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Christ's Redemptive Love Has Spousal Nature

93 (of 129) - Catechesis by John Paul II on the Theology of the Body
General Audience, Wednesday 8 September 1982 - in Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"1. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes: "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body" (Eph 5:29-30). After this verse the author deems it opportune to cite what can be considered the fundamental text on marriage in the entire Bible, the text contained 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" (cf. Eph 5:31). It is possible to deduce from the immediate context of the Letter to the Ephesians that the citation from Genesis (2:24) is necessary here not so much to recall the unity of the spouses, determined from the beginning in the work of creation. But it is necessary to present the mystery of Christ with the Church from which the author deduces the truth about the unity of the spouses. This is the most important point of the whole text, in a certain sense, the keystone. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sums up in these words all that he had said previously, tracing the analogy and presenting the similarity between the unity of the spouses and the unity of Christ with the Church. Citing the words of Genesis 2:24, the author points out where the bases of this analogy are to be sought. They are to be sought in the line which, in God's salvific plan, unites marriage, as the most ancient revelation (manifestation) of the plan in the created world, with the definitive revelation and manifestation, the revelation that "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25), conferring on his redemptive love a spousal character and meaning.

2. So then this analogy which permeates the text of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33) has its ultimate basis in God's salvific plan. This will become still more clear and evident when we place the passage of this text analyzed by us in the overall context of the Letter to the Ephesians. Then one will more easily understand why the author, after citing the words of Genesis 2:24, writes: "This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32).

In the overall context of the Letter to the Ephesians and likewise in the wider context of the words of the Sacred Scriptures, which reveal God's salvific plan "from the beginning," one must admit that here the term mystérion signifies the mystery, first of all hidden in God's mind, and later revealed in the history of man. Indeed, it is a question of a "great" mystery, given its importance. That mystery, as God's salvific plan in regard to humanity, is in a certain sense the central theme of all revelation, its central reality. God, as Creator and Father, wishes above all to transmit this to mankind in his Word.

3. It is a question not only of transmitting the Good News of salvation, but of initiating at the same time the work of salvation, as a fruit of grace which sanctifies man for eternal life in union with God. Precisely along the line of this revelation and accomplishment, St. Paul sets in relief the continuity between the most ancient covenant which God established by constituting marriage in the work of creation, and the definitive covenant. After having loved the Church and given himself up for her, in that covenant Christ is united to her in a spousal way, corresponding to the image of spouses. This continuity of God's salvific initiative constitutes the essential basis of the great analogy contained in the Letter to the Ephesians. The continuity of God's salvific initiative signifies the continuity and even the identity of the mystery, of the great mystery in the different phases of its revelation—therefore, in a certain sense, of its manifestation—and at the same time of its accomplishment: in its "most ancient" phase from the point of view of the history of man and salvation, and in the phase "of the fullness of time" (Gal 4:4).

4. Is it possible to understand that great mystery as a sacrament? In the text quoted by us, is the author of the Letter to the Ephesians speaking perchance of the sacrament of marriage? If he is not speaking of it directly, in the strict sense—here one must agree with the sufficiently widespread opinion of Biblical scholars and theologians—however it seems that in this text he is speaking of the bases of the sacramentality of the whole of Christian life and in particular of the bases of the sacramentality of marriage. He speaks then of the sacramentality of the whole of Christian existence in the Church and in particular of marriage in an indirect way, but in the most fundamental way possible.

5. Is not "sacrament" synonymous with "mystery"(1) The mystery indeed remains "occult"—hidden in God himself—in such wise that even after its proclamation (or its revelation) it does not cease to be called "mystery," and it is also preached as a mystery. The sacrament presupposes the revelation of the mystery and presupposes also its acceptance by means of faith on the part of man. However, at the same time, it is something more than the proclamation of the mystery and its acceptance by faith. The sacrament consists in the "manifesting" of that mystery in a sign which serves not only to proclaim the mystery, but also to accomplish it in man. The sacrament is a visible and efficacious sign of grace. Through it, that mystery hidden from eternity in God is accomplished in man, that mystery which the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of at the very beginning (cf. Eph 1:9)—the mystery of God's call of man in Christ to holiness, and the mystery of his predestination to become his adopted son. This becomes a reality in a mysterious way, under the veil of a sign. Nonetheless that sign is always a "making visible" of the supernatural mystery which it works in man under its veil.

