The sacramental covenant in the dimension of sign

At the general audience of Wednesday, 19 January, held in the Paul VI Hall, Pope John Paul delivered the following address.

Dear Brothers and Sisters:
This audience takes place on the second day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity among those who believe in Jesus Christ and await salvation from him. This is a moment of great ecclesial importance: I would like it to be profoundly shared by all the faithful of the Catholic Church and by Christians of the Churches and Communions still separated from us, to whom I send my affectionate and trustful greetings.

Inspired by the theme proposed to our reflection this year: "Jesus Christ, the life of the world" (cf.
1 Jn 1:1-4), we pray that he may enliven and unite to an ever greater extent those who believe in him. By his grace, supported by a persevering effort, composed of humility, charity and good will, we wish to arrive one day at that so much desired goal for which the Lord himself prayed: ''that they may be one" (Jn 17:11).

1. The texts of the prophets have great importance for understanding marriage as a covenant of persons (in the likeness of the Covenant of Yahweh with Israel) and, in particular, for the understanding of the sacramental covenant of man and woman in the dimension of sign. As already considered beforehand, the "language of the body" enters into the integral structure of the sacramental sign whose principal subject is man, male and female. The words of matrimonial consent constitute this sign, because there is found expressed in them the spousa1 significance of the body in its masculinity and femininity. Such a significance is expressed especially by the words: "I take you as my wife... my husband". Moreover, with these words there is confirmed the essential "truth" of the language of the body and there is also (at least indirectly, implicitly) excluded the essential "non-truth", the falsity of the language of the body. The body, in fact, speaks the truth through conjugal love, fidelity and integrity, just as non-truth, that is, falsity, is expressed by all that is the negation of conjugal love, fidelity and integrity. It can then be said that in the moment of pronouncing the words of matrimonial consent, the newly-weds set themselves on the line of the same "prophetism of the body", of which the ancient prophets were the mouthpiece. The "language of the body", expressed by the ministers of marriage as a sacrament of the Church, institutes the visible sign itself of the Covenant and of grace which, going back to its origin to the mystery of creation, is continually sustained by the power of the "redemption of the body", offered by Christ to the Church.

Perform act of prophetic character

2. According to the prophetic texts the human body speaks a "language", of which it is not the author. Its author is man who, as male and female, husband and wife, correctly re-reads the significance of this "language". He re-reads therefore that spousal significance of the body as integrally inscribed in the structure of the masculinity or femininity of the personal subject. A correct re-reading "in truth" is an indispensable condition to proclaim this truth, that is, to institute the visible sign of marriage as a sacrament. The spouses proclaim precisely this "language of the body", re-read in truth, as the content and principle of their new life in Christ and in the Church. On the basis of the "prophetism of the body" the ministers of the sacrament of marriage perform an act of prophetic character. They confirm in this way their participation in the prophetic mission of the Church received from Christ. A prophet is one who expresses in human words the truth coming from God, one who speaks this truth in the place of God, in his name and in a certain sense with his authority.

Matrimonial consent

3. All this applies to the newlyweds who, as ministers of the sacrament of marriage, institute the visible sign by the words of matrimonial consent, proclaiming the "language of the body", re-read in truth, as content and principle of their new life in Christ and in the Church. This "prophetic" proclamation has a complex character. The matrimonial consent is at the same time the announcement and the cause of the fact that, from now on, both will be before the Church and society husband and wife. (We understand such an announcement as an "indication" in the ordinary sense of the term). However, marriage consent has especially the character of a reciprocal profession of the newly-weds made before God. It is enough to examine the text attentively to be convinced that that prophetic proclamation of the language of the body, re-read in truth, is immediately and directly addressed to the "I" and the "you": by the man to the woman and by her to him. The central position in the matrimonial consent is held precisely by the words which indicate the personal subject, the pronouns "I" and "you". The "language of the body", re-read in the truth of its spousal significance, constitutes by means of the words of the newly-weds the union-communion of the persons. If the matrimonial consent has a prophetic character, if it is the proclamation of the truth coming from God and, in a certain sense, the statement of this truth in God's name, this is brought about especially in the dimension of the interpersonal communion, and only indirectly "before" others and "for" others.

Sacrament's visible sign

4. Against the background of the words spoken by the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, there stands the enduring "language of the body", which God "originated" by creating man as male and female: a language which has been renewed by Christ. This enduring "language of the body" carries within itself all the richness and depth of the mystery: first of creation and then of redemption. The spouses, bringing into being the visible sign of the sacrament by means of the words of their matrimonial consent, express therein "the language of the body" with all the profundity of the mystery of creation and of redemption (the liturgy of the sacrament of marriage offers a rich context of it). Re-reading in this way "the language of the body" the spouses not only enclose in the words of matrimonial consent the subjective fullness of the profession which is indispensable to bring about the sign proper to the sacrament, but they also arrive in a certain sense at the very sources from which that sign on each occasion draws its prophetic eloquence and its sacramental power. One must not forget that "the language of the body", before being spoken by the lips of the spouses, the ministers of marriage as a sacrament of the Church, was spoken by the word of the living God, beginning from the Book of Genesis, through the prophets of the Old Covenant, until the author of the Letter to the Ephesians.

Decision and choice

5. We use over and over again the expression "language of the body", harking back to the prophetic texts. In these texts, as we have already said, the human body speaks a  "language" of which it is not the author in the proper sense of the term. The author is man, male and female, who re-reads the true sense of that "language", bringing to light the spousal significance of the body as integrally inscribed in the very structure of the masculinity and femininity of the personal subject. This re-reading "in truth" of the language of the body already confers per se a prophetic character on the words of marriage consent by means of which man and woman bring into being the visible sign of marriage as a sacrament of the Church. However, these words contain something more than a simple re-reading in truth of that language spoken of by the femininity and masculinity of the newly-weds in their reciprocal relationship: "I take you as my wife... as my husband". In the words of matrimonial consent there are contained the intention, the decision and the choice. Both the spouses decide to act in conformity with the language of the body, re-read in truth. If man, male and female, is the author of that language, he is so especially inasmuch as he wishes to confer, and does indeed confer, on this behaviour and on his actions a significance in conformity with the re-read eloquence of the truth of masculinity and femininity in the mutual conjugal relationship.
Has lasting effect

6. In this sphere man is the cause of the actions which have per se clear-cut meanings. He is then the cause of the actions and at the same time the author of their significance. The sum total of those meanings constitutes in a certain sense the ensemble of the "language of the body" in which the spouses decide to speak to each other as ministers of the sacrament of marriage. The sign which they constitute by the words of matrimonial consent is not a mere immediate and passing sign, but a sign looking to the future which produces a lasting effect, namely, the marriage bond, one and indissoluble ("all the days of my life", that is, until death). In this perspective they should fulfil that sign of multiple content offered by the conjugal and family communion of the persons and also of that content which, originating from the "language of the body", is continually re-read in truth. In this way the essential "truth" of the sign will remain organically linked to the morality of matrimonial conduct. In this truth of the sign and, later, in the morality of matrimonial conduct, there is inserted with a view to the future the procreative significance of the body, that is, paternity and maternity of which we have previously treated. To the question: "Are you willing to accept responsibly and with love the children that God may give you and to educate them according to the law of Christ and of the Church?"—the man and the woman reply: "Yes".

 And now we postpone to later meetings further detailed examinations of the matter.

L'Osservatore Romano January 24, 1983
Reprinted with permission