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Christ Loves His Bride, the Church

General Audience — December 18, 1991

St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: "Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her" (Eph 5:25). As you can see, the analogy of married love, which was inherited from the prophets of the old covenant, reappeared in the preaching of John the Baptist. It was taken up again by Jesus and passed into the Gospels, and was proposed again by the Apostle Paul. The Baptist and the Gospels present Christ as the bridegroom; we saw this in the preceding catechesis. He is the bridegroom of the new People of God, which is the Church. From the lips of Jesus and his precursor, the analogy received from the old covenant was used to announce that the time had come for its real fulfillment. The paschal events gave it its full significance. Precisely in reference to these events, the Apostle can write in Ephesians, "Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her." These words echo the prophets, who used this analogy in the old covenant to speak of the spousal love God had for his chosen people, Israel. There is at least an implicit reference to the application Jesus makes of it in presenting himself as this bridegroom, as it must have been said by the apostles to the first communities where the Gospels arose. There is a deepening of the saving dimension of Christ Jesus' love, which is both spousal and redemptive: "Christ handed himself over for the Church," the Apostle recalls.

This teaching is even more evident if one considers that Ephesians directly relates Christ's spousal love for the Church to the sacrament which unites man and woman in marriage, thereby consecrating their love. We read: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word [a reference to Baptism], that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-27). A little farther on in the letter the Apostle himself emphasizes the great mystery of this marital union, because he is speaking "in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32). The essential meaning of his discourse is that the spousal love of the Redeemer for his Church is reflected in Christian marriage and married love: a redemptive love, full of saving power, at work in the mystery of grace by which Christ shares new life with the members of his body.

This is why the Apostle, in developing his discourse, refers to the passage of Genesis which speaks of the union of man and woman: "The two shall become one flesh" (Eph 5:31; Gen 2:24). Taking his inspiration from this statement, the Apostle writes: "So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the Church" (Eph 5:28-29).

It can be said that in Paul's thought married love comes under a law of equality, which man and woman fulfill in Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 7:4). However, when the Apostle observes: "The husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the Savior of the body" (Eph 5:23), the equality, the interhuman parity, is surpassed, because theirs is an order within love. The husband's love for his wife is a participation in Christ's love for the Church. Now Christ, the Church's bridegroom, was the first to love, because he accomplished salvation (cf. Rom 5:6; 1 Jn 4:19). Therefore, he is also head of the Church, his body, which he saves, nourishes and cherishes with unspeakable love.

This relationship between head and body does not cancel marital reciprocity, but rather strengthens it. It is precisely the Redeemer's precedence over the redeemed (and so, over the Church) which makes this marital reciprocity possible, in the power of the grace which Christ himself bestows. This is the essence of the mystery of the Church as the bride of Christ the Redeemer, a truth repeatedly witnessed and taught by St. Paul.

The Apostle is not a detached and disinterested witness, speaking or writing as if he were a scholar or notary. In his letters he appears as one profoundly involved in the duty of inculcating this truth. As he writes to the Corinthians: "For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor 11:2). In this text Paul presents himself as the best man, whose burning concern is to encourage the bride's complete faithfulness to the marriage union. In fact, he continues: "But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts may be corrupted from a sincere and pure commitment to Christ" (2 Cor 11:3). This is the Apostle's jealousy!

In First Corinthians we also read the same truth found in Ephesians and Second Corinthians, which were cited above. The Apostle writes: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ's members and make them members of a prostitute? Of course not!" (1 Cor 6:15). Here too it is easy almost to hear an echo of the old covenant prophets who accused the people of prostitution, especially for their lapses into idolatry. Unlike the prophets, who spoke of prostitution metaphorically to stigmatize any serious sin of infidelity to the law of God, Paul is really speaking of sexual relations with prostitutes and declares them absolutely incompatible with being a Christian. It is unthinkable to take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute. Paul then clarifies an important point. A man's relationship with a prostitute occurs merely on the level of the flesh and thus calls for a divorce between flesh and spirit. But Christ's union with the Church occurs on the level of the spirit and so corresponds to all the demands of genuine love. The Apostle writes: "Do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For 'the two,' it says, 'will become one flesh.' But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1 Cor 6:16-17). The analogy the prophets used so passionately to condemn the profanation and betrayal of Israel's marital love for her God, enables the Apostle here to call attention to the union with Christ which is the essence of the new covenant, and to clarify its demands for Christian behavior: "Whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him."

The "experience" of Christ's Passover and the "experience" of Pentecost were necessary to give this meaning to the married love analogy inherited from the prophets. Paul was aware of this double experience of the early community, which had received from the disciples not only instruction, but also a living sharing in that mystery. He relived and deepened this experience, and now in turn, becomes its apostle to the faithful of Corinth, Ephesus, and all the churches to which he writes. It was a sublime translation of his experience of the marital relationship of Christ and the Church: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1 Cor 6:19).

We conclude with this observation of faith, which makes us want this beautiful experience: the Church is the bride of Christ. She belongs to him as a bride, in virtue of the Holy Spirit, who, drawing on "the fountain of salvation" (Is 12:3), sanctifies the Church and allows her to respond to love with love.