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The Spousal Meaning of the Body: The Gift of Self

Updated: May 17, 2023

Everyone human person desires to be happy. However, often times we look for happiness in the wrong places: wealth, power, and sex. This is often a result of a confused worldview that does not understand how one person should relate to another, whether a human person or a divine person. Fortunately, the key to understanding authentic human relationships is modeled for us in the primordial sacrament of marriage (TOB 19:4). Marriage expresses the spousal meaning of the body to help us understand divine love as well as how man should express love for God and one another.




One of the ways that the human person images the Trinity is in the relationship of truth to love in the Trinity which also occurs in the human creature (Cessario 27). A person must know the truth about something to be able to love it, even if that love or knowledge is imperfect. There is an intimate connection between loving and knowing that cannot be separated. The more perfectly an object is known the more deeply it can be loved. The most inexhaustible object for our knowledge and love is God, but every person who God created, who images God, is also an object to know and to love. The value of the human person is rooted in their natural imaging of the Divine. Man and woman are made to express that love by knowing and loving each other in a unique and life-giving way. This points us toward our ultimate union with God which in turn shows us that love and union with God ultimately enable human flourishing.


The most perfect human image of the Father is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father who was incarnated to achieve the redemption of mankind. The love shared between the Father and the Son is “so rooted in the Divine essence as to be personal.  For that reason, the Holy Spirit is called a Person” (Sheen 59).  The love of God for mankind is not always readily apparent, but the love between spouses is a sensible sign that points toward that divine love and enables us to understand it in a more perfect way in spite of our natural limitations.  God’s love is creative to such a degree that His love causes things to come into existence. Similarly, God has created man so that he is capable of participating both with the love of God and His creation. Human love reflects the love of God in such a way that this love is able to result in a person.


The love of husband and wife giving themselves to each other is an image of the love between the persons of the Trinity, a love which gives itself perfectly. Marriage manifests that love in both giving to and receiving from the beloved. This gift is fully realized by cooperating with God who makes the union of spouses blossom through the gift of a child. The human family then images the Trinity in a certain sense (Sheen 66). Just as the love of God expresses itself in creation we find that the expression of human love cooperates with the Divine.


God has given sexuality to mankind as a gift that enables us to see that men are created both through love and for love (Familiaris Consortio 11).  Human persons are a gift to one another and from the beginning were not meant to waste away in isolation, but our sexuality shows that each is meant to exist for the other. (Cahall 29).  Through marriage we are meant to participate in creation, bringing forth new life in cooperation with the divine, modeled after God’s love. “In fact, every act of true love towards a human being bears witness to and perfects the spiritual fecundity of the family” (Familiaris Consortio 41). 


God’s love points toward the mystery of our creation. Our bodies express our personhood which is a “witness to creation as a fundamental gift” (Man and Woman He Created Them 14:4). This expression reveals that the sexual difference between men and women is a sign of self-donation. From the very beginning human persons were made male and female in order to become a gift for the other (Man and Woman He Created Them 15:1). The body enables the human person to express love as a gift of the self. This is the kind of love that wills the good of the other while striving to know the other more deeply. The gift of self enables a more perfect union through which the beloved is known more intimately. Through this gift the beloved receives and in return gives of herself, to be welcomed.


The human sexual act requires a full and complete gift of self. This gift, which is permanent and irrevocable, must endure to be complete. “The indissolubility of marriage flows in the first place from that very essence of that gift: the gift of one person to another person” (Gratissimam Sane 11).  The institution of marriage is a sign of that complete gift of one person to another and necessarily requires a commitment that cannot be retracted. Any stipulation of limits or conditions prevents the act from being a total gift of one person to another (Familiaris Consortio 20).


This faithful, permanent, and fruitful union signifies the “invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity” (Man and Woman He Created Them 19:4). It demonstrates how God’s love creates and remains for all time. Further, marriage points us toward the love of Christ for the Church, a love which gives everything for the sake of the beloved (Ephesian 5:25). God reveals his love for his people through the sign of marriage (Man and Woman He Created Them 94:17). By way of analogy, God is able to show us his love from the foundation of the world and the total gift of self between spouses manifests the way we should react to that love.


This kind of self-donation is not just a benefit for spouses, but it helps to demonstrate how all human relationships should work, modeled on the love of the Trinity and Christ’s love for the Church. Marriage is common to all persons insomuch as every person comes from the union of man and woman. There is a deep personal connection in human sexuality that connects two persons in both body and soul, harkening back to the mystery of creation (Man and Woman He Created Them 10:2).  Our first experience of love is through the relationship of our parents and this model affects the way that we understand what love is and how we should love. This spousal meaning, the way we give ourselves to one another in marriage, is foundational.


Although marriage is an excellent sign of the spousal meaning of the body, that does not entail that this meaning is lost to those who do not marry. Our ultimate calling is the total gift of love apart from human marriage. Marriage is fulfilled in the next world through God’s self-communication to man, raising our nature through his self-gift (Man and Woman He Created Them 67.5). The procreative aspect of the total gift of self between man and woman will no longer be necessary, but we will return God’s love for us through “the reciprocal gift of oneself to God” (Man and Woman He Created Them 68.3). In a certain way, marriage reveals our ultimate union with God by helping us understand the communion of persons in the Trinity, demonstrating how we should give of ourselves completely.


This gift of self can be lived out in this life apart from marriage by a deep gift of self-oriented toward God. “Marriage helps us understand continence for the kingdom of heaven” by reminding us that it is proper for a person to be in communion and how this communion should be acted out (TOB 76.6). When the gift of continence is accepted it is an answer to the Redeemer’s love for us and this renunciation affirms the value of marriage and the spousal meaning of the body. Renouncing marriage is not a condemnation- neither of marriage nor the body, but the putting away of a great good for the sake of the greatest good. (TOB 78.1).


Ultimately, marriage teaches us to renounce our own inordinate love of self by giving totally to the other. The spouse loves the beloved so completely that he gives everything to her and his body helps to communicate this spirit of love. Thus, the body helps express certain truths about the love of the divine persons of the Trinity so that we may understand the creative aspect of God’s love that is manifest in Christ’s sacrifice for the Church. Marriage models this love and teaches not only the spouses. Marital love also permeates those around the couple helping to foster a better understanding of what it really means to love: the good of the other, for the other’s sake by the complete gift of self without reservation.


 

Works Cited

Cahall, Perry. The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament. Hillenbrand  Books, 2016. 


Cessario, Romano. Introduction to Moral Theology. The Catholic University of America Press, 2001. 


The Holy Bible. Rev. Standard Version, Meridian, 1962. 


John Paul II. FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO. Vatican. 22 November 1981. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html.


---. GRATISSIMAM SANE. Vatican. 2 February 1994. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_02021994_families.html.


---. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Translation and Introduction by Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006. 


Sheen, Fulton J. Three to Get Married. Scepter Publishers, 2004. 

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