The Virginal Meaning of the Body
This is the ninth of a series of posts outlining St. John Paul II’s thought on embodiment and sexuality. to read the preceding article, please click here.
Having outlined the meaning of the human body and sexuality from ‘the beginning’ in the state of original innocence, and also for ‘historical’ man fallen but redeemed, there yet remains one final perspective to explore so as to complete our outline understanding of the significance of the human body: that is, the resurrection of the body. St. John Paul II calls this the ‘third component of the triptych of Christ’s own statements, the triptych of words that are essential and constitutive for the theology of the body.’ Exploring the meaning of the body from the perspective of the resurrection of the body is important towards understanding the full meaningfulness of the human body, precisely since there is a radical continuity of meaning throughout all three states of human life—from the beginning, through earthly history, up to and including the future resurrection.
To analyse this last state of human life, John Paul again turns to the words of Christ, and reflects on a dialogue Jesus has with the Sadducees, a distinct group within Judaism that rejected the teaching of the resurrection of the body. He focuses his analysis on the three accounts of this dialogue found in the Gospels (Mt. 22:24-30; Mk. 12:18-27; Lk. 20:27-40), drawing from the each of the texts significant features of the meaning of the body after bodily resurrection, features that he says are ‘stupendous in their content.’ From these texts, as well as a number of verses of the letters of St. Paul, the Holy Father deduces that after the resurrection the human being will experience a perfect ‘spiritualization’ of the body, and that this spiritualization of the body will flow from a fundamental ‘divinization’ of the human person in completion. And, moreover, that this spiritualization and divinization are intimately related to the ultimate meaningfulness of the human body, a meaning St. John Paul calls ‘virginal,’ explaining that ‘the virginal state of the body will manifest itself completely as the eschatological fulfilment of the ‘spousal’ meaning of the body.’
To properly appreciate this further meaningfulness of the body, we must first take note that ‘the body is not only temporally linked to the soul, but that together with the soul it constitutes the unity and integrity of the human being.’ The spiritual soul is the foundational principle of the being and life of the human being, inclusive of the material body, such that we can say that for the human being the spiritual soul is the form of the living material body. Therefore, soul and body should not be considered as utterly separate parts of the human being, even while they are distinct dimensions of the being and life of the human individual. Rather, both soul and body are integral to the human individual for the completion of his nature, such that one can truly say that the soul is not itself without the body of which it is the form. Since the soul is the form of the body, the unity of soul and body is so profound that St. Thomas says, ‘it belongs to the soul according to itself to be united with a body.’ This means that we would live a permanently unnatural state of life after death if God did not intend to again bestow bodily life upon the human being in the resurrection of the body. Consequently, we can expect that eternal life will have a radical continuity with the present state of human life according to its essentially bodily aspect.
Yet, conversely, the eschatological state of human life will also be qualitatively different from the present state of earthly life. As the Gospels make clear we will be ‘equal to angels’ and ‘sons of God’ (Lk. 20:36), so that our future state can readily be described both as a ‘bodily spiritualization’ and as a ‘human divinization.’
First, as regards bodily ‘spiritualization’: Since the spiritual soul will be harmoniously ordered by the power of divine love—in a way analogous though not entirely the same as that of paradise—the human person will exist in a state of perfect interior harmony. The body will again be submissive to the human spirit since the soul will perfectly permeate and infuse the body with its being and life, so that the whole system of bodily powers will be drawn into perfect accord with what is spiritual and personal. As such, the spiritualization of the resurrection will mean a deep inner harmony between what is bodily in the human being and what is spiritual in him, and a perfect integrity of human nature will be found in each and every human person who attains the vision of God. Then, as regards human ‘divinization’: The perfect spiritualisation of the body will be the result of a ‘fundamental divinization’ of human nature, since not only will the human being be likened to angelic being, but the human being will also be definitively established as a child of God. Seeing God face-to-face the human being will be elevated to a participation in the divine nature through ‘God’s self-communication in his very divinity.’ Seeing the Triune God face-to-face the human person will experience a transformation, elevation, and intensification of personal subjectivity through communion with the Persons of the Trinity. This communion with God will then also mean that the Trinitarian order of loving-communion will be conclusively established amongst created persons, such that a perfect interpersonal communion of human persons will be brought about through each human person’s communion with the Divine Persons.