6. Taking into consideration the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians analyzed here, especially the words: "This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church," one must note the following. The author of the letter writes not only of the great mystery hidden in God, but also—and above all—of the mystery which is accomplished by Christ. With an act of redemptive love, Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. By the same act he is united with the Church in a spousal manner, as the husband and wife are reciprocally united in marriage instituted by the Creator. It seems that the words of the Letter to the Ephesians provide sufficient motivation for what is stated at the very beginning of Lumen Gentium: "The Church is in Christ in the nature of a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium n.1). This text of Vatican II does not say: "The Church is a sacrament," but "It is in the nature of a sacrament." Thereby it indicates that one must speak of the sacramentality of the Church in a manner which is analogical and not identical in regard to what we mean when we speak of the seven sacraments administered by the Church by Christ's institution. If there are bases for speaking of the Church as in the nature of a sacrament, such bases for the greater part have been indicated precisely in the Letter to the Ephesians.

7. It may be said that this sacramentality of the Church is constituted by all the sacraments by means of which she carries out her mission of sanctification. It can also be said that the sacramentality of the Church is the source of the sacraments and in particular of Baptism and the Eucharist. This can be seen from the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians which we have already analyzed (cf. Eph 5:25-30). Finally it must be said that the sacramentality of the Church remains in a particular relationship with marriage, the most ancient sacrament."

After the catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages:

Ai fedeli di espressione francese

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

En parlant de la soumission et de l’amour mutuels des époux, l’auteur de la lettre aux Ephésiens se réfère à l’amour du Christ qui “a aimé l’Eglise et s’est livré pour elle”, faisant de l’Eglise son corps, autrement dit il se réfère à l’acte rédempteur du Christ dans sa révélation définitive; mais il rapproche cela du premier dessein de Dieu sur sa création, exprimé au début de la Bible: “L’homme quittera son père et sa mère, et les deux ne seront qu’une seule chair”. Et il ajoute: “C’est là un grand mystère: je l’entends du Christ et de l’Eglise”.

 Ainsi, comme je l’ai développé en italien, le mystère du salut dans le Christ prolonge, manifeste et réalise pleinement le mystère déjà inscrit dans la création et révélé en partie au début: c’est toujours l’amour mystérieux de Dieu pour l’humanité, son projet d’union avec elle, par adoption, et son appel conséquent à la sainteté; et ce mystère est proclamé, accepté dans la foi, manifesté et actualisé à travers des “signes” qui sont de l’ordre sacramentel. L’Eglise, unie au Christ comme une épouse, est elle-même, dit justement le Concile Vatican II, “comme un sacrement”: sa sacramentalité est la source des sacrements, notamment du baptême et de l’Eucharistie, et elle demeure dans un rapport particulier avec le mariage, le “sacrement” le plus ancien.

Vous laissant le soin d’approfondir ce mystère, je salue cordialement tous les pèlerins de langue française.

* * *

J’ai noté en particulier la présence des religieux Oblats de Marie Immaculée, avec leur Supérieur général, le Père Fernand Jetté. Je sais l’œuvre courageuse et fructueuse que vos frères ont accomplie, non seulement dans les missions populaires, à l’intérieur, mais pour implanter l’Eglise au grand nord de l’Amérique comme au centre de l’Afrique; je vous encourage à poursuivre l’évangélisation que requiert notre époque, avec le zèle du bienheureux fondateur Mgr Eugène de Mazenod, né voici deux cents ans. Que, par vous, la Parole de Dieu atteigne les extrémités de la terre et pénètre en leur fonds les cœurs et les mentalités! L’Eglise vous en remercie.

