The redemptive and spousal dimensions of love

During the general audience of Wednesday, 15 December, in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father gave the following discourse.

1. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians, as we have already seen, speaks of a "great mystery", linked to the primordial sacrament through the continuity of God's saving plan. He also refers to the "beginning", as Christ did in his conversation with the Pharisees (cf. Mt 19:8), quoting the same words: ''Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). This "great mystery" is above all the mystery of the union of Christ with the Church which the Apostle presents under the similitude of the unity of the spouses: "I mean it in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32). We find ourselves in the domain of the great analogy in which marriage as a sacrament on thc one hand is presupposed, and on the other hand, rediscovered. It is presupposed as the sacrament of the "beginning" of mankind united to the mystery of the creation. It is, however, rediscovered as the fruit of the spousal love of Christ and of the Church linked with the mystery of the redemption.

Address to spouses

2. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians, addressing spouses directly, exhorts them to mould their reciprocal relationship on the model of the spousal union of Christ and the Church.  It can be said that—presupposing the sacramentality of marriage in its primordial significance—he orders them to learn anew this sacrament of the spousal unity of Christ and the Church: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her…" (cf. Eph 5:25-26).  This invitation addressed to Christian spouses by the Apostle is fully motivated by the fact that they, through marriage as a sacrament, participate in Christ's saving love which is expressed at the same time as his spousal love for the Church.  In the light of the Letter to the Ephesians—precisely through participation in this saving love of Christ—marriage as a sacrament of the human "beginning" is confirmed and at the same time renewed, that is, the sacrament in which man and woman, called to become "one flesh", participate in God's own creative love.  And they participate in it both by the fact that, created in the image of God, they are called by reason of this image to a particular union (communio personarum), and because this same union has from the beginning been blessed with the blessing of fruitfulness (cf. Gen 1:28).  

New depths of love

3. All this original and stable structure of marriage as a sacrament of thc mystery of
creation-according to the "classic" text of the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21-33)— is renewed in the mystery of the redemption, when that mystery assumes the aspect of the spousal love of the Church on the part of Christ. That original and stable form of marriage is renewed when the spouses receive it as a sacrament of the Church, drawing from the new depths of the love of man on the part of God, which is revealed and opened with the mystery of the redemption, "when Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…" (Eph 5:25-26). That original and stable image of marriage as a sacrament is renewed when Christian spouses-conscious of the authentic profundity of the "redemption of the body"—are united "out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21).

Fusing the dimensions

4. Thc Pauline image of marriage, inscribed in the "great mystery" of Christ and of the Church, brings together the redemptive dimension and the spousal dimension of love. In a certain sense it fuses these two dimensions into one. Christ has become the spouse of the Church, he has married the Church as a bride, because "he has given himself up for her" (Eph 5:25). Through marriage as a sacrament (as one of the sacraments of the Church) both these dimensions of love, the spousal and the redemptive, together with the grace of the sacrament, permeate the life of the spouses. The spousal significance of the body in its masculinity and its femininity, which was manifested for the first time in the mystery of creation against the background of man's original innocence, is linked in the image of the Letter to the Ephesians with the redemptive significance and in this way it is confirmed and in a certain sense "newly created".

Understanding the link

5. This is important in regard to marriage and to the Christian vocation of husbands and wives. The text of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33) is directly addressed to them and speaks especially to them. However, that linking of the spousal significance of the body with its "redemptive" significance is equally essential and valid for the understanding of man in general: for the fundamental problem of understanding him and for the self-comprehension of his being in the world. It is obvious that we cannot exclude from this problem the question on the meaning of being a body, on the sense of being, as a body, man and woman. These questions were posed for the first time in relation to the analysis of the human "beginning", in the context of the Book of Genesis. It was that very context, in a certain sense, that demanded that they should be posed.  It is equally demanded by the "classic" text of the letter to the Ephesians. And if the "great mystery" of the union of Christ to the Church obliges us to link the spousal significance of the body with its redemptive significance, in this link the spouses find the answer to the question concerning the meaning of "being a body", and not only they, although this text of the Apostle's Letter is addressed especially to them.

Explains by analogy

6. The Pauline image of the "great mystery" of Christ and of the Church also speaks indirectly of "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven", in which both dimensions of love, the spousal and redemptive, are reciprocally united in a way different from that of marriage, according to diverse proportions. Is not perhaps that spousal love wherewith Christ "loved the Church''—his bride—"and gave himself up for her", at the same time the fullest incarnation of the ideal of "celibacy for the kingdom of heaven" (cf. Mt 19:12)? Is not support found precisely in this by all those—men and women—who, choosing the same ideal, desire to link the spousal dimension of love with the redemptive dimension according to the model of Christ himself? They wish to confirm with their life that the spousal significance of the body—of its masculinity and femininity-profoundly inscribed in the essential structure of the human person, has been opened in a new way on the part of Christ and with the example of his life, to the hope united to the redemption of the body. Thus, then, the grace of the mystery of the redemption bears fruit also—rather bears fruit in a special way—with the vocation to celibacy "for the kingdom of heaven".

7. The text of the Letter to thc Ephesians (5:22-33) does not speak of it explicitly. It is addressed to spouses and constructed according to the image of marriage, which by analogy explains the union of Christ with the Church: a union in both redemptive and spousal love together. Is it not perhaps precisely this love which, as the living and vivifying expression of the mystery of the redemption, goes beyond the circle of the  recipients of the letter circumscribed by the analogy of marriage. Does it not embrace every man and, in a certain sense, the whole of creation as indicated by the Pauline text on the "redemption of the body" in the Letter to the Romans (cf. Rom 8:23)? The "great sacrament" in this sense is in fact a new sacrament of man in Christ and in the Church: the sacrament "of man and of the world", just as the creation of man, male and female, in the image of God, was the original sacrament of man and of the world. In this new sacrament of redemption marriage is organically inscribed, just as it was inscribed in the original sacrament of creation.

Fulfilment of the kingdom

8. Man, who "from the beginning" is male and female, should seek the meaning of his existence and the meaning of his humanity by reaching out to the mystery of creation through the reality of redemption. There one finds also the essential answer to the question on the significance of the human body, and the significance of the masculinity and femininity of the human person. The union of Christ with the Church permits us to understand in what way the spousal significance of the body is completed with the redemptive significance, and this in the diverse ways of life and in diverse situations: not only in marriage or in "continency" (that is, virginity and celibacy), but also, for example, in the many forms of human suffering, indeed, in the very birth and death of man. By means of the "great mystery" of which the Letter to the Ephesians treats, by means of the new covenant of Christ with the Church, marriage is again inscribed in that "sacrament of man" which embraces the universe, in the sacrament of man and of the world which, thanks to the forces of the "redemption of the body" is modelled on the spousal love of Christ for the Church, to the measure of the definitive fulfilment of the kingdom of the Father.

Marriage as a sacrament remains a living and vivifying part of this saving process.

L'Osservatore Romano December 20, 1982
Reprinted with permission