We tend to think the oft-noted “war” between the sexes is normal. In his discussion with the Pharisees, however, Jesus points out that “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). Before sin, man and woman experienced their union as a participation in God’s eternal love. This is the model for us all, and although we’ve fallen from it, Christ gives us real power to reclaim it.
The biblical creation stories use symbolic language to help us understand deep truths about ourselves. For example, Pope John Paul observed that the original unity of our first parents flows from the human experience of solitude. At first the man was “alone” (see Gn 2:18). Among the animals there was no “suitable partner for the man” (Gn 2:20). It’s on the basis of this solitude — an experience common to male and female — that we experience our longing for union.
The point is that human sexual union differs radically from the mating of animals. If they were the same, Adam would have found plenty of “helpers” among the animals. But in naming the animals he realized he was different; he alone was a person called to love with his body in God’s image. At the sight of the woman the man immediately declared: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23). That is to say: “Finally, a person I can love.”
How did he know that she, too, was a person called to love? Her naked body revealed the mystery! For the pure of heart, nakedness reveals what Pope John Paul called “the nuptial meaning of the body.” This is the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and — by means of this gift — fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Jan. 16, 1980).
Yes, the late pontiff said that if we live according to the truth of our sexuality, we fulfill the very meaning of life. What is it? Jesus reveals it when He says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). How did Jesus love us? “This is my body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19).
God created sexual desire as the power to love as He loves. And this is how the first couple experienced it. Hence, they “were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gn 2:25).
There’s no shame in love; “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Living in complete accord with the nuptial meaning of their bodies, the first man and woman saw and knew each other “with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates … the fullness of the intimacy of persons” (Jan. 2, 1980).
After the Fall
The fall of our first parents caused the death of divine love in the human heart. The entrance of shame into human history indicates the dawn of lust, of erotic desire void of God’s love. Men and women now begin seeking the sensation of sexuality apart from the true gift of themselves, apart from authentic love.
We cover our bodies not because they’re bad, but to protect their inherent goodness from the degradation of lust. Since we know we’re made for love, we feel instinctively threatened, not only by overt lustful behavior, but even by a lustful look.
Christ’s words are severe in this regard. He insists that if we look lustfully at others, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts (see Mt 5:28). Pope John Paul posed the question: “Are we to fear the severity of these words, or rather have confidence in their salvific . . . power?” (Oct. 8, 1980). These words actually have power to save us because the man who utters them is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Christ didn’t die and rise from the dead merely to give us coping mechanisms for sin. “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2336). As we open ourselves to the work of redemption, Christ’s death and resurrection effectively “liberate our liberty from the domination of lust,” Pope John Paul explained (March 1, 1984).
On this side of heaven, we’ll always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Even so, Pope John Paul insisted that “the redemption of our bodies” (see Rom 8:23) is already at work in men and women within history. This means as we allow our lusts to be crucified with Christ (see Gal 5:24), we can progressively rediscover that original “nuptial meaning of the body” and live it. This liberation from lust and the freedom it affords is, in fact, “the condition of all life together in truth” (Oct. 8, 1980).
After the Resurrection
What about our experience of the body in the resurrection? Didn’t Christ say we’ll no longer be given in marriage when we rise from the dead (see Mt 22:30)? Yes, but this doesn’t mean our longing for union will be done away with. It means this longing will be fulfilled.
As a sacrament, marriage is only an earthly sign of the heavenly reality. We no longer need signs to point us to heaven when we’re in heaven. The “marriage of the Lamb” (Rv 19:7) — the union of love we all desire — will be eternally consummated.
“For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation. . . . Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, ‘the Bride, the wife of the Lamb'” (Catechism, no. 1045). This eternal reality is what the “one flesh” union foreshadows from the beginning (see Eph 5:31-32).
Hence, in the resurrection of the body we rediscover — in an eternal dimension — the same nuptial meaning of the body in our meeting with the mystery of the living God face to face (see Dec. 9, 1981). “This will be a completely new experience,” Pope John Paul said, beyond anything we can imagine. Yet “it will not be alienated in any way from what man took part in from ‘the beginning,’ nor from [what concerns] the procreative meaning of the body and of sex” (Jan. 13, 1982).
By looking at who we are in our origin, history and destiny, we open the door to a proper understanding of the Christian vocations of celibacy and marriage. Both vocations are an authentic living out of the most profound truth of who we are as male and female.
When lived authentically, Christian celibacy isn’t a rejection of sexuality and our call to union. It actually points to their ultimate fulfillment. Those who sacrifice marriage “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) do so in order to devote all their energies and desires to the marriage that alone can satisfy: the marriage of Christ and the Church.
In a way, they’re “skipping” the sacrament (the earthly sign) in anticipation of the ultimate reality. By doing so, celibate men and women declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (see Mt 12:28).
In a different way, marriage also anticipates heaven. “In the joys of their love [God gives spouses] here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb” (Catechism, no. 1642). Why, then, do so many couples experience marriage as a living hell? For marriage to bring the happiness it’s meant to bring, spouses must live it as God intended “from the beginning.” This means they must contend diligently with the effects of sin.
Marriage doesn’t justify lust. Marriage “corresponds to the vocation of Christians only when it reflects the love which Christ the Bridegroom gives to the Church His Bride, and which the Church . . . attempts to return to Christ [see Eph 5:31-32]. This is redeeming love, love as salvation” (Aug. 18, 1982). In other words, authentic marital love has the power to heal and restore us as true images of God.
Liberation from Sin
In a short introduction such as this, we can only scratch the surface of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Nevertheless, the profound insights we’ve noted provide new visions of human possibilities. The late pontiff’s teaching demonstrates the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to liberate us from sin, not only to cope with it. Only in that divine power are we capable of becoming the men and women we’re created to be.
Christopher West lectures around the world on the theology of the body and has written three books on the subject. To learn more, visit christopherwest.com. Dates cited after quotes from Pope John Paul II refer to the particular lectures in the “Theology of the Body” series from which they come.