As you read this, I will be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Australia to speak on the Theology of the Body. During the 14-hour flight, I’m sure the “language of my body” will be quite challenged to be generously self-giving, which reminds me of another plane flight.
Twenty years ago, I was flying back from speaking on the Caribbean island of Trinidad when suddenly, at 31,000 feet, God decided to speak to me. I wouldn’t have minded, except that when God invades my being so personally, the language of my body goes full throttle and sometimes I cry profusely. This was one of those times.
As we flew over the turquoise-blue water of the Bahamas, I tried to control my tears and twist my body to face the window. The two strangers next to me probably read the language of my body and thought, “Poor girl. She must be going through a tough time. She probably just broke up with her boyfriend.” Actually, it was quite the opposite: God was revealing to me something I had pondered intensely for two years – the nature of being a male.
Now it might seem odd for a woman to ponder such thoughts, but in those days, as a writer and speaker primarily on the dignity and vocation of women (no one knew yet what TOB was), I was often asked about the dignity and vocation of the male. In response, I offered a rather generic answer about generous initiative and caretaking what has been entrusted to him. Deep down, I knew these answers were inadequate and provisional, but God hadn’t revealed a deeper meaning to me. Until I was 31,000 feet high and had nowhere to go.
Here’s how it happened: I was reading the life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, foundress of Madonna House in Canada, and I reached the part where her 78-year-old husband Eddie received permission to be ordained a priest in the Melkite Rite (an eastern rite with married priests). Something broke inside me, and I began to cry. Surprised at my reaction, I composed myself and continued reading. Three paragraphs later, I was weeping like a monsoon storm.
Why the sudden upheaval? Because when Eddie returned to Madonna House after his ordination, Catherine’s first words to him were: “Your blessing, Father.” In that moment, I realized Eddie was no longer simply husband to Catherine, but priest.
This was the answer I had been seeking for over two years! The nature of the male is to be priest, to offer his body and blood for the sanctification of others.
In my talks to women, I explain how motherhood is knit into the very structure of a woman’s being. This means that some women are called to biological motherhood, but every woman is called to spiritual motherhood. At last I had the male counterpart: Some men are called to the ordained priesthood, but every man – every man without exception – is called to spiritual priesthood.
Priesthood, then, is knit into the very structure of a man’s being. He offers his body and blood so that others can draw closer to God. His life is a sacrificial offering not for material comfort, status, or power, but to purify his family, wife, neighborhood, and workplace of sin and its effects.
That’s a mighty tall order and a very distinctive way to live the masculine language of the body. It’s also painfully counter-cultural in a society that is consumed by affluence and has forgotten the distinctiveness of the ordained priesthood.
While priesthood is certainly pastoral in nature, its deeper essence is one of reparation – an offering of life for the forgiveness of sins. The Old Testament abounds with this theme. The Passover centers on sacrificing the unblemished lamb and spreading its blood on the door posts for protection from Divine judgment. The covenant at Sinai between God and His people culminated in sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrifice. The Day of Atonement involved sprinkling the mercy seat of the Ark with the unblemished lamb’s blood for forgiveness of sin. As Hebrews 9:22 reminds us: “According to the law almost everything is purified by blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
The book of Hebrews, as we saw last week, picks up this theme of atonement to describe Jesus as the Great High Priest, whose blood “assures our entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living path he has opened up for us through the veil (the ‘veil’ meaning His flesh)…” Because Jesus offered his body and blood for us, we can “draw near [to God] in utter sincerity and absolute confidence, our hearts sprinkled clean from the evil which lay on our conscience and our bodies washed in pure water” (Hebrews 11: 19-20, 22).
The masculine vocation is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the Great High Priest – to imitate the priestly language of Jesus’ body upon the cross.
But how do men do this if they’re not ordained priests? St. Paul hits the nail on the head in Ephesians 5 where he writes, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.”
Without apology, Paul describes the priestly role of the husband to his wife and his domestic church (i.e., his family). When a man drags his body and blood out of bed in the morning to pray and then lead his family in prayer, he’s being priestly. When a man’s body and blood go to work for the thirty-second year in a row, he’s being priestly. When a man’s body and blood resist the temptation to look at pornography or to be unfaithful to his wife (even if she’s his future wife), he’s being priestly. When a man’s body and blood come home tired and weary in the evenings and washes the dishes and gives his wife a back rub, he’s being priestly.
Priesthood, even spiritual priesthood, is very incarnational. It doesn’t take place in some ultra-spiritual realm but is expressed through the concrete language of the man’s body.
Put simply, a man’s presence in the family, neighborhood, and workplace is a priestly presence. His words, attitudes, actions, and recreation ought to have one goal in mind: to sanctify himself and the world around him.
We often have the misimpression that only human souls will be redeemed, and everything else will get blown up in a great apocalyptic conflict, but Scripture testifies to a different reality. Romans 8:22-23 describes all creation groaning in anticipation of the redemption of the human body as a promise (primicia!) of the redemption of the entire material world. All of human society as well as creation is meant to be redeemed – from the back grill at McDonald’s to the boardroom at Microsoft. Spiritual priests can go where the ordained priest doesn’t have time or the vocation to go – to football fields, family gatherings, stock meetings, pubs, and a child’s bedroom.
Every man, without exception, can bring the priestly presence of Christ through his body and blood into the marketplace and political arena to transform society and culture from within. Through the masculine language of their bodies, men can be an alter Christus, another Christ; they can offer their lives to purify the world of sin and its effects and bring others closer to God.
Can you imagine a world in which every man lived a truthful language of his body? Where men “stepped into the breach” without hesitation for the holiness of those entrusted to their care? It would be a world at peace instead of war; a world where the #MeToo movement faded away; a world without abortion, human trafficking, or abandoned women and children. We would taste and see the goodness of the Kingdom of God coming among us.
Is this masculine mission difficult? Yes. Will men be asked to suffer? Yes. Will they have to give up things they’d rather do? Yes. Thankfully, the enduring success of “That Man is You” (https://paradisusdei.org/that-man-is-you/), “Exodus 90” (https://exodus90.com/) and the global response to the Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s pastoral letter, “Into the Breach,” (https://intothebreach.org/) indicate the masculine readiness to accept this priestly mission.
They also remind us that spiritual priests don’t sacrifice alone. These men draw their strength and inspiration from the language of the body of their brother spiritual priests who sacrifice on each other’s behalf. They also receive encouragement and support from the Christian women laboring right beside them who, as spiritual mothers, nurture the moral, cultural, emotional, and spiritual life of others and society.
Spiritual motherhood and spiritual priesthood go hand-in-hand: as men lay down their body and blood to purify the world of sin and its effects, so too, women lay down their lives for full human flourishing through union. The results are astonishing: the more we are purified, the more we can live in union with each other and God. And the more we live in union with each other and God, the more we want to be purified so as to deepen that union.
During this holiest of weeks, the Church gives us the ideal time to meditate on the priesthood of Christ through the Institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, the visible offering of Christ’s Body and Blood on the cross on Good Friday, and the harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday. On each of these days, the priestly language of Jesus’ body is offered to us to “re-read” in a new way through the prism of our own need for holiness and forgiveness.
Our redemption didn’t have to be accomplished through the priestly language of the masculine body. It could have been accomplished another way. And yet, I think God the Father was lifting the veil of eternity to show us not only the depth of His love, but the essential nature of the male – to be priest, to offer his body and blood for the redemption of the world. May you encounter Jesus’ priestly gift of self to you this week, and remember…you are a gift!
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS