The Body as Sacrament of Love: In My Flesh I Shall See God

Conor Sweeney

Featured Image: Gerard Seghers, The Patient Job, first half of 17th century; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

Paper delivered at the 2021 Veritas Amoris Conference “The Truth of Love: A Paradigm Shift for Moral Theology,” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, USA, on June 26, 2021.

What Is the Truth of the Body?

This question is by no means new; the body, emblematic in so many ways of the tragedy and folly of finitude and temporality, has long presented itself to human reason as one of the perennial anthropological riddles. Today, however, under the pressure of the cultural alliance between “expressive individualism”—the “notion that each of us has an original way of being human [that] entails that each of us has to discover what it is to be ourselves”[1]—and the technological ability to realize this imperative in unheard of ways, the question of the truth of the body has never been more urgent.

It is in this context that the present reflection seeks to approach anew the horizon opened by Pope John Paul II’s perspective on the body as “sacrament.” What follows is an attempt to explicate the claim that the essential truth of the body revealed in its givenness is love. That is, the body, in the pope’s evocative words, is “a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity.”[2] What is this mystery? The “mystery of Truth and Love,” continues John Paul II, “the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates.” I propose to frame this mystery—and, perhaps, drill a little deeper into its heart—by recourse, first, to certain resources offered by phenomenology, and second, to those offered by the Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the Person of God the Son. The goal is to show just how deeply the body is implicated in the mystery of human identity, action, and the eternal love offered to man by the mystery of God’s assuming of the human nature in the Son.

Original and Revealed Givenness

I begin by sketching the horizon of what is primordially “given” to human experience, within which the primal phenomenon of “body” is located and by which the truth of the human body will begin to come into view. Now, by what is “given” I mean something like the phenomenologist’s emphasis on phenomena and experience as the site of the real “given” to human perception, that subsequently forms for us our “world” and its horizon of interpretation. Here, the “given” or “givenness” means, simply, that which enters the phenomenal field of human perception or that which is made accessible to experience. For the phenomenologist the real manifested in givenness appears above all in the dynamism of action—within the embodied and temporal interplay of communication or relations and not just in what is given in “substances” in the abstract. The real, in this sense, fundamentally gives itself as an “event” of relation in time, as a “happening” in which the most real, so to speak, appears as that which is diffusive, ecstatic, relational, and particular (for example, in this perspective, we could say that the “reality” of the bare physiological phenomenon of a smile in itself pales in comparison to what is given in the phenomenon of a reciprocal exchange of smiles between, say, a mother and child). And, as event, the real gives itself to be known above all in the horizon of experience, in the perception of being within its lived expression. This entire horizon, which constitutes the anthropological ground of the real and in which “body” is of the essence, we can simply call “original givenness.”

But to be consistent in accepting the real as that which gives and is given, one must also be open to the phenomenon of revelation, an unpredictable and unprecedented “event” of the “given” that unlike “common-law” instances of givenness, in the language of Jean-Luc Marion, emerges “freely and suddenly from itself” and thus appears “only as gift.”[3] What we can here name “revealed givenness” is distinguishable from events within original givenness inasmuch as an event of revelation does not have an absolute origin reducible to said original givenness, and is thus “other” in a radical way and so completely original and transcendent.

And yet the novelty of the Christian phenomenon of revelation is that in it we have an event of radical originality and transcendence that even in its otherness gives itself within the conditions of original givenness. That is, though the Son assumes human nature without “confusion, change, division, or separation” of the divine nature, the divinity is nevertheless given as a genuine phenomenon within the conditions of original givenness. In the Son, God takes on flesh, not just temporarily, conditionally, or in the mode of mere appearance as, for instance, a virtual avatar might resemble a human being without being one, but really and truly so that in the man Jesus what is human is divine; and what is divine is human. Here, then, we are dealing with something like Marion’s “saturated phenomenon,” that is, “a phenomenon that gives (itself) according to a maximum of phenomenality.”[4] In this case, because of the mystery of the hypostatic union, of the eternal union of the divine and human natures in the person of the Son, we can say that the divinity is a genuine phenomenon: divinity is truly given, really participates in, and fully belongs to the theatre of original givenness. The further mystery here, beyond that of the Son who takes on a human nature, suffusing it and saturating it to excess so that the humanity borne by Christ can become the very “instrument of the Godhead,” as St. Thomas puts it, echoing John Damascene,[5] is that in this hypostatic event lies the precedent for the saturation of our humanity with divinity.

