What Theology of the Body Can Teach Us About Mercy

By Marian Tascio

Recently, I attended the Archdiocese of New York's Family Life Conference, hosted by the Sisters of Life. When I arrived, one of the sisters asked me how I had heard about the event. I told her I had received a flier about it at the Divine Mercy Conference a few weeks before, and she seemed delighted. "I thought everyone from the Divine Mercy Conference should come to this," she said. "They're related." I smiled and nodded. I couldn't agree with you more, Sister, I thought.

In my mind, the heart of the connection between Divine Mercy and - yes - human sexuality is the late Pope John Paul II's simple, stunning definition of love as "self-gift." When I look at the Divine Mercy image, my heart fills with wonder at the totality of Christ's gift to us. Those red and white rays, recalling the blood and water that poured from His heart on Calvary, remind me of how completely Jesus emptied Himself for us. Saint Faustina wrote that the thought of Jesus' spilled blood inspired her to "rejoice at [the] immensity" of His sacrifice, for "one drop alone would have been enough for the salvation of all sinners" (Diary, 72).

When I first read that passage, it staggered me. One drop? I thought. Then why on earth did God let them take all of it? The answer came as quickly as I had asked the question: to show us once and for all, beyond any possible doubt, the measure of His love for us. Giving enough would not have satisfied the kind of lover that Jesus is. He had to give all. All He wishes of us is that we take it.

Jesus told St. Faustina many times how much He delighted in her and took comfort in her. I think that was because she let Him love her the way He wants to love all of us. Any parent can relate to the joy that comes when a child finally accepts those tender offers of help instead of protesting stubbornly (as I know I often did to my mother), "Leave me alone! I can do it myself!" Jesus loves each of us as much as He loved Faustina, so our souls could be equally happy resting places for Him. But Jesus is a very gentlemanly suitor, and He won't push more intimacy on us than we allow.

When John Paul II spoke about the roles of the two sexes in one of his general audiences between September 1979 and November 1984 that became collectively known as the Theology of the Body, he emphasized - quoting the same epistle in which St. Paul urges women to "submit to [their] husbands" - that men are called to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church" (Eph 5:22, 25). Apologist Christopher West, in his book Theology of the Body Explained, clarified the nature of that love and submission: "How did Christ love the Church? He 'gave Himself up for her' (v. 25). Christ said that He came not to be served but to serve, and to lay down His life for His Bride (see Mt. 20:28)" (West 319, emphasis in the original).

Women's submission, therefore, should consist in accepting that service, that gift of their husbands' lives. Similarly, the Pope went on to explain, a priest is called to give his life in service to His bride the Church, and we members of his flock are called to submit to his care and guidance, respecting him as the representative of Christ and trusting in his love for us and in the grace God supplies to him.

Tragically, however, marriage and other relationships - even that between a priest and his people - have been tainted by our long history of sin. If love is self-gift, John Paul II reasoned, its opposite is exploitation: selfishly using another. We see this all too clearly in our world, especially in sexual relations. But Divine Mercy tells us that redemption is possible, even redemption of our sin-mangled use of sexuality.

I believe we can learn how to live our true calling as men and women by contemplating the crucifix and the Divine Mercy image. On the cross, Jesus' body is completely exposed - a pure gift of self - and in the Divine Mercy image, He points to His heart. Life and light flow out of Him to fill us. He is doing nothing but giving. That is how we are called to love. And at the foot of the cross, Jesus' mother - grieved as she is and able to obtain anything from God - lets Him die for her, as St. Faustina, rejoicing in His sacrifice, bathes in the rays from His heart and lets Him guide her through life the way a mother holds her child's hands, teaching it to walk. That is how we are called to submit to love.

We may not experience the full redemption of our sexuality on this side of heaven, but with Divine Mercy as our model, we can discover the beauty of God's original plan for us as masculine and feminine beings. And when we do, we will trust Him more deeply as our loving Father and Bridegroom, fulfilling His desire that we submit to His love as His children and His Bride.

Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.

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