Je pense aussi aux Provinciaux européens des Pères Rédemptoristes: aidez vos frères à travailler, selon votre charisme, au salut des âmes.

* * *

Je salue encore les prêtres Missionnaires Scalabriniens, qui exercent un ministère dévoué et combien nécessaire auprès des migrants en Europe; je vous encourage à chercher un nouveau souffle dans votre cours de Renouveau.

* * *

Des travailleurs migrants, notamment les mineurs de Rozelay, il y en a dans le pèlerinage des diocèses d’Autun et de Belley, dont je salue avec affection tous les membres conduits par leurs Pasteurs, notamment Mgr le Bourgeois; je vous souhaite, chers amis, de faire ici l’expérience d’une grande communion dans l’Eglise.

En ce jour de fête de la naissance de la bienheureuse Vierge Marie, je la prie d’obtenir joie et réconfort à tous les pèlerins, que je bénis de tout cœur.

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear brothers and sisters,

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author quotes a text that is contained in the Book of Genesis: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one”. He cites these words not only to point out the unity of husband and wife, but also to present this unity in connection with the mystery of Christ and the Church. The author of the Letter makes an analogy between the union of husband and wife, and the union that exists between Christ and the Church. He points out the relationship between marriage as the plan that God revealed in the beginning and the definitive revelation of the fact that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. Christ’s redemptive love is hereby seen to have a spousal nature and meaning. All of this, in the words of the author, is characterized as being “a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church”.

* * *

We are all very happy to note the presence of the group of young boys from Malta, who have been serving Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica during the summer months. May God reward you for your generous service, and bless you and your families at home.

* * *

My cordial greetings go to the delegation from San Francisco, California, led by the Mayor. Your visit is especially appreciated, coming as it does in connection with the centenary of Saint Francis of Assisi. May God’s blessings descend in abundance on your illustrious city.

* * *

I am happy to extend a special welcome to the new students at the North American College. Remember always that you have come to Rome in order to get to know Christ better. If you are humble, you will discover him in prayer, in the Sacred Scriptures and in all your studies. Dear seminarians, in Rome you will have many splendid opportunities to open your hearts ever more to Jesus Christ, the Son of God and High Priest of salvation.

* * *

It is a joy for me today to welcome the Delegates from the Third International Congress of the World Confederation of Neurosciences who have come to Rome for this audience. I convey to you my prayerful good wishes for the success of this important Congress. I am confident that your scientific discussion will enable medical science to make further progress in the field of genetics and pre- and post-natal diagnosis and treatment, to the benefit of couples and of the unborn child.

Precisely because of the great technical advances of our day, it becomes necessary, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio”, “to recover an awareness of the primacy of moral values, which are the values of the human person as such. . . . Science is called to ally itself with wisdom” (IOANNIS PAULI PP. II Familiaris Consortio, 8).

May your meeting contribute to the attainment of his ideal. To all of you goes the expression of my deep respect and esteem.

Ai gruppi di espressione tedesca

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

In dieser eindrucksvollen Zusammenkunft von Menschen vieler Sprachen und Kulturen heiße ich auch euch herzlich willkommen.

In italienischer Sprache habe ich soeben meine Auslegung jener berühmten Stelle aus dem Epheserbrief der Heiligen Schrift fortgesetzt, in der uns die Augen geöffnet werden für die tiefe Wahrheit und die hohe Berufung der Ehe zwischen Mann und Frau, vor allem wenn diese sich als Christen bekennen.