But if the Son’s assuming of human nature is accomplished without confusion, change, division, or separation as regards divinity, it is also accomplished without the same as regards what is expressly and specifically human; it is this latter point which is crucial for us here. Even as it is saturated to excess by divinity, receiving new powers and possibilities from it, human nature retains its essential distinction as that which belongs to original givenness; that which is not God. That is, in acquiring a new likeness to God by virtue of what will be given him by the mystery of Christ, man does not for all that cease to be himself, just as Christ’s human nature retains what is proper to it as human despite its union with divinity. By becoming man, then, God submits himself to the measure of this sovereign distinction—though divine, he “does not cease to be a man among men”[6]—, and by it, “makes space” for what is human within what is God. “It is therefore a mistake,” says Balthasar, “to interpret the exaltation of Christ one-sidedly, so as to make his position above his ‘brothers’, the other sharers in human nature, so unique as to endanger what they have in common.”[7] So, in Irenaean language, it remains true to say that in the Son God truly became man (without losing his divinity), just as by the gift of grace we are also enabled to say that man can truly become God (without losing his humanity). It is of course in the mystery of what the Son accomplishes by virtue of a humanity that has become the instrument of divinity that we will discover the precise conditions for what it means for man to become God by grace; that is, by sharing in the Son’s filial relation to the Father by the mystery of election and adoption. Therefore, we can say that divinity appears or is given as an event of excess within the spatiotemporal ontological fabric of original givenness, kind of like the way a child who emerges from the union of the couple is both eminently recognizable as their child but also radically novel and unique as a being who is not reducible to them—simultaneously the most “intimate” and the most “foreign,” as Marion puts it.[8]

And this, then, is what it means to say that the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He becomes one of us and dwells with us, not in the unconditioned splendor of his own eternal and infinite being (which, according to the Scriptures, man cannot look upon without dying (cf. Ex 33:22)), but by inhabiting a space and a time—a body—like ours in our world, so to redeem, glorify, and retain it for all eternity. So, as Emmanuel Falque puts it, “Christ does not save me by words first of all, but by his body.”[9]

All of this, of course, is the basis for what we call the “sacramental economy”: an economy or embodied field made up of the forms of original givenness which now, in and through the extended mediation of Christ’s humanity, continues to signify and confer the mystery of the revealed givenness made flesh in a moment of time in the Son. Without loss of their created integrity (without confusion, change, division, or separation), things, words, and persons of the original economy of givenness are “saturated” with the mystery of revealed givenness by the mystery Christ’s human and divine flesh united and poured out for us, and so are in a new way “indwelt” (John 14:16-17), “transfigured” (Matt 17:1-13), “transubstantiated” (cf. Matt 26:26), made into a “temple” (1 Cor. 6:15-20), a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). “For in Christ,” says St. Paul, “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). “He who has seen me,” says our Lord, “has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Therefore, says St. Paul again, “present your [own] bod[y] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).

The point of all of this is simply to affirm the extent to which embodied, temporal, and historical givenness constitutes the enduring human field of meaning. For us, coming to truth is and remains an embodied process that ends, not at any point in the overcoming of the body, but in a God who takes on the conditions of our bodily existence and by it redeems space, time, and flesh, incorporating the body into God for all eternity. In saturating original givenness to excess, a new order of meaning is established, by which this original givenness is enabled to “signify,” “confer,” and “make present” a mystery that transcends it.

The Body as Sacrament of Love

But what, exactly, is the meaning of this body as the space within which God has spoken and made himself known, and where man comes to the essential realization of his essence? What essential truth in se and pro nobis has been “given” within the mystery of a God who has assumed a body for all eternity, and within the mystery of an embodied economy where divinity has accordingly allowed itself to be seen, touched, tasted, and heard?

