Christ's Redemptive Love Has Spousal Nature

Christ's Redemptive Love Has Spousal Nature

Pope John Paul II


During the general audience of 8 September, the Holy Father continued his exposition of the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians.

1. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes: "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body" (Eph 5:29-30). After this verse the author deems it opportune to cite what can be considered the fundamental text on marriage in the entire Bible, the text contained in Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (cf. Eph 5:31). It is possible to deduce from the immediate context of the Letter to the Ephesians that the citation from Genesis (2:24) is necessary here not so much to recall the unity of the spouses, determined from the beginning in the work of creation. But it is necessary to present the mystery of Christ with the Church from which the author deduces the truth about the unity of the spouses. This is the most important point of the whole text, in a certain sense, the keystone. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sums up in these words all that he had said previously, tracing the analogy and presenting the similarity between the unity of the spouses and the unity of Christ with the Church. Citing the words of Genesis 2:24, the author points out where the bases of this analogy are to be sought. They are to be sought in the line which, in God's salvific plan, unites marriage, as the most ancient revelation (manifestation) of the plan in the created world, with the definitive revelation and manifestation, the revelation that "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25), conferring on his redemptive love a spousal character and meaning.

Mystery of Christ and the Church

2. So then this analogy which permeates the text of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33) has its ultimate basis in God's salvific plan. This will become still more clear and evident when we place the passage of this text analyzed by us in the overall context of the Letter to the Ephesians. Then one will more easily understand why the author, after citing the words of Genesis 2:24, writes: "This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32).

In the overall context of the Letter to the Ephesians and likewise in the wider context of the words of the Sacred Scriptures, which reveal God's salvific plan "from the beginning," one must admit that here the term mystérion signifies the mystery, first of all hidden in God's mind, and later revealed in the history of man. Indeed, it is a question of a "great" mystery, given its importance. That mystery, as God's salvific plan in regard to humanity, is in a certain sense the central theme of all revelation, its central reality. God, as Creator and Father, wishes above all to transmit this to mankind in his Word.

Work of salvation

3. It is a question not only of transmitting the Good News of salvation, but of initiating at the same time the work of salvation, as a fruit of grace which sanctifies man for eternal life in union with God. Precisely along the line of this revelation and accomplishment, St. Paul sets in relief the continuity between the most ancient covenant which God established by constituting marriage in the work of creation, and the definitive covenant. After having loved the Church and given himself up for her, in that covenant Christ is united to her in a spousal way, corresponding to the image of spouses. This continuity of God's salvific initiative constitutes the essential basis of the great analogy contained in the Letter to the Ephesians. The continuity of God's salvific initiative signifies the continuity and even the identity of the mystery, of the great mystery in the different phases of its revelation—therefore, in a certain sense, of its manifestation—and at the same time of its accomplishment: in its "most ancient" phase from the point of view of the history of man and salvation, and in the phase "of the fullness of time" (Gal 4:4).

Understanding "great mystery"

4. Is it possible to understand that great mystery as a sacrament? In the text quoted by us, is the author of the Letter to the Ephesians speaking perchance of the sacrament of marriage? If he is not speaking of it directly, in the strict sense—here one must agree with the sufficiently widespread opinion of Biblical scholars and theologians—however it seems that in this text he is speaking of the bases of the sacramentality of the whole of Christian life and in particular of the bases of the sacramentality of marriage. He speaks then of the sacramentality of the whole of Christian existence in the Church and in particular of marriage in an indirect way, but in the most fundamental way possible.

Sacrament and mystery

3. Is not "sacrament" synonymous with "mystery"(1) The mystery indeed remains "occult"—hidden in God himself—in such wise that even after its proclamation (or its revelation) it does not cease to be called "mystery," and it is also preached as a mystery. The sacrament presupposes the revelation of the mystery and presupposes also its acceptance by means of faith on the part of man. However, at the same time, it is something more than the proclamation of the mystery and its acceptance by faith. The sacrament consists in the "manifesting" of that mystery in a sign which serves not only to proclaim the mystery, but also to accomplish it in man. The sacrament is a visible and efficacious sign of grace. Through it, that mystery hidden from eternity in God is accomplished in man, that mystery which the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of at the very beginning (cf. Eph 1:9)—the mystery of God's call of man in Christ to holiness, and the mystery of his predestination to become his adopted son. This becomes a reality in a mysterious way, under the veil of a sign. Nonetheless that sign is always a "making visible" of the supernatural mystery which it works in man under its veil.

