Friday, February 13, 2015

TOB: What is meant by "beginning"?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

As I said in my first post on TOB, my aim in this series has been and will be to highlight some less commonly written about aspects of the Wednesday Catecheses. One, I think, is that the entirety of TOB is scriptural exegesis. Indeed, we could describe John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them as an incredibly in-depth and rich exegesis on the Gospel passages in Matthew and Mark that describe the encounter Christ has with the Pharisees in which they ask him about divorce. The late pope starts with the Gospels and only turns to the Genesis accounts in light of Christ’s words. This is, first of all, an indication of how we should be reading all of Scripture all of the time—in and through the Word that is Jesus Christ. This is perhaps John Paul II’s first lesson in his Wednesday Catecheses, albeit an implicit one.

Let’s then, as the saint did, look at this passage in Matthew (19:3-8):
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Let’s also look at the first comment John Paul II makes on this passage: “Christ does not accept the discussion on the level which his interlocutors try to introduce it.” This is also a key aspect of John Paul II’s writings, though again one which I think is often passed over—that is, John Paul II is communicating a method here: we cannot accept the given framework (of a problem, of a discussion, of a culture) if it is not given in the fullness of what is true, good and beautiful. In a word: we must reject that which does not come from God.
"The Birth of Christ" by Henri Fantin Latour is in the Public Domain
But is Christ’s response to the Pharisees a simple rejection? I would say no. What Christ rejects is the hardness of their hearts, the sinfulness of Israel, but he does not reject Israel outright. What he does is go back to “the beginning,” a beginning that Israel knows well, and to Scriptures that the Pharisees know and must acknowledge to be true. This is not, then, a simple reference; it is a directive: go back to the Scriptures and try to understand and read with faith.

Many times in the Gospels we encounter this phrase about Jesus: “He spoke with authority.” What does this mean? Surely it conveys something more than tone of voice, and we also know that Christ did not go around proclaiming he was the Son of God in so many words. Rather, this authority comes from Christ himself; he radiates understanding of the Scriptures, and has since he was a child: “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2:47). He is no Pharisee but rather lives the Scriptures from the inside out, as it were. And this living of the Scriptures is palpable in his presence and the way he speaks about the Word of God.

Thus, when Christ tells the Pharisees, “from the beginning it was not so” in distinction from the Law of Moses, he is also signaling that a return to the beginning is possible in a way that has not before been available to man. By rejecting the Pharisees’ question and pointing to the beginning, Christ is helping us to see that through him man can regain his original disposition in front of God, the world, and his fellow man.

This, I must emphasize, is more than a moral or juridical issue: Christ is not simply an example to us, showing us we can live more holy lives, nor does he inject us with some spiritual strength so that we finally have the endurance to stay with our spouses. Rather, this is on the level of being, on the ontological level. Christ is the beginning—John’s Gospel does not start the way it does accidentally. Man is created in Christ’s image and likeness. Therefore, the incarnation of the Son brings the beginning back to us: it is a re-creation of man, again in Christ’s image, again in his likeness. Christ has the authority to speak of such things to the Pharisees because he is the authority, the Word made flesh, who makes it possible for all of man to again become Adam, albeit in a way greater than even the first Adam could have ever imagined.

This comes, however, with implications for our lives. Hardness of heart is no longer an excuse. The beginning has been given to us again, in a way we could not anticipate. Therefore, John Paul II helps us to see, we must reject all frameworks other than that of Christ himself, and live in the authority of the Word once more. This is man’s true beginning, and it is one he never leaves behind.

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