The first thing we can say here is that the horizon of original and revealed givenness sketched above strongly underscores that “union” rather than “thought” constitutes the directional arrow of the given; not that thought, of course, can be opposed to union. But if we take the language of “assuming” as paradigmatic—of the Son assuming our nature, and of man’s subsequent ability by baptism to “put on” or “clothe” himself in Christ (cf. Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27) so as to enter into participation in God himself—then it is union that specifies thought; or, it is thought that serves union. Christ does not come—does not assume our nature—to make man a better “thinker,” but rather to incorporate man’s whole being into the mystery of his relation to the Father; a “personal” relation whose essence is being related.[10] The Logos, the Word—that which is thought and speech—is Love.

This primal truth can be approached anthropologically, first, by attention to the essential lack, need, dependency, contingency, relativity, openness, and vulnerability that belongs to being a body within the field of its original givenness. Here, the phenomenon of origin by birth reveals an ontological receptivity at the heart of the economy of givenness. As body, existence has a point of origin in time and space that is always a product of and demarcated by the initiative and mediation of others. I exist only “from” and “through” the other. I “appear,” I am “given,” not at my own behest or through some sovereign act of freedom, but as pure “gift;” filial gift. In this way, just as we saw revelation appear as “gift”—as the radically and excessively given—so too does existence itself, the original gift or grace, stand within what John Paul II calls the “hermeneutics of the gift.”[11] By this he means that in its origin and constitution, created existence is “a fundamental and ‘radical’ gift, that is, an act of giving in which the gift comes into being precisely from nothing.”[12] Standing thus under the sign of ex nihilo, stretched out over the “nothing” of non-being, existence “is” only within its condition as a gift from and in relation to the one who has given it. The point, then, again, is that “body” is the revealing of this essential and abiding ontological truth, namely, that that which is given, that which is created, exists and can discover itself only within the filial hermeneutics of gift.

For John Paul II, it is the primeval experience of “solitude” that brings man to this realization.[13] That is, to reflect on original givenness within the context of the “original experiences” of Genesis, we see that it is through an experience of lack, an experience of being alone in the visible world as a “body among bodies”[14] by which the “original man” of our theological prehistory is led to perceive the “other” as the constitutive horizon, not just of origin, but also of fulfillment. Within the experiential field of man’s psycho-somatic being-in-the-visible-world—in which the dynamism of sexual differentiation and desire are pivotal—man is existentially “moved” or “disturbed” within himself. He is moved by certain limits imposed by the fact that he is a body: by the realization that “alone” he cannot support, sustain, and realize himself as the being that he is. The Genesis text makes clear that this sense of insufficiency and lack as a “body among bodies” in the world leads to man’s awareness that he is “set into a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself[15] on the basis of his “self-consciousness and self-determination,”[16] (man is indeed a “thinker”) and thus possesses a capacity for a “transcendence” whereby he “rules his ‘visibility’ in the world.”[17]

However, what is significant about man’s essentially free, rational, and spiritual nature and consequent discovery of transcendence is that it is entirely contingent upon the dramatic structure of the embodied field of givenness which surrounds him. Moreover, even after this discovery, the text gives no indication that man, as spiritual being, ought now to leave (“transcend”) the realm of the given and the bodily. That is, man does not conclude that a free and conscious being does not properly belong to the visible world and should thus seek to escape the conditions of embodied being by some promethean and solipsistic pursuit of “spirit” outside of the terms of the given (this will, of course, come later at the prompting of the Serpent, and will remain the perennial aspiration of fallen man). Rather, it is by a subsequent embrace of the terms of the embodied given that man will discover the full extent of what it means to be a being who “alone” cannot realize his essence.

In turning back thus to the deeply bodily structure of givenness we discover a full “fleshing” out of what it means to both belong to the visible world and transcend it. It is of course another profound phenomenon within the fabric of original givenness, namely, the appearance of “woman”—“bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23)—as an answer to the man’s solitude that we see a “making visible” or revealing of what it means to be human. To put it very simply, the perfection of being is revealed as here as a “nuptial” reality, as a “fusion”[18] or “blending”[19] of existences as Ratzinger expresses it, a bodily, affective, psychological, intersubjective, and spiritual fusion which can be otherwise stated as revealing the primacy of relation, union, communio, koinonia, or of course, LOVE. Love, it can be said, is a kind of “transcendence” or excess of the given not, however, in the sense of a negation of either my subjectivity or of the economy of the given within which it is manifested and realized, but rather as an expansion of my being and an expansion of givenness realized in and through the other.

Now, in this embodied structure of love found in the horizon of “the beginning” where, in discovering each other, man and woman also more deeply discover God, there exists already a “seam” in the given that, in the “fullness of time,” will be saturated to excess in the hypostatic union and incarnation: in the Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). For in the mystery of “one flesh” between man and woman, in which the fullness of my identity is found in and through the other, there is already a diffusive and ecstatic logic of a “third,” of an ekstasis within love that saturates and expands the horizon of the two. “Where you see love,” says St. Augustine, “you see three.”[20] It is precisely by becoming a “third” to excess, we might say, in taking on human nature by being born of a woman and so entering into the embodied fabric of givenness via the initiative of love (“For God so loved the world…” [John 3:16]) that the givenness of the beginning is saturated to an extent that allows it to enter into the mystery of God himself.

With all of this, then, we are poised to crystalize what it means to say that the body is “sacrament of love.” What we have said already can be summarized in a succinct formula from John Paul II: “the body reveals man.”[21] That is, first, it is within the embodied and experiential field of givenness, by what is “signified” and “made present” therein that man comes to the realization of who he is; thus the deeply “sacramental” logic of existence even from the beginning. Second, precisely what is revealed herein is that man is “a being that is, also in its bodiliness, ‘similar’ to God.” This point of similarity is above all to be found in man’s capacity for love, a capacity for communion with God that is written into the structure of masculinity and femininity and by which man is able “overcome the frontier of solitude.”[22]

Therefore, it is in this sense that we can speak, as John Paul II does, of the body of original givenness itself as sacrament that reveals and confers the love that is the truth of God. Within the mystery of body in “the beginning,” specifically, the mystery of the “spousal meaning of the body,”[23] John Paul II says there is constituted a “primordial sacrament… understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from all eternity.”[24] The body in its essential created structure is the original revealing, giving, showing forth, happening, and conferral that even in the original horizon of givenness already communicated and made present “the mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life…”. This Truth and Love that man discovers and participates in through his body is nothing less than the economy of “communion” found in the “inscrutable divine communion of persons.”[25] So, then, the body was from the beginning both a sign that made visible this love convertible with truth and a “sacrament” that conferred it as “grace” in the context of man’s “beatifying beginning.”

With this, we can circle back to the mystery of that most “intimate” and most “foreign” event of revealed givenness that in the fullness of time saturated the body to even greater excess, bestowing upon it its complete signifying and conferring range. It is via that “seam” in the body’s original constitution as sacrament of the mystery of Truth and Love—it is no accident that John Paul II calls marriage in the beginning the “foundation of the whole sacramental order[26]—that the hypostatic and incarnate Son brings about a full “saturation” of original givenness, not by allowing man to escape the body that of course by now is wracked with sin, but by a baptismal, eucharistic, liturgical, filial, nuptial, and ecclesial “redemption of the body” (Rom 8:23), a saturation of our bodies with a “maximum of phenomenality” the essential of which is Truth is Lovegiven up” and “poured out” (Luke 22:19-20).

This redemptive and recapitulative event of fusion or saturation thus “re-signifies” the body of original givenness, permeating it with the mystery of the divine nature made flesh in Christ. By our immersion in Christ’s death and resurrection by baptism, then, by our new Spirit-filled sharing in Christ’s relation to the Father as Son (cf. Gal 3:26), our bodies now speak the “language” of that particular body “given up for us,” that body lived in perfect filial obedience to the Father and faithful spousal love for the Church, that unique hypostatic body that reveals not just man, but God. Notably, the baptized body speaks this profoundly Christological and Trinitarian language in the context of sacramental marriage which, infused with the “Great Mystery” of Christ’s offering of his body for the Church, now signifies and confers this mystery to the husband and wife, the ministers of the sacrament. And all of this is only the beginning of that full “spiritualization” and “divinization” of the body in the world to come, when the language of the body will be fully realized in the absolute “permeation of what is essentially human by what is essentially divine… according to the measure of union with God in his trinitarian mystery and of intimacy with him in the perfect communion of persons.”[27] Love, then, is the essential meaning, signification, and truth of the body.

