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A Reflection on the Language of the Body1

Francis Etheredge
Article first published in 'The Language of the Body', Communio vol 24 (Summer 1997)
Used with permission, International Catholic Review.

The following is a theological meditation on the sign character of the body, which can be read as signifying openness to life in all its dimensions.

The body is always gendered.  It follows that gender is essential to the sign-character of the body.  The second account of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis sheds light on the significance of gender as a two-in-one representation of the divine fecundity.

The second creation account seems to envisage a certain priortiy of the man.  Eve is made from Adam's rib (Gn2:21).  Similarly, it is given to Adam to name all the things that God has made (Gn 2:19-20), including the woman.  At the same time, the priority of Adam is relativized, for Adam himself is "formed.. of dust from the ground" (Gn 2:7).  Moreover, while Adam identifies both the nature of the woman (Gn 2:23) and gives her her name, Eve (Gn 3:20), it is God who, having made Adam and Eve, names both "man" (Gn 5:2).  Indeed, Genesis later tells us that "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord'" (Gn 4:1).  Adam and Eve thus give bodily, gendered expression to the divine origin with a mutual, but asymmetrical, priority.

The second creation account brings home that man and the woman represent the fecundity of God, and that they do so in their gendered bodiliness.  The text also stresses that both represent God equally and fully, but that this representation takes on irreducibly differnet forms in each case.  We can speak of the sexuality of man and woman as "incomplete", in the sense that the sexuality of each is fulfilled as an image of God's fecundity only in relation to the other.  The bodies of man and woman are signs of openness to life that point to each other and through each other, to God.

If we turn to the first creation account, we find that God commands Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gn 1:28).  God communicates to man, whom he made male and female, the power to pro-create (this biblical idea is mirrored in the Church's teaching that at precisely the moment when the child is formed, one flesh from the one flesh of the parents, God immediately creates the child's soul2).  In this sense, openness to life is openness to God.  It is precisely in our openness to life that we express our acceptance of God as our creator and in so doing enflesh the truth that he has made us (cf Gn 1:27) and remains our maker.

A very practical consequence follows from this consideration: the couple's openness to life in the conjugal act expresses a whole attitude of letting themselves be led according to God's providential plan.  If they entrust themselves to this plan, by which God intends to fill the earth and subdue it (cf Gn 1:28), God will as a loving Father, work lovingly with them to provide for them.

The attitude of openness to life in loving self-entrustment to God is embodied most perfectly in Mary.  In fact, Mary's divine maternity confirms the inner meaning of motherhood (and of all creaturely parenthood) as an openness to life, including the supernatural life of one's children.  Mary's motherhood shows that the sign-character of the human body is ultimately about participation in the life of the three divine persons (FC, 11, 18), who, as sheer openness to the life of one another, are infinitely fruitful.

1 I am particularly indebted to the writings of Pope John Paul II; cf. Familiaris consortio, 32    Back
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 366    Back

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