Immer wieder vergleicht der Autor dieses Briefes dort die Ehe mit der innigen Lebensgemeinschaft, die Christus mit seiner Kirche in der Kraft seiner Erlöserliebe eingegangen ist. In diesem Zusammenhang heißt es dann: ”Darum wird der Mann Vater und Mutter verlassen und sich an seine Frau binden, und die zwei werden ein Fleisch sein“ (Eph. 5, 31). Dies ist ein Zitat aus dem ersten Buch der Heiligen Schrift, aus der Genesis. Es handelt sich hier um die grundlegende Aussage der Bibel über die Ehe, un sie meint jede Ehe, die von Menschen auf dieser Erde geschlossen wird.

Um so überraschender ist darum die unmittelbare Fortsetzung des Textes im Epheserbrief: ”Dies is ein tiefes Geheimnis; ich beziehe es auf Christus und die Kirche“. Mann und Frau in der Ehe - Christus und seine Kirche: diese beiden scheinbar so unterschiedlichen Beziehungen haben im Licht unseres Glaubens etwas Gemeinsames: beide sind ein Zeichen für die erlösende Zuwendung Gottes zu dieser Menschheit, zu seiner ganzen Schöpfung.

Diese Liebe Gottes, ”das tiefe Geheimnis“, will durch viele unserer Lebensvollzüge offenbar werden. Wünschen wir uns gegenseitig, daß uns dies oft und deutlich gelingt! In diesem Sinne segne ich die Priester unter euch, vor allem die Gruppe der Jubilare aus der Diözese Würzburg, dazu die Theologiestudenten aus dem Seminar in Linz an der Donau; ich segne ebenso die Ordensleute unter euch, auch alle Männer und Frauen aus dem Laienstand, vor allem die großen Gruppen aus den Diözesen Salzburg und Graz. Die Treue Gottes sei allezeit mit euch!

Ai fedeli di espressione spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Doy mi cordial saludo de bienvenida a esta Audiencia a las personas y grupos de lengua española, procedentes de España y de diversos Países de América Latina.

El autor de la Carta a los Efesios, al citar el libro del Génesis, “por esto dejará el hombre a su padre y a su madre y se unirá a su mujer, y serán dos en una carne”, lo hace no tanto para recordar la unidad de los cónyuges, sino para presentar el misterio de Cristo con la Iglesia, del cual deduce la verdad sobre la unidad de los esposos. Ese gran misterio es el tema central de toda la revelación. En él se fundamenta la sacramentalidad de toda la vida cristiana, especialmente la del matrimonio.

Al principio de la Constitución “Lumen Gentium” leemos: “La Iglesia es en Cristo como un sacramento, o sea signo e instrumento de la unión íntima con Dios y de la unidad de todo el género humano”. Tal sacramentalidad de la Iglesia está constituida por todos los sacramentos mediante los cuales ella realiza su misión santificadora, sobre todo a través del Bautismo y la Eucaristía.

* * *

Entre los grupos aquí presentes, saludo de modo particular al Coro “Madrigalistas Vicente Emilio Sojo”, de Caracas, y a la Cantoría Antonio Lauro, de Cabudare, también de Venezuela.

Que vuestra participación en los actos religiosos sea una ocasión para vivir vosotros mismos y testimoniar cada día más la fe en Cristo en medio de vuestros hermanos.

A todos los aquí presentes de lengua española mi afectuosa Bendición Apostólica.

Ai gruppi di espressione portoghese

Saúdo afectuosamente os peregrinos e ouvintes de língua portuguesa!

Reflectimos hoje sobre um “grande mistério” de que São Paulo fala na carta aos Efésios. O Apóstolo põe a união do esposo e da esposa em referência à união de Cristo com a Igreja. Por esta analogia diz que este mistério é grande. Traz em si uma “boa nova” e, ao mesmo tempo, inicia a obra da salvação, como fruto da graça que santifica o homem para a vida eterna, na união com Deus. Aqui se encontra a base da sacramentalidade do matrimónio, enquanto manifesta e realiza no homem, por meio de um sinal, este grande mistério da salvação.

Dou-vos a minha bênção para que toda a vossa vida seja marcada pela união com Deus.

A un gruppo proveniente dalla Jugoslavia

Sia lodato Gesù e Maria. Saluto i pellegrini di Novi Sad e nella odierna festa della Madonna voglio che voi, cari pellegrini, rimaniate sempre fedeli a Gesù e Maria. Il Papa vi benedice.

Preghiera alla Madonna Nera di Jasna Góra

1. Dzisiaj wito narodzenia Matki Bożej - uroczystość bardzo czczona w różnych sanktuariach i na wielu miejscach naszej Ojczyzny.

“Niech Twe Narodziny, Bogurodzico, rzucą światło na wszystkie Kościoły” - tak modli się dzisiejsza liturgia.

2. Wspominamy co roku z początkiem września wydarzenia drugiej wojny światowej, które tyle ofiar pociągnęły za sobą na naszej ojczystej ziemi.

W duchu wiary staramy się patrzeć na to straszliwe żniwo śmierci - poprzez tajemnicę Twoich Narodzin.

W tym świetle wielka wspólnota Narodu ogarnia wszystkich Rodaków, których pochłonęły wydarzenia wojenne lat 1939-45. Oni żyją w naszych sercach.

3. Równocześnie zaś, obchodząc święto Twych Narodzin, o Pani Jasnogórska, ogarniamy najwyższą troską tych, którich wydarzenia obecnego stanu wojennego oderwały od ich rodzin, od ich zwyczajnego życia i pracy.

Troszczymy się o los internowanych, którym społeczeństwo i Kościól może przychodzić z pomocą.

Coraz bardziej troszczymy się o los więzionych i skazywanych, do których społeczeństwo i Kościół prawie że nie ma przystępu.

Z najwyższym niepokojem myślimy o tych, który w więzieniu posuwają się do strajku głodowego.

4. Ci wszyscy nasi bracia i siostry należą do wielkiej wspólnoty Narodu, podobnie jak należało owych sześć milionów, którzy oddali życie podczas drugiej wojny światowej.

Naród ma prawo i obowiązek troszczyć się o nich, ma prawo zabiegać, ażeby w stosunku do więźniów były przestrzegane wszystkie prawa człowieka.

Szyż nie jesteśmy wyznawcami tego Chrystusa, który powiedział: “Byłem w więzieniu, a przyszliście do Mnie” (Matth. 25, 36).

Tobie, Pani Jasnogórska, Matko uwięzionego Chrystusa, polecamy wszystkich internowanych i więzionych z powodu stanu wojennego y naszej Ojczyźnie.

Diamo una traduzione in italiano del discorso in polacco del Papa.

1. Ricorre oggi la festa della Natività della Madre di Dio, solennità tanto celebrata nei diversi Santuari e in molti luoghi della nostra Patria.

“La tua Natività illumini tutte le Chiese”, così prega l’odierna liturgia.

2. Ogni anno, all’inizio di settembre, ricordiamo gli avvenimenti della seconda guerra mondiale, che hanno causato tante vittime nella nostra terra natale.

Cerchiamo di guardare a questa luttuosa tragedia in spirito di fede, attraverso il mistero della tua Natività.

In questa luce la grande comunità della Nazione abbraccia tutti i connazionali, che sono stati travolti negli avvenimenti della guerra negli anni 1939-45. Essi vivono nei nostri cuori.

3. Celebrando la festa della tua Natività, o Signora di Jasna Góra, abbracciamo, al tempo stesso, con la più grande sollecitudine coloro che dagli avvenimenti dell’attuale stato di guerra sono stati distaccati dalle loro famiglie, dalla loro vita abituale e dal lavoro.

Ci sta a cuore la sorte degli internati, che la società e la Chiesa possono aiutare.

Ci sta a cuore sempre più la sorte dei detenuti e condannati, ai quali la società e la Chiesa quasi non hanno accesso.

Con la massima inquietudine pensiamo a coloro che nel carcere si spingono fino allo sciopero della fame.

