A participant in one of my classes stumped me a few weeks ago when we were studying intensely TOB Audiences 105-106 on “re-reading” the language of the body. She interrupted me, apologized, and then plaintively said, “I don’t get it – what does JPII mean by re-reading?”
I floundered for a while, trying to give an explanation, but kept digging myself deeper into a muddy hole. However, I resolved to give her a better answer, so here it is.
Have you ever been the recipient (perhaps “victim” is the better word) of a surprise party? After getting over the initial shock of being blasted with “SURPRISE!” what do we do next? Our minds quickly “re-view” previous incidences that struck us as odd, but we dismissed as having no significance.
We go back and re-interpret our previous experiences in light of the surprise party. We realize that certain excuses or cover-ups were ploys to hide the surprise from us and get us in the right place at the right time. When “re-viewed” or “re-played” in light of the new “surprise” information, our experiences take on new meaning.
St. JPII’s usage of “re-reading” is similar. He invites us to “re-read” certain realities in order to discover new meaning in them. Looking back on my own life, I dramatically experienced a “re-reading” of Isaiah 54 after the failure of my marriage. Written over 2500 years ago, it says: “For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”
Of course, I had read Isaiah 54 previously, but in light of this new experience of a shredded marriage, these verses took on new meaning: I felt intensely like a wife of youth who had been cast off (I married at age 19), and yet, God was assuring me that He would never abandon me. Thirty years later, I continue to read and re-read these verses not only in light of my own experience, but also in light of Jesus Christ.
Learning to “re-read” all of Scripture in light of Jesus Christ as true God and true man provides a critical transition moment on the road to Christian discipleship. Without this transition, we easily fall into reading (and “re-reading”) Scripture through a therapeutic or moral lens. Contemporary thinkers like psychologists Dr. Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haight adopt this kind of approach. Dr. Peterson deftly reinterprets Scripture through the lens of archetypes, seeing both Old and New Testament as profound myths that articulate universal truths about human nature, the potential for good and evil in all of us, the value of the individual, and Christ as the idealized man.
In his wildly popular book, 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Peterson summarizes Christ as archetype of the human race in a very appealing manner: “Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically – how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge – and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service to others” (p. 59). Similarly, Jonathan Haight in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis (which I am currently devouring) presents Jesus as an admirable moral teacher who models for us benevolent love and good will toward all.
In both these “re-readings” of Scripture, elements of truth and human experiences are emphasized, but the whole truth of Revelation is left out. While Scripture frequently employs the language of myth and archetypes and Jesus is assuredly a teacher of high moral standards (“Love one another as I have loved you”), the Bible can’t be reduced to psychological and moral insights. Scripture is a testament to God Incarnate.
As I’ve tried to make sense of the secular podcast and YouTube gurus of our day (such as Jordan Peterson, Simon Sinek, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Jonathan Haight, etc.), a common pattern emerges: Because they acknowledge Jesus Christ as a moral teacher or archetype but not as God Incarnate, their investigation of reality and human experience always comes up short. Their interpretations remain handicapped, limping along on one leg as they “re-read” human life and history absent of God and His direct involvement.
In contrast, St. JPII always “re-reads” human experience and the language of the body from the viewpoint of Trinitarian Love and God-Incarnate. The Incarnation sheds new light on everything. Just as natural light allows us to see details previously hidden by shadows and darkness, so too, the Incarnation illuminates human history, the human person, creation, the body, and our ultimate destiny with details never seen before. Life is not simply therapeutic or moralistic, but destined for intimate union and communion with Trinitarian Love.
The Mass readings on the Feast of the Annunciation are my favorite liturgical example of “re-reading” Scripture in the light of Christ. The Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel 7 cites a very curious prophecy given to King Ahaz: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son and he will be named ‘Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’”
When this marvel is proclaimed, we often don’t blink an eye. Yet our heads should be shaking in disbelief since it’s impossible for a virgin to become pregnant and remain a virgin (in the biological sense). However, when “re-read” in light of the gospel account of the Annunciation, this prophecy gains new meaning: God is now “with us” not through human generation, but through divine, virginal generation by the power of the Holy Spirit and Mary’s fiat.
The second reading from Hebrews 10 is meant to be “re-read” in light of Psalm 40 (the psalm response). Reading the book of Hebrews is like finding a secret passage way into the life and mind of Jewish worship. In effect, the author “re-reads” the Passover and the entire Old Testament sacrificial system in light of Christ as the Great High Priest.
Jewish worship permitted the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year and only to sprinkle the mercy seat of the Ark with the blood of the sacrificial animal in atonement for sin. In contrast, Jesus eternally offers His own body and blood as the unblemished Lamb of God on the “mercy seat” of the cross. His blood doesn’t just sprinkle us clean temporarily so that it has to be offered again and again. Instead, Jesus’ sacrifice is “once and for all,” pouring blood and water out of his side to rebirth humanity as a new creation.
