In a previous post, I talked about the mission of the family, and how that mission is rooted in the vocation to love. Blessed John Paul II’s teaching on marriage reveals a deeper reality to the human vocation. He says that we are made for love, which is communion with others, and this call to communion is expressed even at the level of our bodies, because a human body is incomplete in itself, and only makes sense in connection to another body of the opposite sex. Blessed John Paul II calls this the nuptial meaning of the body, which means that each person is made for communion and this call to communion is written even in the body itself.
If we understand the body as having a nuptial meaning, how do we understand the life of Jesus Christ, or of Mary, or of many nuns, monks, and priests who have chosen to live celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? Even when we understand celibacy as a call to greater spiritual communion, those who are celibate do not seem to be fully living their personhood, that is, they seem to be entering into communion with others in a partial and incomplete way because their body is left out of the picture.
Blessed John Paul II teaches that celibacy and virginity, when offered to Christ, express in an authentic way not only the call to communion, but also the nuptial meaning of the body. In his letter to priests, he says,
In virginity and celibacy, chastity retains its original meaning, that is, of human sexuality lived as a genuine sign of and precious service to the love of communion and gift of self to others…In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life’
We can understand the nuptial gift though Jesus Christ. In His celibate life, He gives His own Body and Blood for the faithful. The Eucharist means that through His Body, Jesus enters into a deep and personal communion with every Catholic. The Eucharist is the highest possible expression of the nuptial meaning of the body. Mary shows us the counterpart of the nuptial meaning of the body: her virginity allows her to receive Jesus’ gift of Himself fully and completely. In receiving His gift, she becomes a gift to Him and a gift as mother for all Christians.
It should not be a surprise that the Church which treasures the Eucharist and honors Mary has always treasured celibacy and honored virginity. A man who makes a commitment to celibacy makes a gift of his own body to Christ, and becomes an expression of Jesus’ nuptial love for the Church. A woman who makes a commitment to virginity or to celibacy makes a gift of her own body to Christ, and becomes an expression of the Church’s nuptial love for Christ. This physical gift is exactly the meaning of celibacy. Remember that every Christian is called to love Jesus Christ more than father or mother, more than wife or children (Luke 14:26). The difference between celibacy and the call of every Christian is that the celibate Christian lives his or her love for Christ also in a physical and bodily way, and hence in a nuptial way. Hence the nuptial meaning of the body is present in a real and authentic way in celibate love.
In fact, our faith teaches that marriage itself is an incomplete form of love, when seen in comparison to what God has planned for us, and so is celibacy. The communion between husband and wife is only an imperfect expression of the communion of love which we await between Christ and His Church. Celibacy is a better expression of the fact that we are awaiting this consummation, but celibacy is nonetheless incomplete in this life and awaits its fullness in Heaven. The fact that our vocations are somewhat incomplete is a good thing to keep in mind on those days when the vocations seems annoyingly unfulfilling. +