Real Significance of Original Nakedness

Author: Pope John Paul II

Real Significance of Original Nakedness

Pope John Paul II


The following is the text of the Pope's General Audience address on 14 May, which was delivered in St. Peter's Basilica because of the bad weather.

1. We have already spoken of the shame which arose in the heart of the first man, male and female, together with sin. The first sentence of the biblical narrative concerning this runs as follows: "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons" (Gn 3:7). This passage, which speaks of the mutual shame of the man and the woman as a symptom of the fall (status naturae lapsae), must be considered in its context. At that moment shame reaches its deepest level and seems to shake the foundations of their existence. "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Gn 3:8).

The necessity of hiding themselves indicates that in the depths of the shame they both feel before each other, as the immediate fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a sense of fear before God has matured, a fear previously unknown. The "Lord God called to the man, and said to him, 'Where are you?' And he said, 'I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself'" (Gn 3:9-10).

A certain fear always belongs to the essence of shame. Nevertheless, original shame reveals its character in a particular way: "I was afraid, because I was naked." We realize that something deeper than physical shame, bound up with a recent consciousness of his own nakedness, is in action here. Man tries to cover the real origin of fear with the shame of his own nakedness. Thus he indicates its effect, in order not to call its cause by name. Then God-Yahweh says in his turn: "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" (Gn 3:11).

Man alienated from love

2. The precision of that dialogue is overwhelming; the precision of the whole narrative is overwhelming. It manifests the surface of man's emotions in living the events, in such a way as to reveal their depth at the same time. In all this, nakedness does not have solely a literal meaning. It does not refer only to the body; it is not the origin of a shame related only to the body. Actually, through nakedness, man deprived of participation in the gift is manifested, man alienated from that love which had been the source of the original gift, the source of the fullness of the good intended for the creature.

According to the formulas of the theological teaching of the Church,(1) this man was deprived of the supernatural and preternatural gifts which were part of his endowment before sin. Furthermore, he suffered a loss in what belongs to his nature itself, to humanity in the original fullness of the image of God. The three forms of lust do not correspond to the fullness of that image, but precisely to the loss, the deficiencies, the limitations that appeared with sin.

Lust is explained as a lack which has its roots in the original depth of the human spirit. If we wish to study this phenomenon in its origins, that is, at the threshold of the experiences of historical man, we must consider all the words that God-Yahweh addressed to the woman (Gn 3:16) and to the man (Gn 3:17-19). Furthermore, we must examine the state of their consciousness. The Yahwist text expressly enables us to do so. We have already called attention to the literary specificity of the text in this connection.

A radical change

3. What state of consciousness can be manifested in the words: "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself"? What interior truth do they correspond to? What meaning of the body do they testify to? Certainly this new state differs a great deal from the original one. The words of Genesis 3:10 witness directly to a radical change of the meaning of original nakedness. As we pointed out previously, in the state of original innocence nakedness did not express a lack. Rather, it represented full acceptance of the body in all its human and therefore personal truth.

The body, as the expression of the person, was the first sign of man's presence in the visible world. In that world, right from the beginning, man was able to distinguish himself, almost to be individualized—that is, confirm himself as a person—through his own body. It had been marked as a visible factor of the transcendence in virtue of which man, as a person, surpasses the visible world of living beings (animalia). In this sense, the human body was from the beginning a faithful witness and a tangible verification of man's original solitude in the world. At the same time, by means of his masculinity and femininity, it became a limpid element of mutual donation in the communion of persons.

In this way, the human body bore in itself, in the mystery of creation, an unquestionable sign of the image of God. It also constituted the specific source of the certainty of that image, present in the whole human being. In a way, original acceptance of the body was the basis of the acceptance of the whole visible world. In its turn it was for man a guarantee of his dominion over the world, over the earth, which he was to subdue (cf. Gn 1:28).

Loss of God's image

4. The words "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself" (Gn 3:10), witness to a radical change in this relationship. In a way, man loses the original certainty of the image of God, expressed in his body. He also loses to some extent the sense of his right to participate in the perception of the world, which he enjoyed in the mystery of creation. This right had its foundation in man's inner self, in the fact that he himself participated in the divine vision of the world and of his own humanity. This gave him deep peace and joy in living the truth and value of his own body, in all its simplicity, transmitted to him by the Creator: "God saw [that] it was very good" (Gn 1:31).

