The entirety of God’s revelation, and in fact the history of the universe itself, begins and ends with the mystery of communion; and at the apex of his plan is also communion. And, as we will see, this communion bears an innately spousal or nuptial character; or rather, the spousal mystery is the best avenue to understanding, and the most radiant manifestation of, that uncreated mystery, that “mystery hidden in God” which becomes visible in the world and seeks to take us up into itself: the eternal intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The only way to understand the universe and existence itself, therefore, is to return to the wellspring of the mystery of gift, and to come to see all things in its light. Only in this dimension of God’s prior and abiding gift, which lies at the origin of all things and has brought them into being, and sustains them unceasingly at each instant, can we make contact with their deepest essence and their authentic meaning. In other words, the whole universe has been born from, and is sustained by, God’s free gift, a gift given in utterly gratuitous love. Creation itself is a gift, the gift which is but the expression of God’s creative generosity. But, as John Paul II expresses, “the concept of ‘giving’ cannot refer to nothing. It indicates the one who gives and the one who receives the gift, as well as the relation established between them” (TOB 13:4). Therefore, this gift is ultimately an expression of the heart of the Giver, and is ordained to establishing a relationship of love between God and his creature. In other words, we are invited to understand that the gift is oriented towards communion.
Gift is ordained to establish a relationship of love between the Giver and the receiver, between Lover and beloved, between God and his creatures, such that ultimately God himself becomes the very Gift given, awakening in turn a reciprocal gift of the creature back to God. Here we have the foundation of God’s spousal relationship with humanity—for it is only humanity which can freely acknowledge and receive the gift, both of God and of creation, since we alone are persons, we alone have an “I” that can recognize the “Thou” of God and enter into relationship with him in the mutual affirmation of persons. John of the Cross expressed this very beautifully when, in one of his poems, he has a dialogue between the Father and the Son in which humanity is spoken of as the Bride for whom the whole universe is a palace:
“My Son, I wish to give you/ a bride who will love you./ Because of you she will deserve/ to share our company,/ to eat at our table,/ the same bread I eat,/ that she may know the good/ I have in such a Son;/ and rejoice with me/ in your grace and fullness.” / “I am very grateful,”/ the Son answered;/ “I will show my brightness/ to the bride you give me,/ so that by it she may see/ how great my Father is,/ and how I have received/ my being from your being./ I will hold her in my arms/ and she will burn with your love,/ and with eternal delight/ she will exalt your goodness.” (Romances on the Incarnation, n. 3)
Whenever the human person receives this gift in a conscious and personal way, and responds with the reciprocal surrender of self back to the Giver, then communion is born. And this communion is the primal spousal covenant lying at the very foundation of God’s creative act, a covenant which is the very purpose of creation and God’s reason for bringing the entire universe into existence: so that he can communicate his own life as Trinity to his precious Bride and draw her to share forever in the joy of his own innermost life. Yes, this relationship between Christ and humanity, between Christ and the Church—and indeed between Christ and each individual human person who welcomes his gift—manifests and participates in the very eternal life of love that is proper to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this life that is the ultimate origin of the spousal mystery while surpassing it, in the pure gratuitous beauty of the eternal intimacy of the Trinity.
And this precisely is the significance of the spousal mystery, which, as I have said, is paradigmatic for all love: for spousal love is precisely a love of the total mutual gift of persons to one another, a gift that brings about a complete and indissoluble communion between them, a communion, further, which is innately fruitful and expansive. Let me unfold that a little to make it clearer. Spousal love consists in the following: 1) the total mutual self-giving of persons, in which each gives the vulnerability of their own person to the other and also receives the vulnerable gift of the other person, such that a reciprocal belonging of each to the other occurs; 2) an indissoluble communion is established between the two persons through this total reciprocal gift, a communion that is a kind of “making one” of two distinct persons without dissolving their distinctness; 3) further, this communion is gratuitous, meaning that it is freely desired and embraced for no other purpose than that it is beautiful, good, and true for its own sake, for no other purpose than that the person is valuable and precious in their own right, with an absolute and irreplaceable value; 4) such communion, while being gratuitous and bearing its meaning within itself on the basis of the absolute dignity of each person, is also expansively open for the outpouring of the fruit born of this communion to other persons (who are also of absolute dignity).
