Perhaps we think of tension as an evil always to be avoided. The bodybuilding supremoCharles Atlas would have disagreed. Observing big cats stretching their limbs at the zoo he asked himself: “Did you ever see a tiger with a barbell?” Inspired, Atlas then developed his ‘dynamic tension’ exercise program that was taken up by Kung-Fu guru Bruce Lee and boxing legend Joe Louis, among others. It is founded on the simple principle of tensing muscles in the body while moving against them.
Dynamic tension can also have a role to play in toning the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. We might keep this in mind as October’s Synod on the Family in Rome approaches, as the media presents differing points of view in terms of political warfare. Tension can actually make the body stronger.
In the Gospels, we see a pattern of tension in the interactions between Our Lord and many of His listeners, and especially with the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem. The more He reveals of His mission and of His divine identity, the more the opposition against Him swells. In the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel, He is condemned for healing a paralysed man on the Sabbath. In response to this criticism, He says to His detractors: “My Father is working still, and I am working.” On hearing this “the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but made Himself equal with God.” His reaction to this is to push the point of His equality with the Father even further: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father.”
What is revealed in the Gospel, then, is the following dynamic of tension: 1. Our Lord proposes doctrine; 2. A number of His listeners are severely rattled; 3. Our Lord counters their opposition not by softening His message in order to defuse the hostility, but by expounding on the controverted doctrine with even greater clarity and force than before. The end result: there remains little room for doubt regarding His meaning, and out of the murkiness of ignorance comes the pure nutritious milk of Catholic doctrine. His enemies, meanwhile, harden their resolve to bring Him down.
On Good Friday this interplay culminates in a political intrigue among the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem which secures the Crucifixion of God the Son. Our Lord accepts this consequence of telling the truth. The grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies on Calvary bursts back into life on Easter Sunday, and His Gospel of salvation explodes with irrepressible vigour at Pentecost.
The Church follows Our Lord in this mission of fearless and unembarrassed proclamation of the Gospel. Many are the instances in history in which the ‘dynamic of tension’ has borne fruits that have enriched our understanding of the Faith and our devotion. In the 5th Century, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, downplayed the role of Our Lady in salvation history. Arguing that She gave birth to Our Lord’s human but not His divine nature, Nestorius proposed that the Blessed Virgin should be properly honoured with the title Christokos (Christ-bearer). At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., the Church not only condemned Nestorius’ teaching as heresy on the grounds that Our Lady gave birth not to a nature but to a person, and the divine and human natures of Our Lord are united within that one divine Person; She also honoured Our Lady with the highest possible title of Theotokos (God-bearer), so that henceforth She would be hailed as Mother of God.
In the 16th Century, the dogma of Transubstantiation came under assault when significant parts of Christendom protested that what was bread at the beginning of Mass remained bread after the words of Consecration. The Church wasted no effort searching for a ‘middle way’ to accommodate the dissenters. Neither was She satisfied in merely restating Her doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass and on the substantial transformation of bread into Our Lord’s living Body and Blood. She went further than this and promoted the Forty Hours Devotion, in which the Sacred Host is honoured with maximum solemnity, and the faithful are invited to lavish on the Blessed Sacrament the adoration that is due to Almighty God alone. This was not for the sake of being provocative, but rather because She saw in the controversy a God-given opportunity to promote devotion to the most precious gift that Our Lord has given us on earth – the gift of His own Self as food to nourish and sanctify us.
In pushing the point of Transubstantiation to its logical conclusion, the Church is faithful to Her divine Spouse. Nowhere is the ‘dynamic of tension’ more evident than in the 6th chapter of St John’s Gospel. When Our Lord announces “I am the bread of life”, there is indignation among the Jews. He counters their murmuring by repeating His initial claim with even greater emphasis: “If any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The tension escalates until many of the disciples beg Our Lord to back down: His popularity after the miracle of the feeding of the multitude is at an all-time high, they argue; how can He throw it all away by insisting on this “hard saying” that no one wants to hear? But Our Lord presses on, so that “after this many of His disciples drew back and no longer went about with Him.” The lesson here is surely that we are never to sacrifice the truth for popular acclaim.
Elsewhere we find the ‘dynamic of tension’ at work on the subject of marriage. In the 19th chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees question Our Lord on divorce. He replies that after marriage a couple is “no longer two, but one”, adding: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The Pharisees retort that even Moses allowed for the possibility of divorce. Our Lord responds: “For your hardness of hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” The disciples complain that this hard-line approach makes marriage sound such a formidable undertaking that it does not seem worth the trouble. Our Lord refuses to back-peddle. He has come to give us new hearts. As a result of this particular ‘dynamic tension’ we are left in no doubt about the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
We should pray hard for the Synod on the Family, and not waste energy fretting over what the press might have to say. One hears the suggestion that the best possible outcome in October can only be a soggy compromise that somehow preserves the integrity of doctrine. The assumption seems to be that the only alternative to such a trade-off is the disunity that will erupt if different schools of thought fail to reach an agreement. This surely underestimates the action of the Holy Ghost. Speaking at a press conference, His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols reminded us of the real purpose of the Synod: “on the one hand to give a resounding trumpet call in support of marriage and the stability of family life, and on the other hand to express and strengthen the pastoral response of the Church in a wide variety of difficult and pressurised situations.” Let us pray, then, not for a lacklustre compromise, but rather for a divinely-inspired consensus that gives a renewed credibility and persuasiveness to the Church’s witness to the Gospel.
Fr Julian Large