Redemption is always also redemption of the body, or it is no redemption at all. There is no redemption that is merely of the spirit. This is because the great enemy of human happiness is not the material world, not the body, but rather sin—always and only sin, and the rupture of loving relationship and the dissolution of our being that it causes. When Christ came into our world to save humanity, he did not come to “release us from the prison of the body,” as Socrates, for example, would have thought, nor to open up access to some celestial heaven in which human souls dwelt as disembodied spirits. No, he came to heal and renew the entire visible universe, so that it may share in the very inner mystery of God himself. This is the great scandal—and the breathtaking beauty—of Christianity. It is not a religion of the spirit, a religion of an esoteric flight from materiality accessible to the chosen few; no, it is the religion for the little ones, for the ordinary man and woman in the street, as the saying goes. This is a scandal because, deep within our wounded humanity, we suffer from a rift between body and spirit. And, as a result of this rift, we all tend to be gnostics or dualists in one way or another: in other words, we all tend to dis-incarnate from our bodies and to live “abstracted” from them, or, in the other extreme, to live in our bodies as if they were the bodies of mere animals, with no living spirit animating them as the incarnation of a unique person.
Virtually all other religions/philosophies consist in the flight of man from his body, and, thus also, the flight from materiality itself, and towards the Divine (or whatever it is called, nirvana, the One, the Good, as in Buddhism, Plotinus, and Plato); or, on the other hand, they consist in the divinization of the material universe itself (as in pantheism and the other “primitive” religions of nature worship). Even here, however, there is at times an intuition of the true God, of the One who is the foundation of the entire created order while also infinitely surpassing it. But only Christianity can bring together the paradox of a world that bears an absolute meaning and value imprinted on it by God while also affirming the surpassing value of the uncreated God who alone gives meaning to all things. And it does so because Christianity (and to a degree Judaism as the predecessor of Christ, and, to a much lesser extent, Islam, insofar as it has not entirely corrupted the historical revelation contained in the Bible*) consists in the approach of God towards the material universe, his engagement with us, in all the contours of matter, time, and space, in a covenant of personal love and relationship.
Yes, this covenant of love has come so close to us as to be etched in our very bodies. This has been true from the very beginning of creation, when God created man and woman “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:27) and gave them to one another in the spousal relationship that is the paradigm of all communion in this world. In their very bodies, oriented towards one another in mutual self-giving, God impressed the seal of his own spousal covenant with humanity. And, when they turned away in sin and broke this covenant, he did not abandon them, but continually renewed covenants with them throughout history until restoring (and indeed surpassing) the original covenant in a new Man and a new Woman: in Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, who were faithful where Adam and Eve were unfaithful. This path of covenantal love passed down the stages of history—first from the covenant with Adam and Eve, through the covenant with Noah and his sons, through the covenant with Abraham, promising that his offspring would be a multitude of nations, and sealing this very covenant in the flesh of his foreskin, through the covenant with the tribes in Moses and the giving of the law, and through the establishment of the kingdom of Israel in David and his line—and unto the consummation brought about by the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of the Son of God.
When we look at these covenants, we realize immediately how they are all bodily covenants, covenants with the invisible God made and perpetuated in the very contours of our bodiliness, such that God writes sacred history precisely in and through the spousal fruitfulness and fidelity of man and woman. This also means that infidelity in the realm of spousal love wreaks havoc on the covenant, and, on the other hand, that infidelity to the one true God in the covenant also leads to degradation in the relation of man and woman. Indeed, the betrayal of the covenant by the people of Israel is often described precisely as a marital infidelity, for, as we have seen, God has drawn near to his people precisely as a Bridegroom to his Bride. As God says through Ezekiel: “Your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord GOD. But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by” (Ez 16:14-15). Or we see the same in God’s tender words spoken in the book of Hosea: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. … I will espouse you for ever; I will espouse you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will espouse you in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD” (Hos 2:14, 19-20).
It is in this perspective that the significance of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh shines with even more radiant light to illumine the darkness of our minds. For if fallen man and woman are incapable, in the fractured state of their sinful nature, of fulfilling the call and gift of the spousal covenant, how is humanity to be once again a Bride fit for union with the heavenly Bridegroom? Only when God himself comes among us and restores what, through our sin, we have lost. And so he does. And yet he who alone can save us does not therefore save us without us. Rather, he incorporates us into the process of our own salvation. For, after all, if salvation consists in the restoration of the reciprocity of loving relationship, and in the intimacy that blossoms in this, then true salvation is not a one-sided matter, but precisely something that harnesses fully the gift both of God and of the human heart. This explains why Christ, being fully God for all eternity, also became fully man in the midst of time—and will remain fully man for all eternity, having taken up his humanity and his very Body into the heart of the Trinity. In his own Body he has brought together what sin has torn asunder; he has woven back together into a seamless fabric what our infidelity has rent apart. He has made a marriage of God and humanity, of divine and human, of spiritual and material, of the Trinity and the entire universe, within the sinews of his own sacred Heart, in the flesh of his own humanity, in which the uncreated Person of the Son dwells and lives.
