What Makes our Bodies Theological?

by Christopher West

The modern world views the human body as meaningless biological material that can be manipulated at will.  Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) opens our eyes to the glorious truth that our bodies are not only biological, they’re theological – they speak a divine language revealing the inner-most secret of God and his plan for the universe.  

Ultimate Meaning Made Flesh

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).  Have we ever paused to ponder what the Bible actually means by referring to the eternal Son of God as the Word?  “Word” doesn’t quite convey all the richness of the Greek Logos.  Logos refers to the rational principle governing the universe – the ultimate Meaning, Reason, Logic and Beauty behind everything.  And the astounding claim upon which all of Christianity rests is that the human body is God’s chosen vehicle for communicating his Word, for communicating Ultimate Meaning, for communicating who he is, who we are, and his ultimate plan for the universe.

Just as in Jesus’ day, when people hear how important the body is to Christian faith, they often respond, “This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60).  How could something as earthly as the human body convey something as heavenly as the Mystery of God?  And yet, if we believe in Christmas, we claim to believe this claim: the human body – your flesh and mine – reveals the logic of God; it reveals the Ultimate Meaning (the Logos) behind everything.     

This is why John Paul II’s TOB, despite how it is typically framed, is not merely a papal teaching on marital love and human sexuality.  It is that, to be sure, but it is also so much more.  As John Paul II himself said, what we learn in his TOB “concerns the whole Bible” (TOB 69:8) and plunges us into “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ” (TOB 49:3).  Through the lens of spousal love, John Paul II’s TOB leads to “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence ... the meaning of life” (TOB 46:6).             

Most people are totally unaware of the “great mystery” their bodies reveal.  We “look but do not see,” as Jesus said (Mt 13:13).  Following Christ, John Paul II invites us through his TOB to “Come, and become one who sees” (Jn 1:39).  One of the many things we come to see is that the whole of the Christian life is an invitation to a Wedding Feast!  

God Wants to Marry Us              

Scripture uses many images to help us understand God’s love for us. Each has its own valuable place. But, as Saint John Paul II wrote, the gift of Christ’s body on the cross gives “definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love” (Mulieris Dignitatem 26).  In fact, from beginning to end, the Bible tells a nuptial or marital story.  It begins in Genesis with the marriage of the first man and woman, and it ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Right in the middle of the Bible we find the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. These bookends and this centerpiece provide the key for reading the whole biblical story.  Indeed, we can summarize all of Sacred Scripture with five simple, yet astounding words: God wants to marry us.  

For as a young man marries a virgin, So shall your Maker marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over his bride, So shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa 62:5)  

And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, In steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. (Hos 2:19)      

God is inviting each of us, in a unique and unrepeatable way, to an unimagined intimacy with him, akin to the intimacy of spouses in one flesh.  In fact, as Pope Francis observes, “The very word [used in Scripture to describe marital union] … ‘to cleave’ … is used to describe our union with God: ‘My soul clings to you’ (Ps 63:8).” Because of the supreme bliss of union with God, “a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: ‘All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love’” (Amoris Laetitia 13, 142).            

While we may need to work through some discomfort or fear here to reclaim the true sacredness, the true holiness of the imagery, the “scandalous” truth is that Scripture describes “God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it (Deus Caritas Est 9).  Elsewhere he declared: “Eros is part of God’s very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride” (Lenten Message 2007).      

We are probably more familiar (and more comfortable) describing God’s love as agape—the Greek word for sacrificial, self-giving love.  Yet God’s love “may certainly be called eros,” asserts Benedict XVI.  In Christ, eros is “supremely ennobled … so purified as to become one with agape.” Thus, the Bible has no qualms employing the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs as a description of “God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God.” In this way, as Benedict XVI concludes, the Song of Songs became not only an expression of the intimacies of marital love, it also became “an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration” (Deus Caritas Est 10).  