And, finally, it is thus in the body that the essential meaning of freedom and moral action emerge, as dynamisms that aim towards the perfecting of the truth of love. The “acting person”—especially the baptized acting person situated, not just amidst the forms of original givenness, but also bearing the forms of revealed givenness in his flesh—finds himself within a world really tasting and touching a mystery of truth that, as embodied, is eminently given, eminently real, and eminently and intrinsically connected to me and who I am and have become in the core of my being. The acting person always finds him or herself already “thrown” into this world where the given precedes them and measures them according to its truth, so that, as Jordan Peterson has put it, “You can’t twist the fabric of reality without it snapping back at you.” The measure of action, then, is fundamentally dramatic, and by the measure of revealed givenness given to us by baptism, intrinsically sacramental and hypostatic—by it we really participate in a truth that is our good and find ourselves immersed within it, because this truth has been “given”; it has been “made flesh and dwelt among us.” And the truth that has been given—as the body reveals—is nothing less than the eternal love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, fuller treatment of the body as sacrament would obviously require also a phenomenology of the fallen body, that “body of death” (Rom 6:6), and of the “flesh” (Gal 5:16-17) in the Pauline sense, as well as the temporally situated instinctual and affective body created “out of the dust of the earth” (Gen 2:7), not to mention confrontation with the cultural body situated in history and subject, especially today, to the coercive secular liturgies and parodies of the body; all of these are no mere “accidents” when it comes to the challenge of concretely living the truth of the body. Nevertheless, within the mystery of original givenness and its saturation with the maximum phenomenality of revealed givenness, we have seen how through the Son the body in its deepest reality has been “given” and “gives” itself as a sign and presence of the Truth and Love that exists in the fullness of God himself as a trinitarian communion of persons.

And so, amidst the pathos of our age, let us therefore make the hope of the long-suffering Job our own: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25).

  1. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), 61.

  2. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline, 2006), 203.

  3. Jean-Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 80.

  4. Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Towards a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 234.

  5. Cf. ST III, Q. 7, a. 1, ob. 3; ST III, Q. 8, a. 1, ad. 1.

  6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 16.

  7. Ibid., 16-17.

  8. Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 199-200.

  9. Emmanuel Falque, “Christ Doesn’t Save Us by Words First of All, but by His Body” (Church Life Journal, 2018) Online:

  10. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 183.

  11. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 179 (13.2).

  12. Ibid., 180 (13.3).

  13. Ibid., 146-156 (5-7).

  14. Ibid, 152 (6.3).

  15. Ibid., 151 (6.2).

  16. Ibid, 151 (6.1).

  17. Ibid., 203 (19.3).

  18. Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 37.

  19. Joseph Ratzinger, “Eucharist and Mission,” in Collected Works. Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 338.

  20. St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book VIII, chapter 10.

  21. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 164 (9.4).

  22. Ibid., 162 (9.2).

  23. Cf. Ibid., 178-191 (13-16).

  24. Ibid., 203 (19.4).

  25. Ibid., 163 (9.3).

  26. Ibid., 503 (95.7). Identifying marriage as primordial in a similar way, Balthasar says “the sacrament of Marriage is not some sort of neutral supernatural blessing on a ‘natural institution’’; rather, it contains within itself the true meaning, the true substance of marriage, made living by Christ himself as the subsistent covenant; and this reality of marriage draws men into that relationship between the Lord and his Church which is the foundation and justification for every marriage.” A Theology of History, 96.

  27. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 392-91 (67.3).

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Conor Sweeney

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The Veritas Amoris Project focuses on the truth of love as a key to understanding the mystery of God, the human person and the world, convinced that this perspective provides an integral and fruitful pastoral approach.

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