Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Dear Friends
Today, please look at the fourth part of my thoughts based on the theology of the body – one of the most amazing look at the sensuality, marriage, sexuality, close relationships. Please, pray for me and all those who read this.
“Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord” [Ef 5, 22]. This sentence taken out of context is teasing us. St. Paul teaches that husband and wife are to be subjected to Christ, and through him also to each other. It is a great ideal. John Paul II believes marriage to be a “primordial” sacrament.
To be subject to each other
The theology of the body is a catechetical project of John Paul II, whose aim is to show the beauty of human love, sexuality, marriage. The Pope has repeatedly returned to several biblical texts. In the Word of God, he is looking for the light. The theology of the body, in fact, is the most comprehensive, so far; the response of the Church to the sexual revolution. The main thrust of papal teaching: “body language” of man and woman can and should be a place of communication, of the revelation of God’s love. We have had just three lessons. Short recall: In the first part we went back as suggested by the Lord Jesus to “the beginning”. It was an attempt to read God’s idea of masculinity / femininity. Our biblical parents, Adam and Eve before the fall, were free from shame, rejoicing together in a reciprocal gift – a symbolic image of “God’s programme”, which was to give human happiness. However, things turned out differently. The weakest link in God’s original plan was freedom. It is because of freedom that sin entered.
The man rejected the logic of the gift and replaced it with the logic of demands, of fighting for himself and what he wanted. The endowment system turned into a system of appropriation. The consequence of that sin of rejection is lust, which strongly interferes with gender relations, destroys the harmony of the body and spirit. The sacramental and spousal meaning of the body has been obscured, weakened. Since then, the human heart is in a constant struggle between lust and love. This is our story so far. This week’s meditation will be devoted to the extraordinary biblical analogy: love between man and woman as compared to God’s love for His people and love of Christ for the Church. This is what is said in the famous text of St. Paul on marriage in his Letter to the Ephesians (5, 21-33).
It is intended to be read during the wedding, but quite rarely chosen. This piece requires a living faith, sometimes misunderstood, irritating the modern mentality. St. Paul, comparing the relationship of husband to wife with the love between Christ and the Church is not an innovation. It is a continuation of the beautiful biblical tradition, which equates love of God for His people to the love of bridegroom for his bride. Since God is love (communion, unity of people), we cannot separate the truth from the experience of human love, the relationship between man and woman. In many catechesis Pope John Paul II shows us the full depth of this relationship to the truth. It is not just about verbal analogy, a metaphor. Love, any love, but especially between married couples, must have a relationship with God, with Christ. The love of God is the source and the highest ideal of human love.
If this association runs out, human love runs out of “fuel” in the burning fire of desire. Sooner or later it becomes an empty shell, a caricature of the love that we desire. And we indeed are not looking for miserable fakes, but something authentic, original.
The primordial sacrament
To understand the text of St. Paul to the Ephesians, one must recall the “nuptial” threads of the Old Testament. The words “bridegroom” / “bride” today sound archaic, but what to replace them with? “Lover” / “paramour” are associated with extramarital relationship. “Husband” / “wife” sounds too formal. So what? “Mate” and “partner”? This fatally reminds us of the denial of the sacred dimension of marriage. What happened to our world that even in our language we lack words that can express authentic, original love – hot, passionate, sensual, and yet pure, divine, beautiful? We have no choice but to stick to the words “bridegroom” and “bride”. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly reached for the image of conjugal love. God is the bridegroom in love with His bride, which is Israel, the chosen people. The bride often turns out to be unfaithful. Sin, especially the sin of idolatry (worship of other gods) is compared to adultery, infidelity. The Bridegroom (God), never ceases to love his “women”. Two examples: “For your Creator is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer, and he is called God of the whole world. Yes, Yahweh has called you back like a forsaken, grief-stricken wife, like the repudiated wife of his youth, says your God.”(Isaiah 54, 5-7). “Like a young man marrying a virgin, your Maker will wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you.” (Isaiah 62.5). The core here is the truth about how much God loves us. This love is not just something formal, cold and official. Every sin is not only a violation of the provision. It is the breaking of the covenant, of that close relationship; it is the rejection, trampling, and injury of love. This can be understood only by someone who knows how much rejected love hurts. The thing is to discover and believe that love between a man and a woman (in all its dimensions: emotions, senses, mind and body) has a deep relationship with the essence of God, who is love. That’s why John Paul II does not hesitate to call marriage a “primordial” sacrament. Primordial, because it was built before the Church. Before any baptism, and before the Eucharist (the largest, most holy sacrament), there was Adam and Eve. Their love was from the beginning! Human love is inscribed in the order of creation, from the first moment of human existence. Human love is the first, oldest “sacrament” (trademark, image) of God’s love. This truth changes our thinking both about God and about human love (and the body!). God is not “just” the Father, the Great Parent.
