Secular Franciscan Order

Ordo Franciscanus Sæcularis

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By Blessed Pope John Paul II



Mike and Jenny Harrington ofs



Session 8   THE DIMENSION OF SIGN (TOB 103 - 107)


In our last session we looked at the dimension of Covenant of Grace and the interpretationof Ephesians 5 on marriage as the "great mystery" of Christ's bridal union with his Church. the sacramentality of Christian marriage as a true sacrament of the new law. This sacrament not only pointing to but sharing in that love-giving, life-giving and grace-giving reality. Having looked at the divine dimension, let us now look at the human dimension.








Marital promise


TOB 103 - Blessed John Paul began by affirming that marriage comes into being by means of the word, "I ... take you.. as my wife"; "I ... take you .. as my husband." These words stand at the center of the liturgy of marriage as  a sacrament of the Church. The engaged couple speak these words, inserting them in the following formula of consent: "I promise to be faithful to you always, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to love you and honor you all the days of my life." With these words the engaged couple contract marriage, and at the same time they receive it as a sacrament of which both are the ministers.They do so before witnesses who must witness that the marriage is contracted before God and confirmed by the Church.


However, this sacramental word is, of itself, only a sign of the coming to be of marriage. And the coming to be of marriage is distinct from its consummation, so much so that without this consummation, marriage is not yet constituted in its full reality. But these words "can only be fulfilled by the copula conjugale (conjugal intercourse). This reality has been defined from the very beginning by institution of the Creator. 'A man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh' (Gen 2:24)


As a sacrament of the Church, marriage is contracted by the words of the ministers, that is, of the new spouses, words that signify and indicate in the intentional order what both have decided to be from now on, for and with one another.


The words, "I take you as my wife/as my husband," bear within themselves that perennial and ever unique and unrepeatable "language of the body," and they place it at the same time in the context of the communion of persons. The persons - the man and the woman - become a reciprocal gift for each other. They become this gift in their masculinity and femininity while they discover the spousal meaning of the body and refer it reciprocally to themselves in an irreversible way: in the dimension of life as a whole.


Prophetism of the body


TOB 104 - When we affirm that the "language of the body" also enters essentially into the structure of marriage as a sacramental sign, we appeal to a long biblical tradition. In light of the prophetic tradition begun by Hosea and continued by Ezekiel , Isaiah and others, we discover that the human body speaks a "language" whose "author is man, as male or female, as bridegroom or bride: man with his perennial vocation to the communion of persons." ... man is in some sense unable to express this singular language of his personal existence and vocation without the body. He is constituted in such a way from the "beginning" that the deepest words of the spirit - words of love, gift, and faithfulness - call for an appropriate "language of the body."And without this language, they cannot be fully expressed.


The prophets testified to conjugal chastity and fidelity as the "truth" and to adultery as falsity in the "language of the body"


TOB 105.The body speaks lies "through all that negates conjugal love, faithfulness, and integrity"


We all speak of "body language," and the human body speaks lies when it takes rather than gives - e.g., fornicators and live-in lovers say they "love one another," but their bodies do not speak the language of selfless giving but rather of selfish taking; they do not "give themselves" through their bodies but rather "lend themselves" just as long as they find their bodily union satisfying.  Blessed John Paul II says that in this way the essential truth of the sign will remain organically linked to the morality of the spouses' marital conduct. They not only proclaim the truth coming from God, but they proclaim this truth in God's name.  In constituting the marital sign in the moment of consent and fulfilling it in the moment of consummation, the spouses "perform an act of prophetic character." They confirm in this way their share in the prophetic mission of the Church: received from Christ.


Conjugal consent has a prophetic character if it is the proclamation of the truth that comes from God.


The spouses reach in some sense the very sources from which this sign each time draws its sacramental strength and prophetic eloquence. One must not allow oneself to forget that before being spoken by the lips of the spouses, who are the ministers of the sacrament, the "language of the body", was spoken by the word of the living God from the beginning in Genesis and through the prophets, all the way to Ephesians.


Spouses "are explicitly called to bear witness - by correctly using the 'language of the body' - to spousal and procreative love, a testimony worthy of 'true prophets.' In this consists the true significance and the greatness of conjugal consent in the sacrament of the Church"


Given that a complex of meanings correspond to the language, the couple through their conduct and behaviour, actions and gestures are called to become authors of these meanings of the language of the body from which they then build and continually deepen love, faithfulness, conjugal integrity, and the union that remains indissoluble until death. The "greatness" of conjugal consent is precisely its prophetic witness to the "mystery hidden from eternity in God" - the mystery of Trinitarian life and love that flows through the spousal union of Christ with the Church, reaching the concrete lives of men and women within history. They are called to live their life together as a communion of persons.