Here we stand at the heart of the Gospel, and are in touch with the deepest, most ardent desire of the Heart of Christ himself, which he expressed on the evening before his death in the following way:
I pray that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:21-24)
These words express the unity that God desires to have with each and every person whom he has created, and with humanity as a whole, incorporated into the Body of his one Bride, the Church, made new by being taken into the very ceaseless circulation of self-giving love between the Father and the Son in the breath of their one Holy Spirit. Again, John of the Cross illustrates this powerfully in one of the most important passages of his writing:
This breathing of the air is an ability that the soul states God will give her there [in heaven] in the communication of the Holy Spirit. By his divine breath-like spiration, the Holy Spirit elevates the soul sublimely and informs her and makes her capable of breathing in God the same spiration of love that the Father breathes in the Son and the Son in the Father. This spiration of love is the Holy Spirit himself, who in the Father and the Son breathes out to her in this transformation in order to unite her to himself. There would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed in the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity in an open and manifest degree.
And this kind of spiration of the Holy Spirit in the soul, by which God transforms her into himself, is so sublime, delicate, and deep a delight that a mortal tongue finds it indescribable, nor can the human intellect, as such, in any way grasp it. Even what comes to pass in the communication given in this temporal transformation [i.e. already in this life] is unspeakable, for the soul united and transformed in God breathed out in God to God the very divine spiration that God—she being transformed in him—breathes out in himself to her. …
No knowledge or power can describe how this happens, unless by explaining how the Son of God attained and merited such a high state for us, the power to be children of God, as St. John says (Jn 1:12). Thus the Son asked of the Father in St. John’s Gospel: Father, I desire that where I am those you have given me may also be with me, that they may see the glory you have given me (Jn 17:24), that is, that they may perform in us by participation the same work that I do by nature; that is, breathe the Holy Spirit. And he adds: I do not ask, Father, only for those present, but for those also who will believe in me through their doctrine; that all of them may be one as you, Father, in me and I in you, that thus they may be one in us. The glory which you have given me I have given them that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me; that they may be perfect in one; that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them as you have loved me (Jn 17:20-23).i
This reality of our espousal to God in intimate love, while being fully ontological—in other words, touching and transforming us to the very roots of our being—is also meant to be fully experiential, pervading our subjective consciousness down to the very slightest stirring of our thought, desire, choice, and emotion with the presence and love of the Most Holy Trinity. God never desired there to be a rift between the objective and the subjective, between what is and what we as human persons experience. As a result of Adam’s and Eve’s original refusal to receive God’s gift and to surrender themselves to him in return—in other words, as a result of original sin—as well as in each personal sin committed since then, there is a rupture between objective and subjective. This is because, in sin, the person, created in relation and for the sake of communion, turns in upon himself or herself and severs the bonds of living relationship, preferring the isolation of autonomous self-determination to the joy of dependence and loving relation with Another. The happiness of living in the very image of the Persons of the Trinity—in an openness to receive and give love in authentic communion—collapses and gives way instead to the closure of fearful self-protection, and to the compulsions of what is called the “threefold concupiscence”: the lust for pleasure, possession, and pride.
The mystery of love and intimacy corresponds with the deepest desires of each one of us. And yet we are so broken, so incapable of living this mystery as we desire! How can we experience again the union of objective and subjective, of God and humanity, of the Trinity and our own person, and the unity of human persons and of the whole creation within the embrace of God? Of course, only God himself can heal the wounds that our sins have inflicted. Only he can restore our wounded nature, marred by sin and fractured from the wholeness for which we were made. For this is what our sins have done: they have fractured us from him who is our life, and fractured us from healthy relationship with other created persons and with all of reality, and fractured us also in our very selves, in the relation between body and spirit. We are now “dis-integrated,” broken to pieces, whereas we were meant to be “whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body” (cf. 1 Thes 5:23). Here we discover and understand precisely the depths of the great gift of Redemption.