He is “The” Beloved One who loves passionately, with the heat of passion. To live, all of us want to be loved not only by our father and mother, but also by our groom / bride. Is this not what almost all poetry, art, music is saying? There is a yearning for perfect love enabling people to achieve the greatest, noblest acts, and to make things worse, sometimes even to crime. But ultimately at the centre of the heart is a hunger, a longing for God, who is Authentic Love.
Song of Songs
This is an amazing Book. It is in the Bible, but there is almost no mention of God. This is a poem, a ballad which is celebrating love. Passionate, sensual, erotic. In the Jewish and Christian tradition it accentuates its allegorical meaning, which is seen as one big metaphor for the love of God or Christ.
John Paul II emphasizes that allegory can never impose power over the literal sense. The Song of Songs is like God’s praise (after all, the Word of God!) The beauty of human love. Someone advised me recently that priests should not refer married couples to this, particularly those whose married life is in crisis. It will only irritate them. The Song of Songs seems to be too idealistic an image. That’s correct, it is a downright idyll. But can we blame God that He sees the things in His way, which means: perfectly? John Paul II believes that the Song of Songs is a poetic description of the link between Adam and Eve. It’s a description of their first love still uncontaminated by sin. In other words, the Song of Songs is a poetic record of this “initial programme” which we were talking about two weeks ago. This is erotica undamaged by sin. This is a showing of perfect “body language” that is free from falsehood, pretence, or deception. The relationship of the bridegroom and of the bride should be based on mutual giving and not scrambling something from each other. That’s how it should be! But it is not, and we too often realize it in very painful ways. But we have to have an ideal, for which we long, and for which we are looking. With the comprehensive reflection of the Pope on this extraordinary biblical book I choose one theme, in my opinion, extravagant. Bridegroom says at one point to his beloved: “You ravish my heart, my sister, my promised bride” (Song of Songs 4, 9). John Paul II reflects on the meaning of the word “sister” in the context of sexual love, which implies, after all, a different kind of relationship.
The Pope again returns to the “beginning”, that is, to Adam and Eve. And he says they were “brother” and “sister” in the unity of humanity itself. He does not hesitate to declare that “through marriage man and woman are in a special way brother and sister to each other.” It sounds surprising. But if we delve into this idea, we find here an important hint, especially for men. If a husband will not see in his wife the “sister” in humanity, or someone very close, with the proximity free of sexual tension, then the spousal love will always be vulnerable to contamination of desire. The ‘brotherly-sisterly’ relationship is the foundation of normal spousal relationship. It’s a bit shocking, but admittedly – revealing. Something to think about.
Wife subject to her husband?
In the New Testament St. Paul, who knew the Jewish tradition well, refers to the topic of spousal love for Christ and the Church. I have to quote a long passage of St Paul’s argument. It’s a beautiful text, unfortunately, often interpreted only as the fact that wives are to obey their husbands.
Some emphasize this, others try to explain that St Paul lived in different times and so on. This is a misunderstanding. Let us try to quietly read the words of the Apostle of Nations, paying particular attention to the first sentence. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives be to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words, so that when he took the Church to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of that Body. This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh. This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church.”[Ef 5, 21-32]. St. Paul comes from the fact that both spouses are to be submissive to one another. What’s more, “out of reverence for Christ”! For Paul, the basic formula of Christian life is the phrase “in Christ”. Also conjugal love has to be lived “in Christ”. Note that the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. So a husband must be ready to die for love of his beloved one, or to be crucified. A wife has to submit to her husband but, of course, not to her husband’s violence, domination or lust, but a wife should “give” to his love and reciprocate the gift of self. Love of the husband for his wife and the wife for her husband has the power of mutual sanctification. This is the essence of the sacrament of marriage. Too high? Too hard? Impossible? “This mystery has great significance…” – responds St. Paul, aware that the bar is set very high. The Greek word “mysterion” means not just something mysterious, incomprehensible. Greek mysteries were pagan rituals that lead participants to unity with the deity. “Mysterion” is translated also as a sacrament. Marriage is a mega-mystery and mega-sacrament. It is probably impossible to fully understand, and we probably do not need to. The idea is to follow this route. To know that this conjugal love, with its beauty and fulfilment, but also with the pain of failing, disappointment, crises … is always related to Christ and the Church. To see in one’s spouse a sister / a brother in humanity and in faith, is to see Christ himself. (To be continued…)
With love, friendship and prayers – Fr Marcin