And this also illumines the significance of Mary, the Mother of Christ. For she, by God’s redeeming grace communicated to her in advance of Christ’s redemptive Passion and Resurrection, was preserved free from the effects of original sin. She is truly Virgin in both body and spirit, so as to be the fitting bride for the coming Bridegroom, so as to be the mother who would conceive and bring forth, sinlessly, the sinless Son of the heavenly Father. She is an icon of the Holy Spirit, conceiving in time the Son of God and bearing him in the sanctuary of her body, reflecting thus, in a visible way, the Spirit who is the Womb of God in whom the Son is eternally begotten by the Father in the ineffable silence of eternity.
But Mary’s significance in communion with Christ does not end with his conception and birth, just as his saving path does not end with his childhood. Rather, this path of love that renews and consummates the covenant of love between God and humanity is brought to fulfillment only in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. And it will find its final and definitive perfection at the end of time, when Christ will return to pull back the veil of earthly history and to inaugurate the whole created universe fully into the very life of God. In those mysterious days that stand at the heart of all history—the days that we call the Holy Triduum, the Three Holy Days—Jesus and Mary together “summed up” the whole existence of humanity in their own singular personal existence and experience. Mary stood before Christ as a representative of all humanity, pronouncing a “yes” to his spousal love and gift in both her own name and in the name of every child of God. And Christ received this “yes,” cradling and protecting it within his own “yes,” such that the two persons together—Man and Woman—lived a pure Yes of total acceptance and reciprocal gift before the Father of all. And the Father received and confirmed this Yes within his own Yes, within his pure and loving affirmation of their goodness, of his incomparable love for them, and, indeed, of his love for each one of us, incomparably precious children of God.
This Yes of God carried them through the suffering of the Passion of Jesus—and through Mary’s com-passion with him—such that all the “no’s” pronounced by sinful humanity were canceled out, and the path to the Yes of love was opened up once again. And this redemption passed precisely by way of the body, by way of the body harmonized once again with the spirit—the manifestation of the inner person in their incomparable beauty—and made a gift of love oriented toward intimacy. Christ and Mary went out to the hill of Golgotha, into the depths of a sacred solitude in which they stood at the core of human existence in its dependence upon the all-sustaining love of God, and experienced the uttermost need and desire for the communion stronger than death that could only come from him. And here they stood naked, vulnerable, in their simple personal truth, when all other facades and projections have fallen away (manifested in the literal nakedness of Christ’s Body as he hung upon the wood of the Cross). And in this naked vulnerability, bathed in the sacred solitude of encounter between Person and person—and in the very darkest place of suffering in which all the burden and sin of the world is seen, rejected, and suffered in compassionate love!—they gave themselves totally to one another within their prior gift to the Father, and in the Father’s all-enfolding and all-pervading gift to them. And what is the fruit of the total reciprocal gift of self? Communion. Intimacy.
Yes, here, in the communion of Man and Woman within the very embrace of God, is also consummated the intimacy of God and humanity, Bridegroom and Bride, in the marriage that never ends. And here new life is born for all humanity, as this intimate embrace of total love simultaneously conceives and brings to birth the children of God, born of water, blood, and the Spirit, pouring from the opened side of Christ as he hangs upon the Cross, and from the heart of Mary who stands before him. As Christ himself enunciated before he breathed his last, speaking first to Mary, and then to John, the beloved disciple, with whom we, too, can stand, to hear the same words spoken to us: “Woman, behold you son… Behold, your Mother” (Jn 19:26-27).
At last we have come full circle. At last we see how God, in the most mysterious wisdom, has fully restored what human sin has broken asunder. Out of the suffering of the Passion of Christ—embraced out of compassion for each one of us—was born the new life of eternity. This life has already become present within the very heart of time and is transforming time from within, until the final birth occurs at the end of history, when at last the earth shall yield up all the dead, and the universe will pass over into the final resurrection in which “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). Here will be the endless joy of the consummated marriage between Bridegroom and Bride, between God and humanity, between the Trinity and each human person, uniquely and incomparably loved.
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*Islam, while claiming to stand in the line of God’s historical revelation in the Bible, is in fact a corruption of it. As John Paul II says, “Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God has said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In the Koran all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside. Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, his Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, [Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2004], 92-93) This is not to say, however, that Muslims cannot experience God’s grace and closeness, nor even have approaches to faith that are nearer to the Gospel; but these are not rooted directly in historical Islam or Koranic revelation in the same way as mainstream Islam, but in the perennial human experience before God, which always occurs, even if implicitly, in and through Christ and the Holy Spirit. (I think, for example, of the Sufi mystical tradition.)
In Islam, the God who “comes out to meet” his people in the Bible, the God who gets scandalously close in a desire to be in covenant intimacy with us, in Islam, returns to the distant and inaccessible heaven. He is no longer open to intimacy, to relationship, but becomes “pure will” as the divine Lawgiver, unknowable and untouchable in his inner life. The path of religion is no longer one of entering into the wholeness of communion with God, but of humble submission to the “will of Allah,” (the word Islam means submission). Even heaven, in the Muslim conception, is, for all practical purposes, “outside” of intimacy with Allah: it is an earthly paradise. How different this understanding of Allah is from the Christian revelation of the Trinity, of the God who is an eternal Communion of Persons who have created us to share in the very inner secret of their own life and love! And how different, too, is the destiny revealed to us in Christ, in which all the goodness, beauty, and truth present in the created world will find utter consummation and fulfillment, not enclosed within themselves, but precisely in the throbbing heartbeat of the divine embrace for all eternity!