4. Tutti questi nostri fratelli e sorelle appartengono alla grande comunità della Nazione, così come appartengono quei sei milioni, che hanno dato la vita durante la seconda guerra mondiale.

La Nazione ha il diritto e il dovere di aver sollecitudine per loro, ha il diritto di adoperarsi affinché nei confronti dei prigionieri siano rispettati tutti i diritti dell’uomo.

Non siamo forse confessori del Cristo che disse “ero . . . carcerato e siete venuti a trovarmi”?

A te, Signora di Jasna Góra, Madre di Cristo imprigionato, raccomandiamo tutti gli internati ed i carcerati a causa dello stato di guerra nella nostra Patria.

Ai gruppi italiani

Rivolgo ora, un saluto particolare a tutti i partecipanti al Congresso promosso dal Segretariato degli Enti di Assistenza ai Carcerati. Carissimi, il vostro servizio di prevenzione e di assistenza nei confronti di tanti fratelli che hanno bisogno di ritrovare il retto cammino, è suggerito da una profonda generosità, ispirata ai principi della più nobile umanità e dell’amore cristiano. Soprattutto chi ha deviato necessita di un sostegno particolare per costruirsi interiormente la gioiosa speranza di un laborioso e valido reinserimento nella società. A tutti gli Organismi e le persone che si adoperano per questo elevato scopo di rieducazione, va il mio augurio, il mio plauso, il mio incoraggiamento, la mia benedizione.

* * *

Saluto anche i fedeli di Ravanusa, che celebrano quest’anno il 350° anniversario di fondazione della loro parrocchia. Carissimi, nel raccomandarvi di tener alte le vostre tradizioni di fede, invoco l’assistenza divina su di voi, sui vostri familiari e su tutti i vostri concittadini, con un particolare pensiero per quelli che hanno dovuto emigrare in cerca di lavoro, e tutti benedico di cuore.

* * *

Saluto inoltre e benedico i membri del Circolo Dalmine di Castel Volpino.

* * *

Il mio pensiero va poi a tutti i giovani presenti a questa Udienza. Oggi, festa della Natività della beata Vergine Maria, vi saluto con le parole di san Giovanni Damasceno, grande devoto della Madonna, pronunciate per questo giorno: “Venite tutti con letizia a celebrare la nascita della Letizia del mondo intero . . ., oggi è per il mondo l’inizio della salvezza”. La gioia per la nascita di Maria inondi i vostri cuori e vi aiuti a guardare al vostro avvenire con tanta speranza, con fiducia invitta nella sua protezione. Maria saprà fare di voi uomini e cristiani maturi.

* * *

Anche a voi, cari ammalati, giunga la mia parola affettuosa e l’invito a gioire per la nascita dell’Immacolata Madre di Dio. Maria, pur concepita e nata senza macchia di peccato, ha partecipato in maniera mirabile alle sofferenze del suo divin Figlio, per essere Corredentrice dell’umanità. Voi lo sapete, il dolore se unito a quello del Redentore ha un grande ed insostituibile valore salvifico. Intuite, allora, la preziosità inestimabile della vostra grande missione, sulla quale invoco le consolazioni di Maria, le gioie più profonde che per voi ha preparato il suo purissimo Cuore di Madre.

* * *

Il mio speciale saluto va ora agli Sposi novelli qui presenti. Sin dalla sua nascita, Maria occupa un posto privilegiato nel disegno di Dio, essa è la “Vergine che darà alla luce un Figlio” (Is 7, 14): il Sole di giustizia, Cristo nostro Dio (Liturgia odierna). Vergine, Sposa e Madre, Maria sia il modello a cui si ispira la vostra unione fedele, indissolubile, feconda. Mentre vi auguro ogni vera gioia, vi affido a lei perché sia l’ispiratrice ed il sostegno continuo del vostro indefettibile amore in questa vita, destinato a perpetuarsi nell’eternità.


