Does God Want To Marry Us?

by Fr. Richard M. Hogan

Recently, I was giving a lecture on John Paul II’s theology with an emphasis on his Theology of the Body series.  After a break-out session, one group reported that they had concluded that one of the themes of the Pope’s Theology of the Body series was that God wanted to marry us.  This idea is fairly common among those who study the Theology of the Body texts.  However, it is not found anywhere in the Pope’s writings.  So, the question is whether it is a valid extrapolation of John Paul’s thought.

In the fifth cycle of the Theology of the Body series, John Paul discusses St. Paul’s great comparison between the love of spouses and the love of Christ and the Church:  “the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.  As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” (See Ephesians 5:23-25.)  John Paul II comments: “According to Ephesians 5:22-33, this supernatural gift of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ gains the features of a spousal gift of self by Christ himself to the Church according to the likeness of the spousal relationship between husband and wife.” (See Theology of the Body series, no. 94.) In an even stronger statement, John Paul writes that Christ’s love for the Church is “a spousal love by which he marries the Church.”  If Christ “marries” the Church, then as members of the Church, one could infer that Christ has a spousal relationship with every member of the Church.  It would seem, then, that Christ does want to marry us!

However, there are some clarifications necessary to the statement that Christ “wants to marry us.”  First, we must have a very clear idea of what John Paul means by a “spousal love.”  Second, we have to understand what John Paul means by a marriage between Christ and the Church.  Third, since St. Paul in Ephesians 5 is using an analogy between Christ’s love for the Church and the love of husband and wife, it is necessary to understand what an analogy is and how this analogy works in both directions. 

In nos. 14 and 15 of the Theology of the Body series, Pope John Paul II speaks of the “spousal meaning of the body.” The term “meaning” in John Paul’s vocabulary has a very specific definition.  John Paul applied a modern philosophical movement, called phenomenology, to Revelation producing a third synthesis of the faith.  (The first complete synthesis of the faith was the work of St. Augustine of Hippo [354-430] who united Revelation with the philosophy of Plato.  The second complete synthesis was that of St. Thomas Aquinas [1215-1274] who united Revelation with the philosophy of Aristotle.)  In John Paul’s writings, the term “meaning” is each individual’s understanding of an experience he or she has had.  The spousal “meaning” of the body is Adam and Eve’s understanding of their experience of themselves naked in the Garden of Eden before sin.  They came to understand through their experience of themselves and each other that they were made for one another.  In other words, their mutual nakedness allowed them to realize that they were to be gifts to each other.  This understanding that they were each called to be a gift for one another, i.e. that they were created for love, is what the Pope tries to indicate with the phrase, “the spousal meaning of the body.” 

Thus, Christ’s spousal love for the Church in John Paul’s fifth cycle means that Christ through his human body was meant to be a gift for the Church.  Just as Adam and Eve, realizing that they were created to be gifts to one another and celebrated a marriage, so Christ through his created humanity, especially his body, was a gift to the Church in his body and therefore he “married” the Church.

Pope John Paul II teaches explicitly the spousal love of Christ and his “marriage” to the Church was only present after God the Son was conceived and born with a human body. “The analogy of spousal love and of marriage only appears when the ‘Creator’ and the ‘Holy One of Israel’ manifests himself as ‘Redeemer.” (See Theology of the Body series, no. 95.)  The Redemption was impossible if God did not have a body because Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection were all bodily realities.  Therefore, to teach that spousal love is only possible when the Redeemer appears is in effect to teach that spousal love is tied to the God-man with a human body.

The “marriage” of Christ and the Church also has a very specific definition in the Theology of the Body addresses.  In no. 95b the Pope writes that “the analogy of marriage, as a human reality in which spousal love is incarnated, helps in some way to understand the mystery of grace.”  And again in the same address, John Paul teaches that the analogy of spousal love and marriage, “indicates the ‘radical’ character of grace: of the whole order of created grace.”

The spousal love of Christ for the Church denotes the understanding that Christ is a self-gift.  This self-gift was manifested in and through his body.  The “marriage” of Christ and the Church is the gift of grace. The self-gift of Christ “can only have the form of a participation in the divine nature” through grace. (See Theology of the Body series, no. 95b.)

Further, it is essential to remember that St. Paul in comparing human marriage to the love of Christ for the Church is using an analogy.  Webster’s Seventh dictionary in the second definition of analogy reads: “resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike.”  God is an infinite, transcendent Being who in some respects is totally unlike us, his creatures. (Clearly, in other respects, as images of God, we are “like” God.) Therefore, anything created; anything of this world, used to illustrate God is only the dimmest reflection of God.  The clover leaf as am image of the Trinity comes to mind.)

