In the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33)—as in the prophets of the Old Testament (e.g., in Isaiah)—we find the great analogy of marriage or of the spousal love between Christ and the Church.
What function does this analogy fulfill in regard to the mystery revealed in the old and the new covenants? The answer to this question must be gradual. First of all, the analogy of spousal or conjugal love helps to penetrate the essence of the mystery. It helps to understand it up to a certain point, naturally, in an analogical way. It is obvious that the analogy of earthly human love of the husband for his wife, of human spousal love, cannot provide an adequate and complete understanding of that absolutely transcendent Reality which is the divine mystery, both as hidden for ages in God, and in its historical fulfillment in time, when "Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25). The mystery remains transcendent in regard to this analogy as in regard to any other analogy, whereby we seek to express it in human language. At the same time, however, this analogy offers the possibility of a certain cognoscitive penetration into the essence of the mystery.
Realized by Christ
2. The analogy of spousal love permits us to understand in a certain way the mystery which for ages was hidden in God, and which in turn was realized by Christ, as a love proper to a total and irrevocable gift of self on the part of God to man in Christ. It is a question of "man" in the personal and at the same time communitarian dimension. (This communitarian dimension is expressed in the Book of Isaiah and in the prophets as "Israel," and in the Letter to the Ephesians as the "Church"; one could say: the People of God of the old and of the new covenant.) We may add that in both conceptions, in a certain sense the communitarian dimension is placed in the forefront. But it is not to such an extent as completely to hide the personal dimension, which, on the other hand, pertains simply to the essence of conjugal love. In both cases we are dealing rather with a significant "reduction of the community to the person":(1) Israel and the Church are considered as bride-person in relation to the bridegroom-person (Yahweh and Christ). Every concrete "I" should find itself in that biblical "we."
God of the covenant
3. So then, the analogy which we are speaking of permits us to understand in a certain degree the revealed mystery of the living God who is Creator and Redeemer. (And as such he is, at the same time, God of the covenant.) It permits us to understand this mystery in the manner of a spousal love, just as it allows us to understand it also in the manner of a love of "compassion" (according to the text of Isaiah), or in the manner of a "paternal" love (according to the Letter to the Ephesians, especially in the first chapter). The above-mentioned ways of understanding the mystery are also without doubt analogical. The analogy of spousal love contains in itself a characteristic of the mystery, which is not directly emphasized either by the analogy of the love of compassion or by the analogy of paternal love (or by any other analogy used in the Bible to which we would have referred).
Radical and total gift
4. The analogy of spousal love seems to emphasize especially the aspect of the gift of self on the part of God to man, "for ages" chosen in Christ (literally: to "Israel," to the "Church")—a total (or rather radical) and irrevocable gift in its essential character, that is, as a gift. This gift is certainly radical and therefore total. We cannot speak of that totality in a metaphysical sense. Indeed, as a creature man is not capable of receiving the gift of God in the transcendental fullness of his divinity. Such a total gift (uncreated) is shared only by God himself in the triune communion of the Persons. On the contrary, God's gift of himself to man, which the analogy of spousal love speaks of, can only have the form of a participation in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pt 1:4), as theology makes clear with very great precision. Nevertheless, according to this measure, the gift made to man on the part of God in Christ is a total, that is, a radical gift, as the analogy of spousal love indicates. In a certain sense, it is all that God could give of himself to man, considering the limited faculties of man, a creature. In this way, the analogy of spousal love indicates the radical character of grace, of the whole order of created grace.
Sacrament and mystery
5. The foregoing seems to be what can be said in reference to the primary function of our great analogy, which has passed from the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament to the Letter to the Ephesians, where, as has already been noted, it underwent a significant transformation. The analogy of marriage, as a human reality in which spousal love is incarnated, helps to a certain degree and in a certain way to understand the mystery of grace as an eternal reality in God and as a historical fruit of mankind's redemption in Christ. However, we said before that this biblical analogy not only "explains" the mystery. On the other hand the mystery defines and determines the adequate manner of understanding the analogy, and precisely this element, in which the biblical authors see "the image and likeness" of the divine mystery. So then, the comparison of marriage (because of spousal love) to the relationship of Yahweh-Israel in the old covenant and of Christ-Church in the new covenant decides, at the same time, the manner of understanding marriage itself and determines this manner.
6. This is the second function of our great analogy. In the perspective of this function we approach the problem of sacrament and mystery, that is, in the general and fundamental sense, the problem of the sacramentality of marriage. This seems especially justified in the light of the analysis of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33). Indeed, in presenting the relationship of Christ to the Church in the image of the conjugal union of husband and wife, the author of this letter speaks in the most general and at the same time fundamental way. He speaks not only of the fulfillment of the eternal divine mystery, but also of the way in which that mystery is expressed in the visible order, of the way in which it has become visible, and therefore has entered into the sphere of sign.
Visibility of the mystery
7. By the term "sign" we mean here simply the "visibility of the Invisible." The mystery for ages hidden in God—that is, invisible—has become visible first of all in the historical event of Christ. The relationship of Christ to the Church, which is defined in the Letter to the Ephesians as "a great mystery," constitutes the fulfillment and the concretization of the visibility of the mystery itself. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians compares the indissoluble relationship of Christ and the Church to the relationship between husband and wife, that is, to marriage—referring at the same time to the words of Genesis (2:24), which by God's creative act originally instituted marriage—turns our attention to what was already presented—in the context of the mystery of creation—as the "visibility of the Invisible," to the very "origin" of the theological history of man.
It can be said that the visible sign of marriage "in the beginning," inasmuch as it is linked to the visible sign of Christ and of the Church, to the summit of the salvific economy of God, transfers the eternal plan of love into the historical dimension and makes it the foundation of the whole sacramental order. It is a special merit of the author of the Letter to the Ephesians that he brought these two signs together, and made of them one great sign—that is, a great sacrament (sacramentum magnum).
1. It is not merely a question of the personification of human society, which constitutes a fairly common phenomenon in world literature, but of a specific "corporate personality" of the Bible, marked by a continual reciprocal relationship of the individual to the group (cf. H. Wheeler Robinson, "The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality," BZAW 66 , pp. 49-62; cf. also J. L. McKenzie, "Aspects of Old Testament Thought," The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2 [London: 1970], p. 748).
Source: L'Osservatore Romano