“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.1
The Profound Mystery of Christ’s Union with His Church
Of all that Saint Paul ever wrote, this passage has to be one of his most perplexing. In his teaching on Christian marriage, St. Paul reaches clear back to the first book of the bible, quoting from the relevant passage in Genesis,2 and notes, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
I have to admit, when I read the account of Adam and Eve’s creation (and subsequent one flesh union) in the Genesis account my first though is not, “Ahhh, it’s obviously a reflection of Christ’s relationship with His Church!”
It has been said that the Old Testament conceals what the New Testament reveals, and that the New Testament reveals what the Old Testament conceals. Thank God for inspired authors who can reveal to us that which was concealed in the Old Testament!
Even St. Paul’s denotation of “mystery” should give us pause, as this word in the original Greek (mysterion) became the root for what we now refer to as a “sacrament.”3 We will return to the sacramental nature of the mystery shortly, but first let’s examine the metaphor which St. Paul presents us with.
Primary Image or Reflection?
All too often we tend to turn the metaphor on it’s head. We think that somehow it is Christ and His Church who are supposed to reflect, or mirror, the intimate union of the marriage relationship. In reality, St. Paul tells us that exactly the opposite is true. Namely that human marriage – even from the very beginning – is but a dim mirror that is to reflect the reality of Christ’s relationship with His Church. Human marriage, when at it’s best, images the intimacy which Christ shares with His Church.
With this in mind, it is Christ and His Church who provide the example of one flesh union for husbands and wives to follow – not the other way around. John Piper, a Calvinist/Baptist preacher and author, puts it this way, “The mystery is this: God did not create the union of Christ and the church after the pattern of human marriage; just the reverse! He created human marriage on the pattern of Christ’s relation to the church.”4
So if the union of one flesh refers primarily to Christ and His Church, and only secondarily applies to human relationships, then how are we to understand this divine union? Perhaps if we read the verses immediately preceding the Ephesians passage above we can begin to understand.
Christ’s Consummation with His Church
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.”5
St. Augustine once preached that, “Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber…. He came to the marriage-bed of the Cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage. And when he perceived the sighs of the creature, he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and joined himself to her forever.”6 He also notes that the marriage bed of the cross was, “…a bed not of pleasure, but of pain,” where He, united himself with the woman [his Bride, the Church], and consummated the union forever.”
In the larger context of the Ephesians passage we also read, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”7 In a human marriage the wife submits to the husband who is the head. The wife is receptive to the husband who initiates. Even our bodily forms reflect these differences of initiation and reception. The man’s very body is disposed towards an act of extending beyond himself to give of himself to his bride. The woman’s very body is disposed towards the reception of the man into herself. The two fit together as one.
Christopher West writes, “However, in the very process of receiving her bridegroom, she also gives herself to him, and he, in turn, receives her. As [Saint] John Paul II puts it: ‘the giving and the accepting of the gift interpenetrate, so that the giving itself becomes accepting, and the acceptance is transformed into giving.”8 … According to this ‘great analogy’ God is symbolically ‘masculine’ in relation to Man, while Man is symbolically ‘feminine’ in relation to God. As the Bridegroom, God freely and gratuitously initiates ‘the gift’ of his Life to Man, who, as the Bride, receives ‘the gift’ from his Creator. Having received such a great gift, Man is called in his freedom to make a gift of himself back to God in thanksgiving, a gift, which God, in turn, receives. This is the Life-giving Communion of Love that Man knew with his Creator ‘in the beginning’ in and through the life-giving communion of love he knew as male and female.”9
One Flesh Union
And here at last we may begin to understand the profound mysterion of which St. Paul writes – and the sacrament which is implied. Recognizing that we are symbolically “feminine” in relation to God, and that He is symbolically “masculine” in relation to us, we might ask ourselves how this one-flesh union is to play out? If it is on the cross that Christ gives of Himself to His bride, when do we (as His bride) receive Him into ourselves? The answer of course is in Holy Communion.
Reception of the Eucharist is an act of marital intimacy. In receiving the Eucharist, we receive Christ’s body (as the bridegroom) into our body (as His bride).
Part of the reason that communion is forbidden for non-Catholics is the recognition that the marital act is to be reserved for after the vows have been made. In the marriage vows spouses promise to give of themselves fully to each other, and then in the nuptial union they make good on their vows. It would be improper for those outside of full communion with the Church, those who have not stood at the altar and taken their vows as it were, to demand to participate in the nuptial act. When we partake of the Eucharist, we don’t just receive Christ into our hearts in some sort of mystical fashion – rather we receive Him body, blood, soul, and divinity into our very bodies – present within us in a mysterious and intimate way.
A Bride Pure and Without Blemish
Some will object to this idea of nuptial union between Christ and His Church, noting that the Church has done things both amazing and horrific in the name of God, but, …she is Christ’s bride, made holy and without blemish by Christ Himself (as referenced in the Ephesians passage above) and by the righteous deeds of His saints.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”
— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.10
And like all brides, she has been joined to Him that the two may become one flesh! And it is through this incarnational and nuptial mystery that we, the bride of Christ, become in that marital union of one flesh, the very body of Christ, with He Himself as our head.
Hallelujah! For the marriage of the Lamb has come!
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Ephesians 5:31-32 ↩
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Genesis 2:24 ↩
sacrament (n.) “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace,” also “the eucharist,” c. 1200, from Old French sacrament “consecration; mystery” (12c., Modern French sacrement) and directly from Latin sacramentum “a consecrating” (also source of Spanish sacramento, German Sakrament, etc.), from sacrare “to consecrate” (see sacred); a Church Latin loan-translation of Greek mysterion (see mystery). http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sacrament ↩
Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist ↩
Ephesians 5:25-30 ↩
Sermo Suppositus 120 ↩
Ephesians 5:22-24 ↩
General Audience of February 6, 1980 ↩
Revelation 19:6-8 ↩