January 25, 2013

St. Paul's Theology of the Body: bringing the old with the new

By Joe Tremblay *

Theology of the Body, as it has been taught in recent years, has capitalized on the sexual dimension of the body and its spiritual significance. This, no doubt, has contributed to its widespread popularity. Within this context, the person – both body and soul – is viewed as a gift to God, as a gift to one’s spouse and even as a gift in the communion of persons at large.

Also, the very anatomy of the body – in its in male and female form – symbolizes, not only the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church, but in addition, it represents who and what God is. And no doubt, it speaks to who we are in relation to God and each other. For this and so many other reasons, the Theology of the Body is of immense value for Christians.

Theology of the Body (TOB), as a field of study, the presentation of its sexual-spiritual significance is a recent development. And to be sure, new developments run the risk of leaving behind well established truths and insights to complement it. From time to time, there have been TOB specialists who have masterfully communicated the beauty of human sexuality, inspiring an appreciation of its God-given purpose and design, but sometimes omitting old cautionary measures that should attend it.

Even in the context of its theological truth and even with the aid of grace, the body or the flesh is still strongly inclined towards sin. In fact, the New Testament is clear on the following point: that the flesh continues to wage war on the spirit. While the body still lives, the law of sin “within its members,” to use the words of St. Paul, still lurks. And when spiritual vigilance is relaxed, the law of sin is bound to get the upper hand. Perhaps, in part, this relaxed vigilance is the reason why so many orthodox priests have fallen from grace in recent years. In advancing Blessed John Paul’s TOB, therefore, it is important to reacquaint ourselves with St. Paul’s theology of the body.

For St. Paul, the sexual-spiritual meaning of the body is implicit in his writings, to be sure. But what stands out clearly, at least as I see it, is the liturgical-sacrificial meaning of the body. Take, for instance, the use of symbolic language used by St. Paul:

The body as a temple (I Corinthians 3:16), the body as a living sacrifice to be offered to God for spiritual worship (Romans 12:1), the body as a libation being poured out for other people’s faith (Philippians 2:17), the body as that which is filled up with the afflictions of Christ for the sake of the Church (Colossians 1:24), the body that must be crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14), the body that carries the dying of Christ so that life may come to others (II Corinthians 4:10; 4:12), the body that must be conquered and trained lest we be disqualified (I Corinthians 9:27), the body’s desires that must be put to death (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5); and the body that must be "dead" so that the person may be absolved (Romans 6:7).

These themes were picked up by the early Church Fathers like St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.) and were made to shed light on the relationship between the Eucharistic sacrifice and martyrdom, the ultimate offering of the human body. As a prisoner in chains who was sentenced to be thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to several churches about his impending sacrifice. He said, "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ." Interestingly, he alluded to his body as the "wheat of God" and the "pure bread of Christ;" but on the condition that it be sacrificed.

By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the body is associated with God’s house and an offering for the altar. Like the first Jewish Temple which was destined to be destroyed (586 B.C.), the body will die. But like second Jewish Temple which was rebuilt (515 B.C.), it shall be raised up again at the resurrection of the dead. When the body is blessed with God's presence and is conceived as having liturgical value and symbolism, it serves as an instrument of communicating the grace and merit of Christ’s Passion. Infirmity, disability and suffering can be transformed from an incidental misfortune to a liturgical act with a profound meaning for oneself and far reaching consequences for others. And as for the body being the house of God, it can be a place where the peace of a monastery and the beauty of a cathedral can be found.

In the book, Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to Coroticus, John Skinner gives one of the reasons behind the Apostle of Ireland’s perseverance in his mission. It is as if he hints at this interior cathedral of beauty that the Holy Spirit builds up within the soul: “Pascal said that in difficult times you should always keep something beautiful in your heart. Patrick is able to survive these harsh and lonely territories of exile precisely because he keeps the beauty of God alive in his heart. The inner beauty of the divine intimacy transfigures outer bleakness. This inner intimacy brings his soul alive. It opens the world of divine imagination to this youth.”

What works for suffering and trials, also works when the pleasures of the flesh are provoked by occasions of sin. The liturgical meaning assigned to the body by St. Paul is not just one of positive affirmation – something beautiful and valuable – he also reminds us that the body is something to be sacrificed due to its strong inclinations to sexual sin. And I think this is where some TOB specialists have fallen short (I say, “some”).

Indeed, sometimes there has been an unguarded approach to the topic of human sexuality and all of its theological richness; almost forgetting that the law of sin, as St. Paul said in Romans 7, is at enmity with the law of the spirit. Even St. Francis of Assisi called his body “brother ass” so as to remind himself that there is a principle at work; a principle that needs to be continually offered to God through self-denial, discipline and vigilance.

As previously mentioned, there have been many fallen priests within the last decade. But priests are not the only ones struggling with their own sexuality; lay men and women are too. A preist, now a bishop, told me that over half of the confessions he hears from men have to do with pornography. It would be commendable, therefore, that teachers and speakers of Theology of the Body, in addition to explaining the God-given beauty and design of sexuality, would retrieve the liturgical-sacrificial meaning of the human body.

The body is a gift designed for the purposes of sexual love and communion, no doubt. However, it always bears repeating that it is also a gift of offering that must be prepared for sacrifice through acts of self-denial and charity. As such, the body, having been sanctified by grace, will grow into a house fit for God's dwelling where peace and beauty can be found. But such a house cannot be built without the spirit of sacrifice.

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.