Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Nuptial Gospel and the Restoration of the World

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Nuptial Gospel and the Restoration of the World

Presented at Youth With A Mission
Tyler, Texas. Sunday, May 3

II Corinthians 1:15-20 “And in the confidence of Jesus Chris I had determined to come to you… and these things which I purposed, did I purpose according to the flesh, as though my intention were both yes and no? As God is true, our word toward you was not both yes and no… for in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, was not yes and no, but in Him was yes. For all the promises of God in Him are yes and in Him, Amen, unto the glory of God though us.”

In the year 1949, the great Spanish artist Salvadore Dali decided to produce a work of art which would bear grateful witness to his renewed conversion to Christ. The work is entitled “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” It is a simple image of Jesus in His agony for us, cast in pure gold. The image is attributed to a vision given to Saint John of the Cross himself, which had been celebrated in the Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila. Unlike many European depictions of ordinary martyrdom, in which the heroes of our faith are artistically depicted offering the instruments of their torture back to God, Dali’s sculpture shows the crucified body of Jesus hovering weightlessly and freely in mid air. We look at his hands and his feet, and we see that there are no nails for binding Him, because Dali’s sculpture is a radicalization of his vision of the beauty of the crucifixion; here, there are no ugly instruments. There is not even a cross. Rather, critics have noted that the image conveys a sense of the flame of Christ’s own divine love rising up to consume the offered sacrifice of His body; or, as Dali describes it, Christ Himself became His Cross.

The idea conveyed is one of the unconstrained freedom of the "yes and Amen" which Christ has said to the Father, for us. He had options in the matter, and He freely chose a terrible pain; surely the greater agony is in offering your assent, or in willing the pain that will assault your body. He entered it freely; and this must be the most dreadful part. No instruments; just walking Himself into certain pain of His own free volition. How we might wish for someone to strap us in, to carry us on, to force us to assent passively to whatever would come next; Christ walks in and presents Himself. Surely we have all faced something similar- the dreadful moment when we freely choose something that will hurt.

How did the omniscient and omnipotent Lord of the universe, with our nerve endings, and our stomach, choose this? What is the agony involved in giving your consent and bidding your torture to begin, when you are omnipotent? When you have nothing to restrain you, nothing to compel you, nothing to hold you in place, how do you consent to your own suffering such that it continues one moment after another, each moment a willful decision?

St. Augustine offers an answer in these words:

He who was manifest suffered all these things, and He Himself arranged them all… Who can thus die when he pleases, as Christ died when He pleased? Who is there that thus puts off his garment when he pleases, as Christ put off His flesh at His own pleasure? Who is there that thus departs when he pleases, as Christ departed this life- at His own pleasure?

The history of Christian theology resounds throughout the ages with similarly clear answers. With respect to His divinity, of course Jesus walks to His cross in such perfect freedom that nothing is needed to send Him to His death; no instrumentality, no compulsion. Commensurate with the classic notions of God’s unchanging, perfect, undivided and underived self-sufficiency and freedom, Dali reminds us that God incarnate needs nothing, reacts to no exigency; in St. Anselm’s terms, the creative and cherishing Being who supports and surpasses all, who surpasses and fills all things, who is highest and best and greatest of all existing beings, from and through whom all other beings gain their existence, and in whom we hope, does not need a cross to hold in place His self-offering, as Lord and ruler of all, for the sins of all. As Augustine taught further, Christ’s suffering on the cross can only be rightly understood in terms of the free, self-sufficient power of His Godhead, by which He was raised from the dead on the third day; we see how freely He laid down His life for us when we recall that He had it in His power to take it up again.

But with respect to His humanity, united to such perfect freedom and such utter power that He makes a cross of Himself, the young man from Galilee is in mortal agony. And here the question arises for us with greatest compassion: He is a young man with sorrows and fears, and a body. How does He muster the human will to offer Himself, moment by moment while He remains utterly free? How did He focus His mind? How did He pray in order to endure His cross? The answer could be useful to us, since we are told that we too must take up our crosses and offer ourselves totally to the Father; but the fact is, we are not told how. We are just told that Jesus did so, by His own human and divine will, with nothing to force Him or to bind Him.

Here again, our tradition cherishes the total assent of Christ’s human freedom in His offering for us. A spiritual director of the fourteenth century wrote a series of Meditations on the Life of Christ for Lent, and he suggests that we imagine the point of crucifixion not as Christ being stretched out upon His cross with great submission, but rather that we think of Jesus eagerly embracing His cross by ascending a ladder to its center, where He voluntarily turns Himself around and stretches out His arms to be nailed, first one, and then the other, saying to the Father “Behold, I am here; I accept; I offer myself to you for those whom you gave to me; for the love and salvation of mankind, it pleases me.” It is as though Christ were seizing His own agony. The same sentiment was expressed even earlier by the second century martyr St. Polycarp, who refused to be bound to the pyre at which he was to be burned, proclaiming with joy that on Christ’s example he expected that the grace of God would enable him to remain on the pyre unmoved, without being secured by nails.