In light of the cross and Incarnation, the author of Hebrews “re-reads” Psalm 40:6-8 by stating, “Sacrifice and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me” (Heb. 10:6). Perhaps like me, you’ve heard Hebrews 10:6 dozens of times, but now let’s “re-read” it.
Imagine for a moment that I describe an experience I had with my goddaughter and I write: “My goddaughter and I read a children’s book together last night, and we both laughed at the thought of Mary having a little lamb whose fleece was black as night.”
Would the last phrase catch your attention? I trust so because most of us share a common cultural image that Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow. So why would I change the wording when narrating this event? Because I am trying to communicate something new to you by using a commonly accepted image and changing it in light of another reality. In other words, I’m drawing out a different meaning to the symbol (of the fleece) by changing it from white to black.
Let’s go back to Hebrews 10:6. If we were Jewish, and therefore knew the Hebrew psalms by heart, we would have immediately caught a significant change in how the author quoted Psalm 40. The original psalm says, “Sacrifice and offerings you have not desired, but ears open to obedience you gave me.” But in Hebrews 10:6, the author changes the wording to “a body you have prepared for me.” Why?
Because he is “re-reading” Psalm 40:6 in light of Christ. Christ’s obedience to the Father was carried out through the gift of his body, a body that enabled him to sacrifice himself on the new “altar” of the cross as Great High Priest. The Son of God made Son of Man needed not only ears open to obedience to carry out His Father’s will; he needed a body. It was not just hearing God’s word that mattered, but carrying it out through the language of His body in a particular way as the definitive revelation and fulfillment of God’s eternal plan.
Forgive me if I restate what I’ve been trying to say: Through “re-reading” the language of Jesus’ body on the cross, we arrive at a new and deeper meaning to reality that reveals God’s eternal plan. This process of “re-reading” allows us to encounter the symbolic nature of a reality.
In this case, it is the Body of Christ. Jesus’ body is neither a functional tool to accomplish certain tasks nor is it temporary housing for a Divine Consciousness. His Body is symbolic because it expresses his Divine Person and therefore the words and actions of God! Through the visible “language of the body,” Jesus conveys deeper layers of meaning to reality, including the deeper meaning and purpose of the human body on earth and in eternity.
Likewise, St. John Paul II invites each of us to “re-read” the language of our bodies so as to fulfill God’s eternal plan for our lives, a plan revealed in a unique way through masculinity and femininity and the sexual one-flesh union. In fact, two blogs ago, this “re-reading” of the language of the body in the Sacrament of Marriage was precisely our project. We saw how the bodies of bride and groom are part of the “matter” of the sacramental sign.
By “re-reading” the language of the body through this Sacramental light, we saw how the sexual one-flesh union expresses with the body the supernatural truth of the indissoluble conjugal bond: “What God has joined, man must not divide.” The physical “two-in-oneness” through the language of their bodies expresses the spiritual “two-in-oneness” of their covenantal bond with each other and God and the fruitfulness flowing from it. The human language of the body is called to match and reveal the supernatural and Sacramental truth of marriage.
I love how St. JPII says there are certain realities we can’t express without a body! In A104:7, he writes, “Yet, man is in some sense unable to express this singular language of his personal existence and vocation without the body. He is constituted in such a way from the ‘beginning’ that the deepest words of the spirit – words of love, gift, and faithfulness – call for an appropriate ‘language of the body.’”
Just as Jesus needed a body to express the deepest truths about human nature and the Trinity, so too, we are gifted with a body to express the deepest truths about who we are and the kind of Trinitarian love we are all created for.
But there’s one more reality that St. JPII places starkly before us: just as we can speak a truth or lie with our words, so, too, we can speak a truth or lie with the language of our bodies.
This statement about lying with the body catches young people’s attention. In a culture filled with “freedom of choice” propaganda, they’ve rarely heard about lying with the body. And no one likes to be lied to – neither with words nor the body. In this sense, Jordan Peterson is on the cusp of an extremely profound truth: Jesus Christ is indeed the perfect archetype of the human race because He always and only speaks the Truth with his Body. Jesus alone could say with words, “This is my Body given up for you,” and then express the fullness of this truth with the language of His body on the Cross, in the Resurrection, and in the Eucharist.
As we journey toward Holy Week and the culmination of our Lenten practices, I invite you to consider the consistency of the language of your body. Do the actions of your body match or mismatch your internal motives? Do you “speak” the supernatural truth of a Trinitarian God with your sexuality or does the language of your body sometimes “lie” about God? How can you better “tune in” to the language of the body of others, receive what they are “saying,” and respond to it? I pray that as a Church we will never tire of “re-reading” Scripture and all of reality in the light of the Incarnate Son of God – Emmanuel, God with us. And remember…you are a gift!
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS