Marital Love Reflects God's Love for His People

Author: Pope John Paul II

Marital Love Reflects God's Love for His People

Pope John Paul II


At the general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 28 July, the Holy Father began a new phase of his catechesis on the theology of the body, drawing from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians to begin a series of talks on matrimony.

1. Today we begin a new chapter on the subject of marriage, reading the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians:

"Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.' This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband" (Eph 5:21-33).

Simple and fundamental

2. We should now subject to deep analysis the quoted text contained in this fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, just as we have previously analyzed the individual words of Christ that seem to have a key significance for the theology of the body. The analysis dealt with the words with which Christ recalled the beginning (cf. Mt 19:4; Mk 10:6), the human heart, in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:28), and the future resurrection (cf. Mt 22:30; Mk 12:25; Lk 20:35). What is contained in the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians constitutes almost a crowning of those other concise key words. The theology of the body has emerged from them along its evangelical lines, simple and at the same time fundamental. In a certain sense it is necessary to presuppose that theology in interpreting the above-mentioned passage of the Letter to the Ephesians. Therefore if we want to interpret that passage, we must do so in the light of what Christ told us about the human body. He spoke not only to remind historical man, and therefore man himself, who is always contemporary, about concupiscence (in his heart). But he also spoke to reveal, on the one hand, the prospectives of the beginning or original innocence or justice, and on the other hand, the eschatological prospectives of the resurrection of the body, when "They will neither marry nor be given in marriage" (cf. Lk 20:35). All of this is part of the theological viewpoint of the "redemption of our body" (Rom 8:23).

Meanings converge

3. Even the words of the author of the Letter to the Ephesians(1) are centered on the body, both its metaphorical meaning, namely the Body of Christ which is the Church, and its concrete meaning, namely the human body in its perennial masculinity and femininity, in its perennial destiny for union in marriage, as Genesis says: "The man will leave his father and his mother and will cling to his wife and the two will be one flesh" (Gn 2:24).

In what way do these two meanings of the body appear together and converge in the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians? Why do they appear together and converge there? We must ask these questions, expecting not so much immediate and direct answers, but possibly studied and long-term answers for which our previous analyses have prepared. In fact, that passage from the Letter to the Ephesians cannot be correctly understood except in the full biblical context, considering it as the crowning of the themes and truths which, through the Word of God revealed in Sacred Scripture, ebb and flow like long waves. They are central themes and essential truths. Therefore the quoted text from the Letter to the Ephesians is also a key and classic text.

4. This text is well known in the liturgy, in which it always appears in relation to the sacrament of marriage. The Church's lex orandi sees in it an explicit reference to this sacrament, and the lex orandi presupposes and at the same time always expresses the lex credendi. Admitting this premise, we must immediately ask ourselves: in this classic text of the Letter to the Ephesians, how does the truth about the sacramentality of marriage emerge? In what way is it expressed and confirmed there? It will become clear that the answers to these questions cannot be immediate and direct, but gradual and long-term. This is proved even at a first glance at this text, which brings us back to Genesis and therefore to "the beginning." In the description of the relationship between Christ and the Church, this text takes from the writings of the Old Testament prophets the well-known analogy of the spousal love between God and his chosen people. Without examining these relationships it would be difficult to answer the question about how the sacramentality of marriage is dealt with in the Letter to the Ephesians. We will also see how the answer we are seeking must pass through the whole sphere of the questions previously analyzed, that is, through the theology of the body.

Body enters into definition of sacrament

5. The sacrament or the sacramentality—in the more general sense of this term—meets with the body and presupposes the theology of the body. According to the generally known meaning, the sacrament is a visible sign. The body also signifies that which is visible. It signifies the visibility of the world and of man. Therefore, in some way, even if in the most general way, the body enters the definition of sacrament, being "a visible sign of an invisible reality," that is, of the spiritual, transcendent, divine reality. In this sign—and through this sign—God gives himself to man in his transcendent truth and in his love. The sacrament is a sign of grace, and it is an efficacious sign. Not only does the sacrament indicate grace and express it in a visible way, but it also produces it. The sacrament effectively contributes to having grace become part of man, and to realizing and fulfilling in him the work of salvation, the work begun by God from all eternity and fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

6. I would say that already this first glance at the classic text of the Letter to the Ephesians points out the direction in which our further analyses must be developed. It is necessary that these analyses begin with the preliminary understanding of the text itself. However, they must subsequently lead us, so to say, beyond their limits, in order to understand possibly to the very depths how much richness of the truth revealed by God is contained in the scope of that wonderful page. Using the well-known expression from Gaudium et Spes, we can say that the passage we have selected from the Letter to the Ephesians, "reveals—in a particular way—man to man, and makes him aware of his lofty vocation" (GS 22), inasmuch as he shares in the experience of the incarnate person. In fact, creating man in his image, from the very beginning God created him "male and female" (Gn 1:27).

During the subsequent analyses we will try—above all in the light of the quoted text from the Letter to the Ephesians—to more deeply understand the sacrament (especially marriage as a sacrament), first in the dimension of the covenant and grace, and afterward in the dimension of the sacramental sign.


1) The question of Pauline authorship of the Letter to the Ephesians, acknowledged by some exegetes and denied by others, can be resolved by means of a median supposition which we accept here as a working hypothesis: namely, that St. Paul entrusted some concepts to his secretary, who then developed and refined them.
We have in mind this provisional solution of the question when we speak of "the author of the Letter to the Ephesians," the "Apostle," and "St. Paul."

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 August 1982, page 7

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