and complete understanding of . . . the divine mystery.” God’s “mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy.” At the same time, however, John Paul II maintains that the spousal analogy allows a certain “penetration” into the very essence of the mystery (see TOB 95b:1). And no biblical author reaches more deeply into this essence than St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
Quoting directly from Genesis, Paul states,
For this reason a man shall leave [his] father
and [his] mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
Then, linking the original marriage with the ultimate marriage, he adds, “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31–32).
We can hardly overstate the importance of this passage for St. John Paul II and the whole theological tradition of the Church. He called it the “summa” (“sum total”) of Christian teaching about who God is and who we are (see Letter to Families 19). He said that this passage contains the “crowning” of all the themes in Sacred Scripture and expresses the “central reality” of the whole of divine revelation (see TOB 87:3). The mystery spoken of in this passage “is ‘great’ indeed,” he said. “It is what God . . . wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word.” Thus, “one can say that [this] passage . . . ‘reveals—in a particular way—man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear’” (TOB 87:6; 93:2).
So what is this “supreme vocation” we have as human beings that Ephesians 5 makes clear? Stammering for words to describe the ineffable, the mystics call it “nuptial union” . . . with God. Christ is the New Adam who left his Father in heaven. He also left the home of his mother on earth. Why? To mount “the marriage bed of the cross,” as St. Augustine portrayed it, unifying himself with the Church and consummating the union forever.
Come to the Wedding Feast
The more we allow the brilliant rays of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to illuminate our vision, the more we come to understand, as the Catechism observes, how the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (CCC 1617).
I never met my father-in-law; he died when my wife was a young girl. But I admire him tremendously because of the intuition he had as a brand-new husband. At Mass the day after his wedding, having consummated his marriage the night before, he was in tears as he came back to the pew after receiving the Eucharist. When his new bride inquired about his emotional state, he said, “For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of those words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”
This was a man for whom the Word of God was not a dead letter. God’s Word had become flesh . . . in his own flesh. This was a man who had been given eyes to see and ears to hear what God’s Word is in its very essence: an invitation to a Wedding Feast. My prayer is that this companion to the Sunday readings will help do the same for you.
My hope is that you will keep this little volume of Word Made Flesh with you when you go to Sunday Mass. Use it to guide your prayer after Communion. Or better yet, get to Mass early enough to read the day’s readings in advance and then use this companion to help you enter into the treasures of that day’s liturgy. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Christ is walking with us to “open the Scriptures” to us so as to reveal himself to us in the breaking of the bread. Lord, give us ears that hear and eyes that see. Amen.
Join Christopher West, Father Patrick Schultz, Father Ryan Mann and The Cor Project Team for an epic adventure through Assisi and Rome Nov. 8-17, 2018. Includes a two-hour private group visit of the Sistine Chapel! Less than 10 spots remain, so click here to get details and register before it sells out!