1. "Sacrament," a central concept for our reflections, has traveled a long way in the course of the centuries. The semantic history of the term "sacrament" must begin with the Greek term mystérion which, truth to tell, in the Book of Judith still means the king's military plans ("secret plan," cf. Jdt 2:2). But already in the Book of Wisdom (2:22) and in the prophecy of Daniel (2:27), the term signifies the creative plans of God and the purpose which he assigns to the world, and which are revealed only to faithful confessors.

In this sense mystérion  appears only once in the Gospels: "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God" (Mk 4:11 and par.). In the great letters of St. Paul, this term is found seven times, reaching its climax in the Letter to the Romans: "...according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed..." (Rom 16:25-26).

In the later letters we find the identification of mystérion  with the Gospel (cf. Eph 6:19) and even with Jesus Christ himself (cf. Col 2:2; 4:3; Eph 3:4), which marks a turning point in the meaning of the term: mystérion  is no longer merely God's eternal plan, but the accomplishment on earth of that plan revealed in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in the Patristic period, the term mystérion  begins to be applied also to the historical events by which the divine will to save man was manifested. Already in the second century in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Sts. Justin and Meliton, the mysteries of the life of Jesus, the prophecies and the symbolic figures of the Old Testament are defined with the term mystérion .

In the third century the most ancient Latin versions of Sacred Scripture begin to appear, in which the Greek term is translated both by mysterium and by sacramentum (e.g., Wis 2:22; Eph 5:32). Perhaps this was to distance themselves explicitly from the pagan mystery rites and from the Neo-Platonic gnostic mystagogy.

However, sacramentum originally meant the military oath taken by the Roman legionaries. The aspects of "initiation to a new form of life," "commitment without reserve," "faithful service even at the risk of death" can be distinguished in it. Given this, Tertullian pointed out these dimensions in the Christian sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. In the third century, therefore, the term sacramentum was applied both to the mystery of God's salvific plan in Christ (cf., e.g., Eph 5:32), and to its concrete accomplishment by means of the seven sources of grace which are today called "sacraments of the Church."

St. Augustine, making use of various meanings of the term "sacrament," applied it to religious rites both of the old and the new covenant, to biblical symbols and figures as well as to the revealed Christian religion. All these "sacraments," according to St. Augustine, pertain to the great sacrament: the mystery of Christ and the Church. St. Augustine influenced the further clarification of the term "sacrament," emphasizing that the sacraments are sacred signs, that they contain in themselves a resemblance to what they signify and that they confer what they signify. By his analyses, he therefore contributed to the elaboration of the concise scholastic definition of sacrament: signum efficax gratiae.

St. Isidore of Seville (7th century) later stressed another aspect: the mysterious nature of the sacrament which, under the veils of material species, conceals the action of the Holy Spirit in the human soul.

The theological Summae of the 12th and 13th centuries already formulate the systematic definitions of the sacraments, but a special signification belongs to the definition of St. Thomas: "Non omne signum rei sacrae est sacramentum.... sed solum ea quae significant perfectionem sanctitatis humanae." "Not every sign of a sacred thing is a sacrament.... Only those are called sacraments which signify the perfection of holiness in man" (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, q. 60, a. 2, ad 1, 3 [ New York: Benziger, 1947]).

From then on, "sacrament" was understood exclusively as one of the seven sources of grace. Theological studies were directed to a deeper understanding of the essence and of the action of the seven sacraments, by elaborating in a systematic way the principal lines contained in the scholastic tradition.

Only in the last century was attention paid to the aspects of the sacrament which had been neglected in the course of the centuries, for example, to the ecclesial dimension and to the personal encounter with Christ, which have found expression in the Constitution on the Liturgy (no. 59). However, the Second Vatican council returns above all the original significance of "sacramentum-mysterium," calling the Church "the universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium 48), sacrament, or "sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium 1).

Here sacrament is understood—in conformity with its original meaning—as the accomplishment of God's eternal plan in regard to the salvation of mankind.

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