Redeeming Word and Body

Man has two principal means of communication: the word and the body. The word – spoken, written, sung, whispered – in prose, poetry, song, even emails and texts. The word, by which we convey our thoughts, opinions, feelings, ideas, etc., but, more importantly, by which we communicate ourselves. In oaths, promises, and pledges we give ourselves to something and someone. Without the word, we are isolated and alone.
And the body: standing, kneeling, sitting, walking, running, dancing, smiling, laughing, frowning, weeping, hugging, kissing, embracing. Words are not enough for us. Our bodies speak as well. Whether we realize it or not (sometimes even despite ourselves), we use “body language.” By the body also we communicate our very selves. The Christian martyred in the arena or the soldier jumping on a grenade speaks of self-giving without uttering a word.

In our culture, however, both word and body have lost their ability to speak.
It is not in Supreme Court decisions only that words no longer have meaning. When attorneys general refuse to defend the laws they had sworn to, then oaths mean nothing. When the argument for upending marriage rests on a mere tautology (“Love is Love”), then rational argument is pointless. When “orientation” can mean any direction, then the word is absurd. When we list two “mothers” but no “father” on a birth certificate, then our language is unmoored from reality. We have come a long way from wondering about what the meaning of “is” is.

Likewise the body. An entire nation blithely accepts one man’s insistence that he is really a woman and applauds the mutilation of his body. A Supreme Court Justice has to marshal his legal expertise to explain the obvious: only the male/female union gives us babies. The culture’s acceptance of homosexual activity as normal indicates that we no longer comprehend the simplest language of the human body. Never mind the more common practices (immodest dress, tattoos, sterilization, contraception) that breed the view of the body as a possession rather than a sacred trust.

Of course, there have always been sophists and Gnostics, liars and libertines. But the current reach of this poison surpasses perhaps anything we have seen. It infects our public discourse and our everyday conversations. We have to negotiate the minefield of conversations carefully, lest we take a word for what it actually means.

This crisis of communication damages society in general, but marriage suffers disproportionately. Not only because it is the fundamental cell of society, but also because that sacred union is contracted by words and consummated by bodies. Once vows are words without mooring and the marital embrace means nothing, the entire institution is adrift. No wonder marriage is at the center of battles both secular and ecclesial.

The Nymfios (Christ the Bridegroom)

Our current meaninglessness is a symptom of the fallen world. Sin is the rejection of meaning, of any structure or purpose. It is the grasping for that autonomy that rejects the constraints of objective truth. Salvation from this situation thus comes the same way salvation always comes to us: through the Word made flesh. The eternal Word restores meaning to all words. The Word made flesh redeems the significance of all bodies.

This redemption comes to us, not surprisingly, in nuptial terms. The Word made flesh is the Bridegroom Who has come to restore the original meaning of marriage. Christian marriage thus becomes a place where meaning is redeemed – a society in which words again have meaning and the body significance. In Christian marriage – in all those marriages struggling and stumbling along – we find that vows are not a dead letter but alive. They are lived – imperfectly and clumsily, perhaps, but lived. In Christian marriage, the body is again significant. The body – so inconvenient, greedy, and uncooperative – in marriage again becomes a means of communication, of establishing the one-flesh union.

This faith in the Word made flesh finds its summit in the Eucharist. As Saint Thomas so beautifully puts it, by a word the Word made flesh makes real bread His flesh. By a human word the Body of the Word is present, and by receiving the Body in our human bodies we receive the Word. In the Eucharist, we find healing for our meaningless culture. There we encounter words that possess not just meaning but the power to change. There our bodies realize their significance as we receive the Body of the Word. The Eucharist redeems both word and body.

And the Eucharist is nuptial: at Mass the Bridegroom and Bride become one flesh. In the Eucharist, spouses find instruction and grace to live their vocation. In the words of institution – This is my Body – they hear the voice of the Bridegroom Who confirms and strengthens their own words. In His vow of self-giving they find strength for theirs. In receiving Holy Communion, they receive the Word made flesh Who sanctifies their physical union and sacrifices.

Whatever the political or cultural response may be to the current crisis, the first Catholic movement must be to our Eucharistic Lord, Who alone restores meaning to word and body: greater attention at Mass, more frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, more devout reception of Holy Communion, more and better time in adoration. These are not an escape from “reality” (as if our culture qualifies), but recourse to the One Redeemer. Such practices call down graces for our struggle and shape us into people who can fill the world with meaning.

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.