We know that the content of the Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is the young man who turns His face to Jerusalem because He yearns over her; and then, at the last hour, He assents to the Father in Gethsemane, such that His suffering is to be understood as His own will: Shall I say to my Father, deliver me? I shall not; for this reason I have come into the world. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord. The events that follow are voluntarily embraced by the one on whom they fall, for the joy that is set before Him, and we see Jesus going to His dreadful death for our sakes, as though He were running to it, as though He would make a cross of His own body if there were no other cross to hold him at the end. The death that Jesus chooses on Golgotha is a voluntary death at every moment, and involved an ongoing, agonized decision, made moment by moment, so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus not only chooses Golgotha at the outset; He chooses to endure it. Indeed, there is no cross that can hold the Son of God. There is no cross that is necessary. He makes Himself the sacrifice; and He is held in place for His offering not by nails or stakes or His human weakness, but rather by constant free decision at each moment on His cross, because He loves us. He really loves us.

There is more to be said, however, to the ancient question as to why the Son of God became man to suffer and to die. In the 13th century, Anselm of Canterbury explained that the free assent of the Son of God to His incomparable suffering was necessary because our world is a world pursued like a lover by its Creator; but our world and our race had become incapable of assenting to Him. God had called to His creation from the beginning; and the creature said “no.” God had provided means of assent in the obedience of faith delivered at Sinai; and the creature still said “no.” And yet the creation longed to say “yes” to her Creator; so God in His mercy, provided for the creature’s answer by Himself becoming a creature. In Jesus of Nazareth, humanity has said its “yes” to the Father; for our sake, His suffering becomes His “yes,” uttered for us, in extremity, taken as far as that “yes” can go, so that there is finally nothing left to be said. And so we live in a new world, a world spoken into being by the Son of God on His cross, one in which one man, once and for all, has said “yes” to the Father. The instruments of Christ’s torture are really the instruments of the new creation in which we now live and move and have our being, and in which we celebrate, now, all that Christ has already accomplished for us. He has made all things new; as a contemporary author puts it: self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm of all creation and of all being. For the Eternal Word gives Himself in mortal sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified on Calvary He did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces what He had done at home in glory and gladness. From before the foundation of the world, Christ surrenders begotten deity back to begetting Deity, in obedience.

The answer which humanity longed to give to its Lord has been given. Yet “the rhythm of all creation” is not one-sided. What then about our response? In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the Church reasoned that the only way to adequately describe our interaction with Christ’s “yes and amen” to us was with the metaphor of a marriage.

The author of Ephesians had said it first: the giving of the self to the other, in the way that spouses give themselves to each other, is something like a sidelong glance at the way Christ has given Himself to us. In the 5th century, Augustine could not help but suggest that Calvary is best understood as the consummation of a marriage, the place where a new people are born from Christ’s side, as Eve was drawn from Adam. Thus many of the earliest Christian sermons describe the Christian’s life on the pattern of a virgin bride, contracted in marriage by the conflated covenantal/inheritance structure neatly summarized in the ancient Roman law of the tabulae matrimoniales. This metaphor presupposes a situation which was something like this: the family law of the classical Julian age required laborious negotiations between the father of the bride and the prospective son- in- law, which ultimately designated their own covenantal exchange which culminated in the body of the bride. While the Roman law of St. Augustine’s time excluded the bride from the commercial negotiations in anticipation of her wedding, the law expectantly required the waiting bride to signify publicly her total, free, and unconstrained consent to the contract arranged between her betrothed husband and father. She showed her legal consent in multiple and recurring ways. She would have clasped his hand publicly, face- to- face, in symbolic declaration of fidelity. And lastly, she had to pause one last time on the threshold of her husband’s home for her final and free public act of consent to his nuptial invitation, without which no legal marriage could take place. She said Quando Tu, Ego: “whenever and wherever you are, I am then and I am there… wherever you are, I am.”

If we accept the Biblical metaphor of the Christian life as a kind of nuptial assent, and if we consider the implications of that metaphor, we might realize what a fascinating statement this really is. Quando is a Latinate free-for-all. The word is a potential interrogative, carrying within it a multitude of ongoing questions: Who are you?... Where are you?... Who will you become? It is also a relative adverb, conditioned by the data of times and places beyond control, relativized by a dozen possible particles that may alter its construal in grammatical structures. And the word is also a conjunction, situated tentatively in the immediate place between all that has gone before, on the one hand, and, on the other, the moment wherein the bride pauses for breath before her final statement.

