St Paul's Analogy of the Union of Head and Body

Author: Pope John Paul II

St Paul's Analogy of Union of Head and Body Does Not Destroy Individuality of the Person

Pope John Paul II


During the general audience at St Peter's Square on Wednesday evening, 25 August, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the Letter to the Ephesians.

1. In the preceding reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), we drew attention especially to the analogy of the relationship which exists between Christ and the Church, and of that which exists between husband and wife united by the bond of marriage. Before undertaking the analysis of the further passages of the text in question, we must note that within the range of the fundamental Pauline analogy: Christ and the Church, on the one hand, and man and woman as spouses on the other, there is a supplementary analogy: the analogy of the head and of the body. This analogy confers a chiefly ecclesiological significance on the statement we analyzed: the Church as such is formed by Christ; it is constituted by him in its essential part, as the body is by the head. The union of the body with the head is above all of an organic nature. To put it simply, it is the somatic union of the human organism. The biological union is founded directly on this organic union, inasmuch as it can be said that the body lives by the head (even if at the same time, though in a different way, the head lives by the body). Besides, in the case of man, the psychic union, understood in its integrity, and the integral unity of the human person is also founded on this organic union.

Eschatological perspective

2. As already stated (at least in the passage analyzed), the author of the Letter to the Ephesians has introduced the supplementary analogy of the head and the body within the limits of the analogy of marriage. He even seems to have conceived the first analogy, "head-body," in a more central manner from the point of view of the truth about Christ and the Church proclaimed by him. However, one must equally affirm that he has not placed it alongside or outside of the analogy of marriage as a conjugal bond—quite the contrary. In the whole text of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), especially in the first part with which we are dealing (5:22-23), the author speaks as if in marriage also the husband is "head of the wife," and the wife "the body of the husband," as if the married couple formed one organic union. This can find its basis in the text of Genesis which speaks of one flesh (Gn 2:24), or in that same text to which the author of the Letter to the Ephesians will shortly refer in the context of this great analogy. Nevertheless, the text of Genesis makes clear that the man and the woman are two distinct personal subjects who knowingly decide on their conjugal union, defined by that ancient text with the words "one flesh." This is equally clear also in the Letter to the Ephesians. The author uses a twofold analogy: head-body, husband-wife, for the purpose of illustrating clearly the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. In a certain sense, especially in the first part of the Letter to the Ephesians 5:22-23, the ecclesiological dimension seems decisive and dominant.

Particular relationship

3. "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..." (Eph 5:22-25). This supplementary analogy "head-body" indicates that within the limits of the entire passage of the Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-33, we are dealing with two distinct subjects. In virtue of a particular reciprocal relationship, in a certain sense they become a single subject. The head, together with the body, constitutes a subject (in the physical and metaphysical sense), an organism, a human person, a being. There is no doubt that Christ is a subject different from the Church. However, in virtue of a particular relationship, he is united with her, as in an organic union of head and body. The Church is so strongly, so essentially herself in virtue of a mystical union with Christ. Is it possible to say the same thing of the spouses, of the man and the woman united by the marriage bond? If the author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees also in marriage the analogy of the union of head and body, this analogy in a certain sense seems to apply to marriage in consideration of the union which Christ constitutes with the Church, and the Church with Christ. Therefore, the analogy regards, above all, marriage itself as that union through which "the two become one flesh" (Eph 5:31; cf. Gn 2:24).


4. This analogy, however, does not blur the individuality of the subjects: that of the husband and that of the wife, that is, the essential bi-subjectivity which is at the basis of the image of "one single body." Rather, the essential bi-subjectivity of the husband and wife in marriage, which makes of them in a certain sense "one single body," passes within the limits of the whole text we are examining (Eph 5:21-33) to the image of Church-Body united with Christ as head. This is seen especially in this text where the author describes the relationship of Christ to the Church precisely by means of the image of the relationship of the husband to the wife. In this description the Church-Body of Christ appears clearly as the second subject of the spousal union to which the first subject, Christ, manifests the love with which he has loved her by giving himself for her. That love is an image and above all a model of the love which the husband should show to his wife in marriage, when the two are subject to each other "out of reverence for Christ."

Two become one flesh

5. We read: "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 should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'" (Eph 5:25-31).

Aim is sanctification

6. It is easy to perceive that in this part of the text of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), bi-subjectivity clearly dominates. It is manifested both in the relationship Christ-Church, and also in the relationship husband-wife. This does not mean to say that the image of a single subject disappears: the image of "a single body." It is preserved also in the passage of our text, and in a certain sense it is better explained there. This will be seen more clearly when we submit the above-quoted passage to a detailed analysis. Thus the author of the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the love of Christ for the Church by explaining the way in which that love is expressed, and by presenting at the same time both that love and its expressions as a model which the husband should follow in regard to his wife. The love of Christ for the Church has essentially her sanctification as its scope. "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her" (5:25-26). Baptism is a principle of this sanctification. Baptism is the first and essential fruit of Christ's giving himself for the Church. In this text baptism is not called by its own proper name, but is defined as purification "by the washing of water with the word" (5:26). This washing, with the power that derives from the redemptive giving of himself by Christ for the Church, brings about the fundamental purification through which Christ's love for the Church acquires a spousal character, in the eyes of the author of the letter.

7. It is known that the sacrament of baptism is received by an individual subject in the Church. However, beyond the individual subject of baptism the author of the letter sees the whole Church. The spousal love of Christ is applied to her, the Church, every time that a single person receives in her the fundamental purification by means of baptism. Whoever receives baptism becomes—by the virtue of the redemptive love of Christ—at the same time a participant in his spousal love for the Church. In our text "the washing of water with the word" is an expression of the spousal love in the sense that it prepares the Bride (Church) for the Bridegroom. It makes the Church the spouse of Christ, I would say, inactu primo. Some biblical scholars observe that in this text, the washing with water recalls the ritual ablution which preceded the wedding—something which constituted an important religious rite also among the Greeks.

Ecclesiological dimension

8. As the sacrament of baptism, "the washing of water with the word" (Eph 5:26) renders the Church a spouse not only in actu primo but also in the more distant perspective, in the eschatological perspective. This opens up before us when we read in the Letter to the Ephesians that "the washing of water" serves, on the part of the groom "to present the Church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:27). The expression "to present to himself" seems to indicate that moment of the wedding in which the bride is led to the groom, already clothed in the bridal dress and adorned for the wedding. The text quoted indicates that the Christ-spouse himself takes care to adorn the spouse-Church. He is concerned that she should be beautiful with the beauty of grace, beautiful by virtue of the gift of salvation in its fullness, already granted from the moment of the sacrament of baptism. But baptism is only the beginning from which the figure of the glorious Church will emerge (as we read in the text), as a definitive fruit of the redemptive and spousal love, only with the final coming of Christ (parousia).

We see how profoundly the author of the Letter to the Ephesians examines the sacramental reality, proclaiming its grand analogy. Both the union of Christ with the Church, and the conjugal union of man and woman in marriage are illumined in this way by a particular supernatural light.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 August 1982, page 11

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