In the tradition of the mystics of the Church, there is the idea that anything said about God is already a lie. For example, to say that God is beautiful is to compare human beauty or natural beauty with the beauty of God.  But God’s beauty is so transcendent and above earthly realities that the beauty of God cannot be put into words or images.  When we try to capture the beauty of God with human words and images, we are lying because the words and our understanding fall so short of the reality. Of course, we need to say something even if only to teach about God because we need to understand something of him in order to love him.  Still, it is vital that when using analogies, we remember that the transcendent, infinite God, cannot ever be adequately captured in language or human ideas.

John Paul teaches in 95b of the Theology of the Body series that “the analogy of earthly human love, of the husband for his wife, of human spousal love, cannot offer an adequate and complete understanding of that absolutely transcendent Reality, . . .   .  The mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy with which we try to express it in human language.”  Since the divine Reality is absolutely transcendent and no analogy can capture that Reality, we need many different analogies to penetrate the mystery as best we can.  John Paul explicitly teaches this point when he writes, “The analogy of spousal love contains a characteristic of the mystery that is not directly emphasized by the analogy of merciful love, nor by the analogy of fatherly love (nor by any other analogy used in the Bible to which we could have appealed).” (See Theology of the Body series, no. 95b.)  It is obviously necessary to maintain many different analogies, although they are all individually and collectively inadequate to capture the transcendent Reality.  Still, each analogy contributes to our understanding by illuminating one aspect of the mystery. 

One further point made by John Paul II about St. Paul’s great comparison is vitally important.  Human married love, in a limited sense, does reflect the love Christ has for the Church, but Christ’s love for the Church is also a model, a definitive model, of how married couples should love. “The comparison of marriage (due to spousal love) with the relationship between ‘Yahweh and Israel’ in the Old Covenant, and between ’Christ and the Church’ in the New, is at the same time decisive for the way of understanding marriage itself.” (See Theology of the Body series, no. 95b.)  Christ’s love for the Church is a definitive and complete example for married couples to follow. But the analogy used in the other direction that human marriage is an example of Christ’s love for the Church remains very limited as all analogies do with regard to God.

We are now in a position to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article with a little more precision.  Does God wish to marry us?  Yes, but with considerable qualifications.  Spousal love means the understanding that we have (and of course Christ had, but in a different way) that the body is meant to be a gift.  In the marriage which God celebrates with us, the union is not physical at all, but through grace.  Even so this analogy limps as all analogies with regard to God do.  In addition, and very importantly, the analogy is more accurate if we take Christ’s love for the Church as the model for human married love.  Lastly, we must not use this analogy about God exclusively, but need to keep all the others in the Bible and Revelation in mind.  With these caveats, we can assert that God “wants to marry us.”

However, I doubt that most people understand the teaching, “God wants to marry us” with all the above points in mind.  But they are essential, most especially in our culture which considers marriage almost exclusively in sexual terms.  If we are to assert that God wishes to marry us, especially to audiences in contemporary America, then we must also qualify our assertion according to the teaching of John Paul II.  As we have seen, he is very, very careful and does modify his assertion with the points made above. We need to do the same! 

Of course, if God “wants to marry us,” the question arises: when does God marry us?  Well, if the marriage of Christ to each of us refers to the order of grace, then we become the spouse of Christ when we first receive the divine life, i.e., at our Baptism.  From this perspective, we should not say to an audience of baptized Christians that “God wants to marry us,” but rather that he has married us!

While the bold-face assertion that God wants to marry us without the proper qualifications is certainly not an error,  it is both incomplete and misleading. It is an axiom in Church history that most heresies are exaggerations of the truth, e.g., Christ is a human being (true), Christ is only a human being (false)—the Arian heresy of the fourth and fifth centuries. To teach that God wants to marry us without the proper qualifications could be termed an exaggeration of the truth and in this way it is misleading.  We neither want to commit an error, nor do we want to mislead people!

To conclude, I answered the young man in the audience who asserted after the break-out session that God wanted to marry us with the statement that if true, then God wants to marry the angels.  He gives himself to the angels in love.  He gives his divine life to them (what is meant in John Paul II’s by the marriage of Christ to the Church).  And, of course, God’s love for the angels is completely transcendent, even beyond their capability to love him. What is true for us must be true for the faithful angels in heaven

Let us be cautious in how we teach!

Rev. Richard M. Hogan
Robbinsdale, MN
November 19, 2008