One of the greatest and most mature fruits of Redemption is precisely that our subjective consciousness and experience is so healed and irradiated with the light of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth that our subjectivity becomes “objective to the very depths” (TOB 19:1). He wants us to truly experience and rejoice in the joy of intimacy with him, to exult and rejoice in the happiness of this most blessed marriage between his divinity and our humanity, between the uncreated mystery of God and the created reality of the entire universe. This—this is the great destiny of each human person, and we can settle for nothing less: to be a bride of Christ, the Son of God, and through him, with him, and in him, to find our happiness in the very innermost embrace of the heavenly Father and in the ecstatic kiss of the Holy Spirit!
And so he has come to restore to us what we have lost in sin, and to give us, to the full, this inestimable gift of participation in his own divine life! He did not abandon us in the loneliness and pain of our sin. No, he sorrowed in tender compassion at the evil that we brought upon ourselves, sorrowed to see his precious bride spiraling away into the abyss. For he never created us to be the “subjects” of his own almighty power, to lord his rights over us as a master a slave; for as John Paul says, “the paradigm of master-slave is foreign to the Gospel.”ii No, he created us out of pure love, out of pure gift, and for the sake of the one gift which gives meaning to all others: the gratuitous joy of intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with other created persons in him. And when he sees us so far from this gift, being pure Love, he does not abandon us. Rather, he promises, from the first moment of sin, to bring about our healing (see Gen 3:15), and he works, gently and patiently throughout the ages of history, for the definitive moment when he will make all things new.
And when the time comes, this is precisely what he does. He comes to rescue us, to redeem us from our slavery to sin and to draw us back into the intimacy of his own life, as child before Father, as bride in the arms of her Bridegroom. “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir” (Gal 4:4-7). And Christ comes not as a mere disincarnate “spirit,” not as an apparition visible only to the spirit; no, he comes in the very flesh animated by the Spirit of Love, taking a human body as his own and becoming fully human. And in this way he espouses himself to the body of each one of us, of every person who has ever lived or will live, and inserting himself into the very fabric of material creation. The body, which was meant to be the meeting place of love, the sacrament of encounter and communion—but which became opaque and impermeable because of sin—is made so again. Christ renews our humanity from the inside, by taking our existence and living in the midst of it the very innermost life of the Trinity. For what does Jesus do during his earthly life but what he has done for all eternity: live the very life of the beloved Son before his Father, inhaling and exhaling the sweet breath of the Holy Spirit? Yes, and now this life of the Holy Trinity vibrates through the very heart of our creation, through the very fibers of our bodily humanity! The Body of Jesus, thus, is a “filial” body; it is the body of a son—the Body of the Son of God. And yet it is also our body, our body taken up by him and healed and made whole. Thus we can experience anew our own body as the body of a beloved child of God, joined to the Body of Christ. Further, the Body of Christ is the Body of the Bridegroom, who, coming from the Father into our world and yet never leaving his side, becomes a spousal gift to us, his wayward Bride, in order to draw us back into the intimacy of the marriage covenant for which we were created. Finally, the Body of Christ is the Body of a Father—a revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)—in which new life is born in the world, born from his own existence opened wide in love and gift.
