Last week, we began a study of Ephesians 5:21-33 — perhaps one of the most misunderstood passages in Scripture. We discovered that St Paul’s discourse on the roles of husbands and wives in marriage should be understood as an analogy of the image of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
This week, we will continue the study by looking at the sacrament of marriage from the dimensions of covenant and grace and as a sacramental sign.
The Sacrament of Marriage
Turning to the sacramentality of marriage, St. Paul in Ephesians 5 points back to the beginning of the nuptial union 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” (Eph 5:31). Pope St. John Paul II, in his classic work Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB) notes:
By quoting the words of Genesis 2:24, the author emphasizes that the bases of this analogy should be sought in the line that unites, in God’s salvific plan, marriage as the most ancient revelation…that “Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her” (Eph 5:25), endowing his redemptive love with a spousal nature and meaning. (TOB, 90:4)
John Paul II says that the words of Genesis 2:24 are “the fundamental text on marriage” (TOB, 90:4) in the whole of scripture!
He says that Ephesians 5:21-33 “speaks about the bases of the sacramentality of the whole of Christian life and in particular about the bases of the sacramentality of marriage. In an indirect way, he speaks about the sacramentality of all Christian existence in the Church” (TOB, 93:4). John Paul II goes on to say:
The sacrament consists in “manifesting” that mystery in a sign that serves not only to proclaim the mystery but also to accomplish it in man. The sacrament is a visible and efficacious sign of grace. It is a means for accomplishing in man the mystery hidden from eternity in God, about which Ephesians speaks immediately at the beginning (see Eph 1:9) – the mystery of God calling man to holiness in Christ and the mystery of man’s predestination to become an adoptive son…the sacramentality of the Church remains in a particular relationship with marriage, the most ancient sacrament. (TOB, 93:5)
Covenant and Grace
The analogy of spousal love that St. Paul presents in Ephesians 5:21-33 is not an abstract or isolated text. It stands in continuity with the Old Testament covenant between God and His people Israel. The prophets used the spousal analogy to characterize the way God loved his Chosen People. Israel did not return God’s love. Instead, they responded with unfaithfulness and betrayal. Israel played the part of the harlot to God’s ever faithful love (TOB, 93:5).
John Paul II uses the text of Isaiah 54:4-10 to illustrate the spousal love of God for His betrothed people Israel:
 For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.
 For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.
 For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.
 In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.
 For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.
 For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
John Paul II says this text does not “contain any of the reproaches against Israel as the unfaithful spouse echoing so forcefully through other texts, especially Hosea and Ezekiel” (TOB, 95:2). The text speaks in the name of God with God’s own words. God turns to Israel like a “bridegroom to his chosen bride” (TOB, 95:3). The text does not mention unfaithfulness but instead, expresses God’s merciful love…
…thereby indicating not only the social nature of marriage in the Old Covenant, but also the true character of the gift that God’s love is for Israel, a gift coming entirely from God’s initiative; in other words, by indicating the dimension of grace, which is contained in this love from beginning. This is perhaps the strongest “declaration of love” by God, joined with a solemn oath of faithfulness forever. (TOB, 95:3)
John Paul II says that the love that unites spouses is strongly highlighted in Isaiah 54:5,
Thus, in this text, God himself in all his majesty as Creator and Lord of creation is explicitly called “husband” of the Chosen People. This “husband” speaks about his great “affection,” which will not “depart” from Israel, his wife, but will constitute a stable foundation of the “covenant of peace” with him. In this way, the motif of spousal love and of marriage is linked with the motif of the covenant. (TOB, 95:4)
Our Bodies Reveal the Spousal Mystery
Christopher West in his book Theology of the Body Explained (TOBE) says that “God’s initiative as Bridegroom and humanity’s response as Bride are essential in understanding how the bodies of male and female reveal the spousal mystery” (TOBE, 411). West goes on to say, “The spousal meaning of the man’s body calls him to image God’s initiation of the gift, whereas the spousal meaning of the woman’s body calls her to image humanity’s receptivity and response to the gift.” The “spousal analogy, like no other analogy in the Bible, indicates the radical character of grace (see TOB 95b:4)” (TOBE, 414).
John Paul II says the analogy of marriage which was passed on from the prophets of the Old Testament to St. Paul in writing to the Ephesians has undergone a significant transformation:
The analogy of marriage, as a human reality in which spousal love is incarnated, helps in some way to understand the mystery of grace as an eternal reality in God and as a “historical” fruit of redemption of humanity in Christ. Yet…this biblical analogy not only “explains” the mystery, but also, conversely, the mystery defines and determines the adequate way of understanding the analogy and precisely that component of it in which the biblical authors see “the image and likeness” of the divine mystery. (TOB, 95b:5)
After giving a considerable analysis to the sacrament of marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33 from the divine dimension of covenant and grace, John Paul II moves to understanding this text as a sacramental sign. He says, “Ephesians reveals the eternal sources of the covenant in the love of the Father and at the same time its new and definitive institution in Jesus Christ” (TOB, 117:1). The Pope goes on to say that the words of St. Paul in Ephesians “seem to be above all a commentary on those older, original biblical words, in which the nature of the sacramental sign of marriage finds its expression…[in] ‘The two will be one flesh’ (Gen 2:24)” (TOB, 117:3).
The text of Ephesians 5, he says, “brings us to a dimension of the ‘language of the body’ that could be called ‘mystical.’ It speaks in fact about marriage as a ‘great mystery’” (TOB, 117b:1). John Paul II continues,
…the liturgical language assigns love, faithfulness, and the conjugal integrity to both man and woman through the ‘language of the body.’ It assigns them the unity and indissolubility of marriage in the ‘language of the body.’ It assigns them as task the whole ‘sacrum’ [sacredness] of the person and of the communion of persons, and in the same way their masculinity and femininity, precisely in this language. (TOB, 117b:2)
John Paul II explains that the language of the body “expresses itself not only with the reciprocal fascination and pleasure of the Song of Songs, but also as a deep experience of the ‘sacrum’…infused in masculinity and femininity…through the dimension of ‘mystery’” (TOB, 117b:3). The Pope goes on to describe this reciprocal fascination as a “spiritual maturity [that] is nothing but the fruit born of the gift of fear, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes 4:4-7)” (TOB, 117b:4).
This fear is a mutual reverence of the spouses for each other. The reciprocal fascination of masculinity and femininity “matures spiritually through the virtue and even more so through the gift…the man and the woman, provided they turn away from concupiscence, find the proper dimension of the freedom of the gift” (TOB, 117b:5). John Paul II concludes that this is “the integral meaning of the sacramental sign of marriage” (TOB, 117b:6).
John Paul II’s TOB shows that Ephesians 5:21-33 “cannot be correctly understood except in the broad biblical context” and that it is the “‘crowning’ of the themes and truths that ebb and flow…through the Word of God” (TOB, 87:3). He shows that to understand this passage, “one must do so in the light of what Christ has told us about the human body” (TOB, 87:2).
John Paul II’s TOB demonstrates the original beauty of the relationship of man and woman as God intended at the beginning of creation, providing a deeper understanding of the mutual submission of man and woman to each other out of reverence for Christ. “Marriage,” he says, “corresponds to the vocation of Christians only when it reflects the love which Christ the Bridegroom gives the Church his Bride” (TOB, 90:2). Pope Francis reaffirms this,
The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together. This is the image of God: love, God’s covenant with us is represented in that covenant between man and woman. And this is very beautiful! (General Audience, April 2, 2014)
Pope St. John Paul II produced an epic work that will help the Church teach couples the beauty, truth and goodness of God’s plan for marriage, for today and for many centuries to come.