TOB 107. The analysis of Christ's words in the sermon on the mount leads us to understand "adultery" itself more deeply. At the same time, it carries us to the conviction that the human "heart" is not so much "accused and condemmed" by Christ because of concupiscence, but first of all "called . In the light of Christ's words in the Sermon on the Mount we know that the threefold concupiscence - of the eyes, of pride of life, and in particular the concupiscence of the flesh - "does not destroy the capacity to reread the 'language of the body' in the truth". Precisely because the body has been redeemed by Christ, "historical man" is able on the basis of the "language of the body" to reread in the truth, to constitute the sacramental sign of conjugal love, faithfulness, and integrity, and this as an enduring sign. He is capable of it even as the "man of concupiscence," since he is at the same time "called" by the reality of the redemption of Christ. We know that through Christ's redeeming death and resurrection we can recover the spousal meaning of the body. Gal 5:16 - I say then live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.


Song of Songs  TOB 108 - 113


The theme of spousal love connects the song of songs to the "great analogy" through the OT prophets into the NT and Ephesians. There is found in it the "rich" language of the body, the visible sign of man's and woman's participation in God's covenant of grace of love offered to man.


The Song of Songs,  a "poem" in which groom and bride move in a circle of love. The words, movements and gestures of the spouses correspond to the inner movement of their hearts. The language of the body expresses itself in mutual fascination of the bride's femininity and the groom's masculinity. The bridegroom, expressing a particular experience of values that irradiates over everything that stands in relation to the beloved person, says,


You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;

You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace.

How sweet are your caresses, my sister, my bride. Song 4:9-10


The term "friend" indicates what is essential for love, which puts the "I" beside one's own in friendship, "Sister" is even more eloquent, speaking not just a union in mankind but also a difference in sex and the very way of being a person and being in relationship.


The second "theme" of the poem refers to the "sister's" or "bride's" being "an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed" (4:12) It reveals the female "I" as master of her own mystery. Her personal dignity and self-possession, capable of giving herself in union with another.


As spouses grow nearer to each other in love, they share without violation their interior mysteries through affection and sentiment which allows one to discover the other as a gift. We see eros as the form of love at work in the energies of desire and in the subjective certainly of mutual, faithful and exclusive belonging. But we also see the restlessness of "eros" which needs to be self-controlled. 1 Cor 13: "Love never fails." This "agape" brings eros to completion by purifying it.


Reflections on Tobit TOB 114 - 116


In Tobit, Tobiah calls Sarah "sister" and says that "his heart became set on her" (Tb 6:19) which confirms the truth of Song of Song's words about love's being "stern as death." Tobiah had reason to fear the same death as Sarah's first seven husbands before intercourse (through the work of a demon). Tobiah's love from the beginning had to face the real test of life and death. They face it together, "life" wins, because love, supported by prayer, is revealed as more stern than death.  Tobiah's and Sarah's love is not expressed in poetic words, but by their choices and actions in body language, especially prayer.


Tobiah's prayer - first of praise and thanksgiving, then supplication . Their conjugal pact expresses and realizes the mystery originating in God, in God's original covenant with the human race in eternal Love. They respond to God, asking for his mercy and the grace to live faithfully to a happy old age. They ask to be able to respond to love. Both together form this sign of marriage.- the language of the liturgy.


When the Language of the Liturgy becomes the "Language of the Body" TOB 117


Through the continual expression of the sacramental sign of marriage in the language of the body, man and woman encounter the great "mystery" and transfer the light of that mystery to the language of the practice of love, fidelity and conjugal honesty. In this way, conjugal life becomes liturgical (an act of worship).


Questions for reflection:


1.         What makes a marriage valid? 

2.         What do we understand when we promise in our wedding vows to be free, faithful, total and fruitful?

3.         How is the body prophetic and how is the body capable of speaking a lie?

4.         If a couple is sexually active before marriage and sees nothing wrong with it, what problems might this create when they do marry?

5.         What does it mean for a woman to be the "master of her own mystery", what happens to her sense of self when she is not treated as such?

6.         What areas of my heart might need healing to understand and to live conjugal love as a profound prayer.