Theology of the Body 101 by Andrew Hammer

I suppose that TOB 101 is probably not the best term to use.  After all, a college-level course would be much longer and more in depth that a short article could possibly cover.  To summarize Pope John Paul the Great’s 129 addresses* in a simple blog would be the height of arrogance, and probably not very readable anyway.  Nonetheless, any topic about human sexuality from the Catholic perspective in the third millennia would falter if we did not broach this subject.  So let us dip our toes into this ocean of enlightenment.  Perhaps we can, at the least, establish some ground rules and cover some basic concepts.

First ground rule: Catholics do not hate sex.  In fact we ought to be the ones expounding how great it is!  True, we do have priests and nuns who stay celibate all their lives.  But that isn’t because we hate sex, but because we love it so much!!  Who sacrifices something that isn’t worthwhile?  I told my wife I was going to give up Brussel sprouts one Lent but she just gave me one of those looks…you know, the one you get when you are trying to pull the wool over somebody eyes and they aren’t falling for it.  Arms crossed and eyes rolling back.  You know the look.  Anyway, Catholic religious give up what they value the most.  Not because they are weird but because they love God so much that they are willing to offer  this integral part of who we are as humans in order to bring Him glory.  No matter the vocation, celibate, single or married, our bodies and our sexuality point to God.  Personally, I get all kinds of looks when people find out I have 8 kids and they ask me, “Do you know what causes that?”  As If I could live in 21st century America and make it through the checkout aisle at the grocery store without figuring that one out!  But rather than be rude back to them, I simply respond, “Yes: a good marriage.”  (I can’t take credit for coming up with that answer but I like it the best, so I am going to steal it)  You see, one of the things that make marriage so wonderful and kids such a blessing is that when you live out Catholic theology in your life, your marriage is a good one…and your kids are a blessing rather than a burden.

But still, you may wonder what anything of this has to do with understanding God. So let’s bring this back to the Theology of the Body and begin by asking a question. How on earth can I be living out Catholic theology in my life as far as my body is concerned?  Or to phrase the question differently, how can my body be a theology, a study of God?

Blessed John Paul the Great

JP2 explored this concept in the talks he gave at the beginning of his pontificate.  His thesis statement was essentially this, “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 reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” (Feb 20, 1980)  God is divine; we are human.  God is perfect and we are not.  That is a pretty big gap!  But Christianity is the religion which believes that God overcame that gap by becoming human; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  This isn’t like “Men In Black” where the big bug comes down and disguises itself using a human form and then breaks out of that human form to reveal itself as a big cockroach (ew)!  This is God taking on our form totally and completely but retaining all His divinity to establish a connection, a bridge, for us to communicate with Him.  Remember that “sign” that JP2 referred to?  We humans communicate with signs: our words, body language, name tags, street signs, even the billboards on the interstate that we try not to read but feel compelled (probably because we still hear our first grade English teacher’s voice telling us not to skip over words but to read them all.)  Those signs are how we communicate with each other.

TOB tells us that our body is that sign by which we communicate with God.  As Catholics we already know some of this.  We fold our hands and bow our heads to pray.  We talk, we play music, we sing for Him.  We make the sign of the cross with our hand on our forehead, chest, and shoulders (this covers our minds, our hearts, and our burden-bearing limbs).  We kneel for worship, stand at attention, or sit to listen.  We can’t help but use our body to express ourselves to God because that is how we are made to communicate.  God on the other hand, desires to communicate with us by showing us Himself through our bodies; He reveals His mystery hidden since the beginning.  We can certainly read the story of God’s mystery in the bible, but God does not stop there; He does not rely on words alone.  He tells us that if His disciples were quiet, the very rocks and trees would call out His glory.  In other words, God reveals Himself through physical means: He makes the spiritual known through the physical.

TOB shows us that it is through our physical bodies that God is teaching us about Himself, primarily as He exists in a Trinity.  Like God, we belong to a trinity of our own, starting off our lives as children of a mother and father, a three-entity unit called a family.  Whether it is intact or broken, in a life-long relationship or through a one night stand, or even through highly scientific methods of extraction and implantation, our very existence is as a life formed as a product of the union of a man and a woman.  We all share the same beginning as a child.  When we grow up and experience a family of our own, our understanding of this becomes more profound.  Our bodies as man and woman (hopefully reserving this as husband and wife), acting in conjunction, produce a third person.  Our love for one another, expressed through the pinnacle of physical passion, is so real that it can produce a third person.  The male essence and the female essence come together in such a miraculous event that it causes another life to come into existence in a new act of creation.  We then share in the begetting of another soul that will grow into spiritual equity with ourselves.  For all of eternity, that child will be one part of the family trinity started with a physical expression of love.   How awesome a power is that?  And how solemn it should be… Our sexual expression, coming together in union as male and female, reflects the very nature of the Trinity. In other words, marital union is a direct reflection of the Triune love!

Our acts of our sexuality, therefore, should not be something that we parade about and put on display at the checkout line.  As Catholics, we should embrace the fullness of what TOB teaches us: that our sexuality is the most sacred thing that we have, because it is a representation, a sign of God’s abundant love. To be sexual is to be human.  And to be human is to be striving to be worthy of the divine.  For that is why we were made.

*     John Paul II gave 129 talks between September 1979 and November of 1984 which have become known as the Theology of the Body.  Quotes by JP2 are referenced by the date of the talk


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