And all of this occurs in its fullest way in the last days of Christ’s earthly life, in the passage from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. For he gives his Body solemnly as a gift of perfect love in the Eucharist. “This is my Body, given for you,” he says (Lk 22:19). In this act of self-surrender, he pervades the whole material universe with that sacramental mystery of his own flesh, his flesh become pure gift: the meeting-place of all communion, where all estranged human persons are to be drawn together—in body and spirit and throughout space and time—into the single, all-enfolding embrace of the Redeemer. And this gift given in the Eucharist is realized externally in the events of his Passion, in which he hands over his Body as a gift for us, his Bride, even beyond the boundary of death. In doing so, he comes in compassion to be with us in the darkest and most desperate places of our fallen existence, and lovingly embraces us even in the place where we face the eternal isolation and aloneness of death. And he breaks the bonds of slavery that shackle us! He pervades our loneliness with the light of his presence! He shatters our agonized solitude with the nakedness of his own Person, bare upon the Cross and, in this bareness, utterly given. And precisely here he invites us into a reciprocal nakedness, into a vulnerable gift that receives and responds to his own prior gift with the gift of ourselves. And when this happens, the marriage covenant is renewed; the bonds of communion and interpersonal intimacy are rewoven.
Yes, and such Love cannot die; such Love is indestructible. As the Song of Songs says, “Love is stronger than death, and jealousy more relentless than the grave” (cf. Sg 8:6). Thus, grasping us lovingly in the place of our woundedness, Christ bursts open the grave and death, and rises again on the third day! His Body, united with the body of all, is now visibly and tangibly permeated with the light and love of the Trinity. He has now carried us—from the humility and hiddenness of his Incarnation, in which he concealed himself in the lowliness of our fallen humanity, “becoming like us in all things but sin” (2 Cor 5:21), to the paradoxical closeness of his Eucharist, Passion, and Death—into the radiant newness of the Risen Life. Yes, for now our very humanity—our humanity in its full concrete bodiliness—has been taken up into the innermost life of the Trinity, and is permeated through and through with the circulation of love ever passing between the Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As John of the Cross says concerning the Son of the Father:
For he would make himself/ wholly like them,/ and he would come to them/ and dwell with them;/ and God would be man/ and man would be God,/ and he would walk with them/ and eat and drink with them;/ and he himself would be/ with them continually/ until the consummation/ of this world,/ when, joined, they would rejoice/ in eternal song;/ for he was the Head/ of this bride of his/ to whom all the members/ of the just would be joined,/ who form the body of the bride./ He would take her/ tenderly in his arms/ and there give her his love;/ and when they were thus one,/ he would lift her to the Father/ where God’s very joy/ would be her joy./ For as the Father and the Son/ and he who proceeds from them/ live in one another,/ so it would be with the bride;/ for, taken wholly into God,/ she will live the life of God. (Romances on the Incarnation, n.4)
It is true that we do not fully see this great mystery now; it is true that it is still at work in a paradoxical littleness and hiddenness, weaving itself into the fabric of history and into the subjective experience of each one of us in the humility of daily life. But this does not mean that this great mystery of Redemption is far away. Rather, as is always the case with God—who approaches with incredible delicacy and gentleness so as to do no violence to our freedom (for without freedom there is no possibility of reciprocal love)—he conceals himself in the littlest of things so as to be all the closer to us. We need only welcome the current of this surging river of life, giving him permission to flow into and through our life, to permeate our being and existence with his presence, and he will heal us and make us whole. As John Paul wrote:
Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. … The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly—and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being—he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he “gained so great a Redeemer”, and if God “gave his only Son” in order that man “should not perish but have eternal life”. (Redemptor Hominis, 11)
When we allows Christ to draw this near to us, to give himself to us and to receive our reciprocal gift, then he will make us capable again of living the true meaning of human existence: love and intimacy in the likeness of the Persons of the Trinity. He will incorporate us anew—in our very bodies—into the way of living and loving for which we have been created, and thus grant us to experience, in our very subjective consciousness, the lasting communion for which we long, a communion brought to full flower both with the Persons of the Trinity and with our brothers and sisters in the human family.
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i. Saint John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 39.3-5. In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (ICS Publications: Washington, D.C., 1991), p. 622-624.
ii. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 226.