Mystery hidden in God

6. Taking into consideration the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians analyzed here, especially the words: "This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church," one must note the following. The author of the letter writes not only of the great mystery hidden in God, but also—and above all—of the mystery which is accomplished by Christ. With an act of redemptive love, Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. By the same act he is united with the Church in a spousal manner, as the husband and wife are reciprocally united in marriage instituted by the Creator. It seems that the words of the Letter to the Ephesians provide sufficient motivation for what is stated at the very beginning of Lumen Gentium: "The Church is in Christ in the nature of a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium n.1). This text of Vatican II does not say: "The Church is a sacrament," but "It is in the nature of a sacrament." Thereby it indicates that one must speak of the sacramentality of the Church in a manner which is analogical and not identical in regard to what we mean when we speak of the seven sacraments administered by the Church by Christ's institution. If there are bases for speaking of the Church as in the nature of a sacrament, such bases for the greater part have been indicated precisely in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Mission to sanctify

7. It may be said that this sacramentality of the Church is constituted by all the sacraments by means of which she carries out her mission of sanctification. It can also be said that the sacramentality of the Church is the source of the sacraments and in particular of Baptism and the Eucharist. This can be seen from the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians which we have already analyzed (cf. Eph 5:25-30). Finally it must be said that the sacramentality of the Church remains in a particular relationship with marriage, the most ancient sacrament.


1. "Sacrament," a central concept for our reflections, has traveled a long way in the course of the centuries. The semantic history of the term "sacrament" must begin with the Greek term mystérion which, truth to tell, in the Book of Judith still means the king's military plans ("secret plan," cf. Jdt 2:2). But already in the Book of Wisdom (2:22) and in the prophecy of Daniel (2:27), the term signifies the creative plans of God and the purpose which he assigns to the world, and which are revealed only to faithful confessors.

In this sense mystérion  appears only once in the Gospels: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God" (Mk 4:11 and par.). In the great letters of St. Paul, this term is found seven times, reaching its climax in the Letter to the Romans: "...according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed..." (Rom 16:25-26).

In the later letters we find the identification of mystérion  with the Gospel (cf. Eph 6:19) and even with Jesus Christ himself (cf. Col 2:2; 4:3; Eph 3:4), which marks a turning point in the meaning of the term: mystérion  is no longer merely God's eternal plan, but the accomplishment on earth of that plan revealed in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in the Patristic period, the term mystérion  begins to be applied also to the historical events by which the divine will to save man was manifested. Already in the second century in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Sts. Justin and Meliton, the mysteries of the life of Jesus, the prophecies and the symbolic figures of the Old Testament are defined with the term mystérion .

In the third century the most ancient Latin versions of Sacred Scripture begin to appear, in which the Greek term is translated both by mysterium and by sacramentum (e.g., Wis 2:22; Eph 5:32). Perhaps this was to distance themselves explicitly from the pagan mystery rites and from the Neo-Platonic gnostic mystagogy.

However, sacramentum originally meant the military oath taken by the Roman legionaries. The aspects of "initiation to a new form of life," "commitment without reserve," "faithful service even at the risk of death" can be distinguished in it. Given this, Tertullian pointed out these dimensions in the Christian sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. In the third century, therefore, the term sacramentum was applied both to the mystery of God's salvific plan in Christ (cf., e.g., Eph 5:32), and to its concrete accomplishment by means of the seven sources of grace which are today called "sacraments of the Church."

St. Augustine, making use of various meanings of the term "sacrament," applied it to religious rites both of the old and the new covenant, to biblical symbols and figures as well as to the revealed Christian religion. All these "sacraments," according to St. Augustine, pertain to the great sacrament: the mystery of Christ and the Church. St. Augustine influenced the further clarification of the term "sacrament," emphasizing that the sacraments are sacred signs, that they contain in themselves a resemblance to what they signify and that they confer what they signify. By his analyses, he therefore contributed to the elaboration of the concise scholastic definition of sacrament: signum efficax gratiae.

St. Isidore of Seville (7th century) later stressed another aspect: the mysterious nature of the sacrament which, under the veils of material species, conceals the action of the Holy Spirit in the human soul.

The theological Summae of the 12th and 13th centuries already formulate the systematic definitions of the sacraments, but a special signification belongs to the definition of St. Thomas: "Non omne signum rei sacrae est sacramentum.... sed solum ea quae significant perfectionem sanctitatis humanae." "Not every sign of a sacred thing is a sacrament.... Only those are called sacraments which signify the perfection of holiness in man" (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, q. 60, a. 2, ad 1, 3 [ New York: Benziger, 1947]).

From then on, "sacrament" was understood exclusively as one of the seven sources of grace. Theological studies were directed to a deeper understanding of the essence and of the action of the seven sacraments, by elaborating in a systematic way the principal lines contained in the scholastic tradition.

Only in the last century was attention paid to the aspects of the sacrament which had been neglected in the course of the centuries, for example, to the ecclesial dimension and to the personal encounter with Christ, which have found expression in the Constitution on the Liturgy (no. 59). However, the Second Vatican council returns above all the original significance of "sacramentum-mysterium," calling the Church "the universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium 48), sacrament, or "sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium 1).

Here sacrament is understood—in conformity with its original meaning—as the accomplishment of God's eternal plan in regard to the salvation of mankind.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 September 1982, page 1

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