The Essence of Biblical Faith              

Let’s try to let that sink in: the Song of Songs, this unabashed celebration of erotic love, expresses the essence of biblical faith.  How so? The essence of biblical faith is that God came among us in the flesh not only to forgive our sins (as astounding as that gift is); he became “one flesh” with us so that we could share in his eternal exchange of love.  In the first of his many sermons on the Song of Songs, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux aptly describes marriage as “the sacrament of endless union with God.” Revelation calls this endless union the “Marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7).            

But there’s more. Remember that pithy rhyme we learned as children: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”?  We probably didn’t realize as children that we were actually reciting some profound theology.  Yes, our bodies tell a divine story; our bodies tell the story that God loves us, wants to marry us, and wants us to “conceive” eternal life within us.            

This is not merely a metaphor. Representing all of us, a young Jewish woman named Mary once gave her “yes” to God’s marriage proposal with such totality and fidelity that she literally conceived eternal life in her womb. In a hymn addressed to her, Saint Augustine exclaims: “The Word becomes united with flesh, he makes his covenant with flesh, and your womb is the sacred bed on which this holy union of the Word with flesh is consummated” (Sermon 291). Mary’s virginity has always been understood by the Church as the sign of her betrothal to God.  She is the “mystic bride of love eternal,” as a traditional hymn has it.  As such, Mary perfectly fulfills the spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God (see Catechism 505).  

Penetrating the Essence of the Mystery              

In the midst of unfolding the biblical analogy of spousal love, it’s very important to understand the bounds within which we’re using such language and imagery.  “It is obvious,” writes John Paul II, “that the analogy of ... human spousal love, cannot offer an adequate and complete understanding of ... the divine mystery.”  God’s “mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy.” At the same time, however, John Paul II maintains that the spousal analogy allows a certain “penetration” into the very essence of the mystery (see TOB 95b:1). And no biblical author reaches more deeply into this essence than Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.            

Quoting directly from Genesis, the Apostle Paul states: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”  Then, linking the original marriage with the ultimate marriage, he adds: “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31–32).            

We can hardly overstate the importance of this passage for John Paul II and the whole theological tradition of the Church.  He calls it the “summa” (“sum total”) of Christian teaching about who God is and who we are (see Letter to Families 19). He says this passage contains the “crowning” of all the themes in Sacred Scripture and expresses the “central reality” of the whole of divine revelation (see TOB 87:3). The mystery spoken of in this passage “is ‘great’ indeed,” he says. “It is what God ... wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word.”  Thus, “one can say that [this] passage ... ‘reveals—in a particular way—man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear’” (TOB 87:6; 93:2).            

So what is this “supreme vocation” we have as human beings that Ephesians 5 makes clear? Stammering for words to describe the ineffable, the mystics call it “nuptial union” … with God. Christ is the new Adam who left his Father in heaven. He also left the home of his mother on earth. Why? To mount “the marriage bed of the cross,” as Saint Augustine had it, unite himself with the Church and consummate the union forever.             

Come to the Wedding Feast              

The more we allow the brilliant rays of John Paul II’s TOB to illuminate our vision, the more we come to understand, as the Catechism observes, how the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (Catechism 1617).            

I never met my father-in-law. He died when my wife was a girl, but I admire him tremendously because of the intuition he had as a brand-new husband. At Mass the day after his wedding, having consummated his marriage the night before, he was in tears as he came back to the pew after receiving the Eucharist. When his new bride inquired about his emotional state, he said, “For the first time in my life I understand the meaning of those words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”            

This was a man in whom the Word of God was living and active.  God’s Word had become flesh … in his own flesh.  This was a man who had been given eyes to see and ears to hear what God’s Word is in its very essence: an invitation to a Wedding Feast.            

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Christ is walking with us in our lives to “open the Scriptures” to us so as to reveal Himself to us in his Body, that is, in the breaking of the bread.  Lord, give us eyes to see!  Amen.      


Christopher West is President of the Theology of the Body Institute.  The courses he teaches draw students from around the world. Learn more at theologyofthebody.com.




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