Yet, as already indicated, though this future state will obviously be a completely new experience of human living, the future resurrection ‘will not be alienated in any way’ from human nature as an essentially bodily nature, neither from the beginning recounted in Genesis, nor from the present state of human life, fallen but redeemed. Throughout the various states of human life there is a radical coherency of meaning regarding the human body, a coherency of meaning centred around the body’s spousal meaning. According to the body’s spousal meaning, the human being is oriented toward personal communion through self-giving love. And since the ultimate and eternal meaning of the human being is to be found only in terms of the human person’s relationship with God, the spousal meaning of the body is itself destined to be finally fulfilled through what St. John Paul calls the body’s ‘virginal meaning.’ Consequently, we can see that the inner core of the spousal meaning is to be found in the body’s virginal meaning, which virginal meaning is to be realised in the fullness of time with the resurrection of the body, where all will be God’s and God will be all in all (see 1 Cor. 15:28). This means that each personal individual is ultimately destined to make a gift of self to God in response to God’s own gift of self to the human person, and that this gift of self will not abstract from our essentially bodily nature.
The self-giving of the human person is a creaturely response to the radical gift of God in and through the loving self-gift of Jesus Christ. This giving and receiving of God and human person is a virginal form of spousal self-giving, precisely since it involves living entirely for God, as given to God in a radical, complete, and irrevocable way. Therefore, the ultimate fulfilment of personal love is to be found entirely in the whole and complete love of God, with the consequence that the ultimate meaning of the body is to be found entirely in a virginal giving of self to God. Obviously then, by ‘virginal’ here, St. John Paul does not mean simply to identify the property of not having engaged in sexual relations, but rather intends a state of being that involves living entirely for God in a fundamental and permanent way. Indeed, this is the deepest meaning of virginity in the Christian tradition, and the proper meaning of the vocation of consecrated virginity in the Catholic faith—that of being God’s, and God’s alone—in direct consequence of which one refrains from marriage and procreation. Consequently, St. John Paul identifies the virginal meaning of the body as the ultimate determination of the spousal meaning of the body, a meaning finally unveiled in its fullness in the general resurrection of the body.
This virginal meaningfulness of the body should not be surprising when we recognize and acknowledge God’s relationship with the human community according to its essentially spousal dimension, where God is understood as the Bridegroom of His people. The Old Testament is replete with examples representing the love of God for the people of God in essentially spousal terms, and the New Testament takes up this imagery and focuses it upon the relationship of Christ and the Church, where Christ is understood as the Bridegroom of the Church, His Bride. And, indeed, Christ draws the Church to Himself through an act of perfect self-giving love, a redemptive act that is spousal in character. St. John Paul says of this mystery of divine spousal love, ‘The history of God’s relationship to humanity is a history of spousal love,’ and further explains that by means of baptism the individual believer is ‘definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church.’ Then, within the unfolding of the history of the Church as Bride, individual believers provide a more or less compelling witness to this spousal mystery of Christ and the Church by living the Christian states of marriage and consecrated celibacy with fervour and authenticity. Those in the married state live this mystery of divine spousal love by way of a sacramental signification of and participation in the mystery, and those in the celibate state live this same mystery by way of announcing its future oriented fulfilment in the resurrection of the body, thereby prefiguring the wedding feast of the lamb and drawing forth the kingdom of God.
In the next post, we will focus upon the way St. John Paul presents this latter mystery, the life of voluntary continence chosen for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Notes: See John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. by M. Waldstein (Boston: Pauline, 2006), §§. 64:1-4, 66:1-69:7, esp. 66:5-69:7. See also, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 365; Council of Vienne (1311/12); Verbi Sponsa, §. 4:1; and Familiaris Consortio, §. 13:6; and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q.76, a.1, ad 6; as cited in ToB, 66:6. Eschatology is the study of the ‘end times,’ the end of the course of history and union with God in everlasting life.