John Paul II’s New Vision of Human Sexuality, Marriage and Family Life(7)

Marriage as a Sacrament

G. Marriage as a Sacrament

"God who created man out of love also calls him to love - the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. (See Gen 1:27; 1 Jn. 4:8, 16.) Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man." (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1604.) Not only does marriage mirror the love which God has for man, but it also is an image of the love found in the Trinity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following St. Paul, also teaches that marriage is an image of the bond between Christ and the Church. "Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1617. See also the previous paragraph, no. 1616.) Marriage as an image of God's love for man, as an image of the Trinity, and as an image of Christ's love for the Church, logically flows from the nature of love. As we have seen, love always is (1) a choice (2) based on knowledge. This choice is (3) a self-gift and this self-gift is (4) permanent and (5) life-giving. God's love for us, the mystery of love in the Holy Trinity, and Christ's bond with the Church, all have these five characteristics of love and so does marriage since it is also founded on love. Therefore, human marriage is a mirror, a sign of the way God loves us, the way He loves in the Trinity, and the way Christ loves the Church.

However, sin intervened. Marriage is now "threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation." These difficulties are the result of the first sin, original sin. "As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; (See Gen. 3:12.) their mutual attraction, the Creator's own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; (See Gen. 2:22, 3:16b.) and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work. (Cf. Gen. 1:28; 3:16-19.)" (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1606-1607.)

As the Catechism indicates, it is almost impossible for those tainted with original sin, i.e., the entire human race with the sole exceptions of the Blessed Mother and the Lord Himself, to love as God loves. Original sin has deprived us of the clearness of mind, soundness of will, and integrity of the body necessary for true love. Therefore, people might argue that it is next to impossible for us, tainted with original sin, to live up to the requirements of authentic love.

But the Lord does not accept this answer. In his famous discussion of marriage and divorce with the Pharisees, the Lord clearly makes reference to the beginning. "And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, 'Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?' He answered, 'Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female . . . ." (See Mt. 19:3-4.) The reference by Christ to the "beginning" is a direct quotation from the very first words of the Bible in Genesis, "In the beginning . . . ." (See Gen. 1:1.) The Pharisees and other Jews listening to Christ discuss marriage and divorce understood very clearly that Christ was referring to the first words of Scripture when He said, "from the beginning." He clearly is calling all married people to love as God loves, even though they have been weakened by sin. How is this possible, we might ask Christ. He answers us: "My grace is sufficient for you." (See 2 Cor. 12:9.) As the Catechism teaches: "Without his [Christ's] help man and woman cannot achieve the union of their lives for which God created them 'in the beginning'." (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1608.) But with His help, married people can love as God loves. "By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to 'receive' the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. (Cf. Mt. 19:11.) This grace of Christian marriage is the fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life." (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1615.)

Of course, the grace of Christian marriage, this "help" of Christ which again makes it possible for husbands and wives to love each other as God loves, is given in the sacrament of Matrimony. Christ raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament in order to give spouses the strength and grace they need to fulfill their awesome vocation to love as God loves.

Christ instituted the sacrament of Matrimony at the same time he performed his first "sign", at the wedding feast in Cana. "The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign [i.e., a sacrament] of Christ's presence." (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1613.)

All the sacraments are signs which cause what they signify. (Except the Eucharist which is what it signifies.) The sign of the sacraments is composed of some physical matter (e.g., the water in Baptism) and words which are said. The sign of the sacrament of Matrimony is the physical presence of the bride and the groom and the vows which they, with full knowledge and consent, promise to each other. In other words, the bride and groom confer the sacrament on one another. The Church's representative, usually a priest or a deacon, is simply a witness to the sacrament.

The sign of the sacrament of Matrimony, the bride and the groom saying the vows to one another, obviously signifies a union and it causes a union in the depths of their souls. Christ unites the couple in Christian marriage and so at every wedding there are truly three present (in addition to the Church's representative): the bride, the groom, and Christ. The grace given in the sacrament of Matrimony empowers husbands and wives to love each other as Christ loves us. Even wounded by sin, human beings are still called to imitate the Blessed Trinity by forming a family. The sacrament creates a union between the spouses in Christ. Their two hearts are made one in Christ and so they are empowered to love authentically.

The union created by the celebration of the sacrament of Matrimony has the five characteristics of love. It is created through the choice of the two spouses which, in turn, is founded on the knowledge that they each have of their own dignity and that of their spouse. It is a choice to give themselves to each other in a permanent and life-giving relationship. In the questions put to the bride and groom before the actual vows, the priest (or deacon, bishop, or other representative of the Church) asks the couple, "Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?" Clearly, the bride and groom are giving themselves to one another. The couple is then asked, "Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?" and finally, they are asked, "Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?" (See The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. 1, Rite of Marriage, no. 24.) Clearly, the spouses have a choice and they consent. Further, no one would consent to such promises without some knowledge of oneself and the intended partner. Further, the couple give themselves to one another. The couple promises permanence and also an openness to life. The five characteristics of love are clearly present in the vows.

Implicit in the promises of the bride and groom is the promise of fidelity to one another. Marriage, of its very nature, binds each partner exclusively to the other. During the celebration of the sacrament, the couple says to one another, "I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life." (See the Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. 1, Rite of Marriage, no. 25.) To be "true" to one another and to "honor" one another requires a fidelity to each other. Spouses clearly understand that in entering marriage, they are promising to be united exclusively with their marriage partner until death.

So, marital love involves a "totality, in which all the elements of the person enter." Marital love "aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. (See FC 13.)" (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1643. See also, See John Paul II, The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Familiaris Consortio," no. 13.)

Of course, it is important to remember that marriage is a path to holiness, a vocation to which people are called by God as a way of living out their pilgrimage here on earth. Marriage exists as a means of sanctification, as all the sacraments do. Marriage is, therefore, a path to heaven, a way of coming to holiness for each member of the family. Marriage partners are to help each other (in other words, love each other) to come to the glory of heaven. " Through the sacrament of Matrimony couples are to "help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children. (See LG 11, para. 2; cf. LG 41.)" (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1641.)

(Rev.) Richard M. Hogan
June 15, 1999