The bride's own conclusion to this tentative, broadly contingent qualifier of quando tu is so simple. For herself, she must speak with the starkest clarity of a unilateral promise which stands in relation to one contingency alone and none other. She alone seals the nuptial contract with the all-consuming self-reference of the singular being verb: Ego- “I am…” “wherever and whenever you are, I am there.” Since the early Fathers worked in images as much as they do in concepts, we find in every image of bride and groom the vivid reality of Christ's espousal to His Church, for which human nuptials are merely the shadowy metaphor. The Church is the one who follows the Lamb wherever He goes, saying, as we have heard it before, “where you dwell, I will dwell; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” Augustine finds an image of the Church in every Roman bride who seals her matrimoniales with her all-consuming vow upon Christ’s threshold. In other words, our consent must be as free and total as His.

But the reality is that in the Christian faith, this declaration is not so much spoken as it is finally enacted. It is the Bridegroom Himself who has already uttered the final words of covenantal consummation. The final act of (divine) consent has been completed in His body: “it is finished.” The consenting, responsive ego of the creature has, of course, already been spoken. So the bride no longer pauses on her husband’s threshold. It is now He who stands at the door and knocks: Quando tu, ego. To all who will join Christ’s act of consent, so that with the definitive “let it be to me according to your word, wherever you go, I will go,” we simply join in: “Amen.” The door to the Father’s household has already been opened, the nuptial Covenant has been ratified, the Word has been made flesh in the body of a bride, the marriage has been consummated on the Cross, its procreative purpose is already unfolding in the weary world as we are gathered, more and more, into Christ’s embrace. Consummatum est. You know how the rest goes. It’s just a matter of time.

And so in closing, we are left with time and the ongoing process of chiming in with Christ’s “yes and amen” to the Father, for us. How are we joining in? As we face the mandate of restoring ourselves and our culture, as you lift up and transform the various spheres of influence in our modern world, we should keep in mind the nuptial metaphor proposed by the early fathers. The consent of spouses to one another is always public; it must be public. There is no such thing as a valid private wedding; even though all that is necessary to conclude a valid marriage is the total “yes” of each party to one another, this exchange must be witnessed; that is, in fact the only reason why an officiant is required to be present at a marriage. We are those who wait for the bridegroom who has publicly said “yes” to us; as St. Paul tells us in Galatians, “He has been crucified before you openly.” And, we are truly surrounded by a very great crowd of witnesses. The elements for this espousal are in place- but are we, as the betrothed body of Christ, saying “yes” to Christ- publicly?

This question, and the impulse to say “yes” to Christ in ways that take public form, drives your prayer and your work towards the evangelization of every sphere of human life. It is the impulse which Pope John Paul II explained to my generation when he said that the question confronting the Church today is not any longer whether the man in the street can grasp a religious message; rather, the question which confronts the Church now is the question of how to employ the forms of our age so as to let that man encounter the full impact of the Gospel. At the turn of the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII had begun the task of preparing the Church for the cultural onslaughts of the following decades by inaugurating a series of carefully outlined social teachings. Commenting on these teachings, John Paul II continued that our modern age marked the end of a two-fold way of approaching the Christian’s duty, as though on the one hand there were one way which was directed to this world and this life, to which faith ought to remain extraneous; while on the other hand, there was another way, which was directed towards a purely other-worldly salvation, which neither enlightens nor directs existence on earth. On the contrary, John Paul II continued,

The Church must exercise her "citizenship status" as it were, amid the changing realities of public life... to teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church's evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates all of life in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour.

How do we go about this task? If all the promises of God in Christ to us are “yes and amen,” we can recognize that the voice of the evil one will speak only in negations: “no” and “no.” “No” to faith, hope, love, and “no” human life itself. In our culture, our “yes” to Christ must not only take public form; it must take a particularly targeted form at the most radical level. Many modern commentors have referred to the spirit of the age as the reign of an unambiguous culture of death, in which the more subtle forms of our “no” to God, to one another, and to ourselves, manifests itself in the contraceptive, abortive, and nihilistic reluctance to give ourselves fully as integrated persons to God and to one another, in the ways that He intended.

Whether we have said “no” to God or sometimes “maybe,” we have collapsed in upon ourselves. Yet we know from the Great Commission that Christ’s redemption is a victory which is given to us, as our own task to carry forward. We know, furthermore, that we are given to each other for the joyful task of serving one another. In all these tasks, we have nothing to offer back that we have not first received; and we have received everything. Christ’s “yes” to the Father for us has returned us to our true selves, such that we can love both God and our neighbor; thus our “yes” to Christ, beyond our own inner transformation, can and must return the universe to its proper ordering. Our response of unconditional assent to Him will gain for us the inner freedom which allows our union with our God; and let this union be the sort which will call the world to the publicly celebrated, publicly ratified marriage supper of the Lamb.