#39 The Body of Christ
Despite hearing nothing but sacred music yesterday, I woke up this morning with a decidedly un-holy song stuck in my head. The song was S & M by Rihanna; I’ll spare you most of the lyrics, but here’s the line that was on repeat in my mind: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me!” It made a very weird juxtaposition with the image of Christ, scourged and crucified for our sake. Adding another layer to my semi-conscious musings this morning, I started rereading Theology of the Body Explained (by Christopher West) last night before bed, so I was thinking about the true meaning of the body and sexuality. I felt compelled to find the relationship between those disparate ideas.
First of all, it’s easy to see how badly our world needs a new understanding of the body and sex when it’s considered appropriate to song about sadomasochism on the radio. The idea that pain and pleasure can/should go together is a further corruption of the more common belief that sex is to be treated as a means to achieve physical pleasure. But even that milder idea, that sex is mainly about pleasure, rings false to the human conscience and heart. Why is it, after decades of a the culture promoting casual sex, that so many young people still cling to the idea that sex is meant to express love? Even those who don’t plan to wait unto marriage often remain virgins until they’re in a serious relationship with someone they think may be “the one”. The Catholic explanation for this curiously old-fashioned idea persisting in modern men and women is that it’s part of the natural law. Some basic truths about God and humanity are inscribed in all our hearts, and any person willing to reflect honestly will find these innate truths. Thus, mavens of the culture may extol the virtues of being kinky, but the human heart says otherwise. Demeaning or harming someone for your own pleasure or theirs is a misuse of human sexuality, which should be founded on love and respect.
So where does Christ’s sacrifice fit into all this? Well, the Old Testament provides plenty of evidence that despite having the natural law written in our hearts, despite even having it carved into stone for us and reinforced by countless prophets, we as humans are utterly incapable of living up to those laws. That’s human nature after original sin– just as physical systems inevitably tend toward greater entropy, we tend toward sin. No number of animal sacrifices to atone for sins fixed the problem, so we were provided by the Father with the only sacrifice great enough to atone for the whole species in all its failures. As God Himself and a true human man, Jesus took all the guilt of our race and endured the punishment while remaining divine and sinless. In him, we finally see human nature without the fog of sin.
According to Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, it’s important to remember that Jesus was crucified stripped of his clothes, because the “naked Christ” reveals the truth of the human body. As West explains it,
Christ left his Father in heaven; he left the home of his mother on earth–to give up his body for his Bride [the Church], so that we become “one body” with him.
In Jesus, we find the truth from the beginning about why we are male and female and why we long for love, sex, and marriage. If God loves us so much that He would come down from heaven and endure so much to be joined to us, then it is truly in God’s image that we long to leave our birth families and join to a spouse in marriage. The love of the Trinity is so great that it overflows and produces all life; we are an image of that when we become fruitful and multiply. The creative power of our sexuality only makes any sense as an image of God when our love and commitment is so complete that we are united as one- that’s difficult to manage, even within the sacrament of marriage. But without “giving yourself away” to another person in marriage, it’s basically impossible to love that completely. And without self-giving love, sex does become an act of mere pleasure and humans are reduced to the level of animals, acting against dignity. In some mysterious way, the painful and degrading Passion that Jesus suffered for us is the very thing that can save us from the painful and degrading sexuality presented as fun by Rihanna’s song. A pure and dignified view of human sexuality is just one more thing we can thank our Savior for during this holy season.