The words of Genesis 3:10, "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself," confirm the collapse of the original acceptance of the body as a sign of the person in the visible world. At the same time, the acceptance of the material world in relation to man also seems to be shaken. The words of God-Yahweh forewarn the hostility of the world, the resistance of nature with regard to man and his tasks. They forewarn the fatigue that the human body was to feel in contact with the earth subdued by him: "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken" (Gn 3:17-19). Death is the end of this toil, of this struggle of man with the earth: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3:19).

In this context, or rather in this perspective, Adam's words in Genesis 3:10, "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself," seem to express the awareness of being defenseless. They express the sense of insecurity of his bodily structure before the processes of nature, operating with inevitable determinism. Perhaps in this overwhelming statement a certain "cosmic shame" is implicit. In it, man's being created in the image of God and called to subdue the earth and dominate it (cf. Gn 1:28) expresses his own self. This happens precisely when, at the beginning of his historical experiences and in a manner so explicit, he is subjected to the earth, especially in the "part" of his transcendent constitution represented precisely by the body.

It is necessary to interrupt here our reflections on the meaning of original shame, in the book of Genesis. We will resume them in a week's time.


1) The Magisterium of the Church dealt more closely with these problems, in three periods, according to the needs of the age.
The declarations of the period of the controversies with the Pelagians (V-VI centuries) affirm that the first man, by virtue of divine grace, possessed "naturalem possibilitatem et innocentiam" (DS 239), also called "freedom" ("libertas," "libertas arbitrii"), (DS 371, 242, 383, 622). He remained in a state which the Synod of Orange (in the year 529) calls "integritas": "Natura humana, etiamsi in illa integritate, in qua condita est, permaneret, nullo modo se ipsam, Creatore suo non adiuvante, servaret..." (DS 389).
The concepts of integritas and, in particular, that of libertas, presuppose freedom from concupiscence, although the ecclesiastical documents of this age do not mention it explicitly.
The first man was furthermore free from the necessity of death (cf. DS 222, 372, 1511).
The Council of Trent defines the state of the first man, prior to sin, as "holiness and justice" ("sanctitas et iustitia"—DS 1511, 1512) or as "innocence" ("innocentia"—DS 1521).
Further declarations on this matter defend the absolute gratuitousness of the original gift of grace, against the affirmations of the Jansenists. The "integritas primae creationis" was an unmerited elevation of human nature ("indebita humanae naturae exaltatio") and not "the state due to him by nature" ("naturalis eius condicio"—DS 1926). God, therefore, could have created man without these graces and gifts (cf. DS 1955); that would not have shattered the essence of human nature and would not have deprived it of its fundamental privileges (cf. DS 1903-1907, 1909, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1955, 2434, 2437, 2616, 2617).
In analogy with the anti-Pelagian Synod, the Council of Trent deals above all with the dogma of original sin, integrating in its teaching preceding declarations in this connection. Here, however, a certain clarification was introduced, which partly changed the content comprised in the concept of liberum arbitrium. The "freedom" or "free will" of the anti-Pelagian documents did not mean the possibility of choice, connected with human nature, and therefore constant, but referred only to the possibility of carrying out meritorious acts, the freedom that springs from grace and that man may lose.
Because of sin, Adam lost what did not belong to human nature in the strict sense of the word, that is integritas, sanctitas, innocentia, iustitia. Liberum arbitrium, free will, was not taken away, but became weaker:
"...liberum arbitrium minime exstinctum...viribus licet attenuatum et inclinatum... (DS 1521--Trid. Sess. VI, Decr. de Justificatione, C. 1).
Together with sin appears concupiscence and the inevitability of death:
"...primum hominem...cum mandatum Dei...fuisset transgressus, statim sanctitatem et iustitiam, in qua constitutus fuerat, amisisse incurrisseque per offensam praevaricationis huismodi iram et indignationem Dei atque ideo cum morte captivatatem sub eius potestate, qui 'mortis' deinde 'habuit imperium'...'totumque Adam per illam praevaricationis offensam secumdum corpous et animam in deterius commutatum fuisse...'" (DS 1511, Trid. Sess. V, Decr. de Pecc. Orig. 1).
Cf. Mysterium Salutis, II, Einsiedeln-Zuirch-Köln 1967, pp. 827-828; W. Seibel, "Der Mensch als Gottes übernatürliches Ebenbild und der Urstand des Menschen."

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 May 1980, page 1

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