The Church cannot be understood if God's love for man is not understood, John Paul II told several thousand pilgrims at his Feb. 7 general audience. With almost mystical overtones, the Pope told the several thousand pilgrims gathered at the midweek general audience that the Church continues the mission of Christ.
“To be loved by Christ and to love him with spousal love is constitutive of the mystery of the Church,” the Pope explained. “This love molds the Church, radiating on all creatures. In this light it may be said that the Church is a sign raised among the peoples to witness to the intensity of God's love revealed in Christ.”
As in the Old Testament the Holy City was called, with a feminine image, “the daughter of Zion,” so in John's Revelation the heavenly Jerusalem is described “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The feminine symbol sketches the Church's face in her different profiles as betrothed, spouse, mother, thus emphasizing a dimension of love and fruitfulness.
Our thoughts flow to the words of the Apostle Paul who, in a very intense page of the letter to the Ephesians, traces the features of the Church “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” loved by Christ and a model of all Christian realities that have a marital character (see Ephesians 5:25-32). The ecclesial community, “promised to one spouse” as a chaste virgin (see 2 Corinthians 11:2), is in line with the concept that arises in the Old Testament, in anguished pages like those of the prophet Hosea (chapters 1-3) or Ezekiel (chapter 16), or through the joyful radiance of the Song of Songs.
To be loved by Christ and to love him with spousal love is constitutive of the mystery of the Church. At the source is a free act of love that flows from the Father through Christ and the Holy Spirit. This love molds the Church, radiating on all creatures. In this light it may be said that the Church is a sign raised among the peoples to witness to the intensity of God's love revealed in Christ, especially in the gift that he makes of his own life (see John 10:11-15). Because of this, “all human beings — both women and men — are called through the Church, to be the Bride of Christ, the Redeemer of the world” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 25).
God's Tender Love
The Church must let this supreme love shine through, reminding humanity — which often feels alone and abandoned on life's desolate wastelands — that it will never be forgotten nor deprived of the warmth of divine tenderness. Isaiah declares, touchingly: “Can a woman forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).
The Church is a sign among the peoples to witness to the intensity of God's love.
Precisely because she is born of love, the Church spreads love. She does it by proclaiming the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us (see John 15:12), namely, to the point of giving one's life: “He laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). The God who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and did not hesitate to give his Son out of love (see John 3:16) impels the Church to walk the path of love “to the end” (see John 13:1). And she is called to do so with the freshness of two spouses who love each other in the joy of giving themselves without reserve and in daily generosity, whether life's sky is springlike and calm, or night and winter clouds of the spirit loom overhead.
So it makes sense that the book of Revelation, despite its dramatic representation of history, is constantly suffused with songs, music, joyful liturgy. In the landscape of the spirit, love is like the sun that illuminates and transfigures nature, which, without its radiance, would remain gray and uniform.
A Reproductive Love
Another fundamental dimension in the marital character of the Church is that of fruitfulness. Love received and given is not closed in on itself in the spousal relationship, but becomes creative and reproductive. In Genesis, which presents humanity made in the “image and likeness of God,” there is significant reference to being “male and female”: “God created man in his image; to the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27).
The distinction and reciprocity in the human couple are a sign of the love of God, not only as the basis of a vocation to communion, but also as directed to reproductive fruitfulness. It is not accidental that the Book of Genesis is structured around genealogies, which are the fruit of reproduction and give origin to the history within which God reveals himself. So one understands how the Church also, in the Spirit that animates her and unites her to Christ her Spouse, is gifted with intimate fruitfulness, thanks to which she continuously generates children of God in baptism and makes them grow to the fullness of Christ (see Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:13).
The Bride's Love for Christ
It is these children who constitute that “assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” destined to inhabit “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (see Hebrews 12:21-23). Not for nothing are the last words of the book of Revelation an intense invocation addressed to Christ: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” (Revelation 22:17), “Come, Lord Jesus” (22: 20). This is the final goal of the Church, which advances with confidence on her pilgrimage through history, even if often feeling near her, following the image in the book of Revelation, the hostile and furious presence of another feminine figure, “Babylon,” the “great Harlot” (see Revelation 17:1,5), who incarnates the “bestiality” of hatred, death and interior sterility.
Looking to her goal, the Church cultivates “the hope of the eternal Kingdom, that is brought about by participation in the life of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit, given to the Apostles as the Counselor, is the guardian and animator of this hope in the heart of the Church” (Dominum et Vivificantem, No. 66). So, let us ask God to grant his Church to always be the custodian of hope throughout history, radiant as the Woman of the Apocalypse “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).