Why Matrimony? Two Catholic Perspectives

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The following is a part of a seven-article series on the sacraments, written by two University of Notre Dame students. We encourage you to read both perspectives and check our website regularly for the rest of the series!

Why Marriage? By Mary Biese

Marriage signifies and makes present the love of the Trinity, the event of the Incarnation, and the continual marriage between Christ and His Church. Specifying and furthering Baptismal and Confirmational grace,[i] this sacrament raises,[ii] purifies, reorients, unites, and sanctifies its participants. Sacramental marriage, strengthened and enlivened by trinitarian grace, orients men and women towards salvation and witness—personal, familial, ecclesial, and cosmic.

Natural erotic love elevates desire, drawing persons together into all-encompassing action[iii] within the realm of the mundane and fallen. The sacrament of marriage provides deep meaning[iv] to this natural institution, adding to it the indwelling, grace, and action of God.[v] Christ restores,[vi] raises,[vii] saves,[viii] solidifies,[ix] purifies,[x] and reorients[xi] marriage by making it into a Sacrament. With Christ at its forefront and center,[xii] married persons depend on God[xiii] and orient themselves to Him (and thereby outwards[xiv] towards their spouse, their family, the Church, and the world). The Church, continuing the support and unity she provides in her other sacraments, rejoices with, welcomes, and supports the couple with affection, friendship, and prayer, listening to God’s word and praying that God accepts, blesses, and makes one the two spouses.[xv]

Through the sacramental action of the Trinity, the husband and wife visibly and concretely image, symbolize,[xvi] participate in,[xvii] and actualize[xviii] Christ’s mystical marriage with the Church.[xix] Each person loves the other with Christ’s love,[xx] characterized by their striving “to nurture and foster their union in equal dignity, mutual giving, and the undivided love that flows from the divine font of charity.”[xxi] Augustinian[xxii] ecclesial theology[xxiii] prioritizes the whole Church as Bride[xxiv] and the married couple[xxv] as drawing from and participating in that underlying transformative bond.[xxvi] The marital intimacy and union of spirit and flesh,[xxvii] of persons ensouled and embodied,[xxviii] imitate and make present Christ’s Incarnational espousal of[xxix] and indwelling with humanity.[xxx]

The family, stemming out of the mutual self-giving love of the couple, images,[xxxi] participates in,[xxxii] and communicates trinitarian life and communion. The grace God gives in this sacrament flows from and invites the further and continuous action of the whole Trinity. Christ receives and blesses[xxxiii] the couple’s offering, “assuming,[xxxiv] healing, and perfecting this gift of the couple, which comes from the Father and Creator, while enriching it” with His redemptive grace. Both Father and Son bestow the Holy Spirit upon the couple; this Third Person seals their bond of belonging[xxxv] and provides the “supernatural strength” and “spiritual fire” to “confirm, direct and transform[xxxvi] our love in every new situation.”[xxxvii]

This trinitarian superabundance, whereby the Eucharistic God[xxxviii] transforms His ordinary, joyful, and fallen creation by augmenting it to an unimaginable degree,[xxxix] heals and enlivens the married couple[xl] and those around them.[xli] The sacramental grace, exhibited in the persevering[xlii] and forgiving[xliii] action of its participants,[xliv] heals sin, gradually perfects persons,[xlv] raises conjugal love,[xlvi] and bears fruit in familial life. Family life, based in the communion and beauty of the Holy Family, underlies the social order[xlvii] and teaches[xlviii] children endurance, “the joy of work, fraternal love,” forgiveness, and worship.[xlix] The sub-creation of children,[l] given by God both in His creative order and as His response to their disappropriative[li] sacramental offering,[lii] brings about daily sanctification, mystical growth, union with God, new networks of integration, and a strong, transformed social fabric.[liii]

Through the continual challenge and struggle[liv] of marriage,[lv] of mutually broken persons gradually learning how to properly give of themselves[lvi] through the reformation and reorientation of desire,[lvii] the husband and wife lead each other,[lviii] their family, the Church,[lix] and the world[lx] to a better understanding of God and a fuller holiness, love, and joy.

Why Marriage: The Wedding of Mary and Joseph” by Juan de Villalobos (1723)

This painting exhibits the unitive and ecclesial nature of the sacrament of marriage. The Holy Spirit, whose action unites and sanctifies marriage, is featured here, as well as the choirs of angels (bringing in a cosmic element). Both men and women in their complementarity are shown in this painting, standing behind Mary and Joseph in ecclesial support. Virginity and marriage, through Christ’s Incarnation and the fruitfulness and example of the Holy Family, are best described in terms of each other. The inclusion of heavenly clouds and the ground itself speak to the unity of body and soul, of divinity and humanity, that marriage images and makes present; it also points to the eschatological orientation of marriage. Both Mary and Joseph seem to be in the midst of movement, which shows the continuousness of a life lived out in marriage.

Why Marriage: “Long Story Short” by Taylor Swift

Now I’m all about you

I’m all about you, ah

Yeah, yeah

I’m all about you

No more keepin’ score now

I just keep you warm (keep you warm)

No more tug of war now

I just know there’s more (know there’s more)

No more keepin’ score now

I just keep you warm (keep you warm)

And my waves meet your shore

Ever and evermore

Past me

I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things

Your nemeses

Will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing

And he’s passing by

Rare as the glimmer of a comet in the sky

And he feels like home

If the shoe fits, walk in it everywhere you go

In this song, “Long Story Short” by Taylor Swift, we see the unity and finality of the marital covenant. The object of the song could be understood both as one’s spouse and as God, to whom one’s entire sacramental marriage must be oriented. The gentleness of not keeping score, of not fighting needlessly, and of mutual and continual encounter (“my waves meet your shore”) fit in well within the context of a loving, lived-out, mutually-giving marriage. “Ever and evermore” evokes the indissolubility of marriage and its orientation towards eternal salvation. The couple makes a home (“And he feels like home”) for themselves in their mutual indwelling, bringing it everywhere (“walk in it everywhere you go”). This last line reminds the listener of how true love transforms the world and one’s experience of it, as seen in the Song of Songs.

[i] In marriage, the spouses give and receive a new identity in each other. The sacrament continues, enriches, and strengthens the Trinitarian renaming, consecration, and disappropriation enacted at their Baptisms. Rite 18, #59; 23, #67A. This new identity, received rather than imposed, undoes the brokenness of lust, which, for Augustine, “is a desire for an exclusive identity apart from God… for the pleasure of constructing one’s identity exclusively as a cultural project, rather than receiving it first and foremost from God, as a creature of God” Cavadini, Sacramentality 458.

[ii] Oullet says that “it is because of this indestructible [Baptismal] insertion” into Christ’s covenant with the Church “that the intimate community of conjugal life and love, founded by the Creator, is elevated and assumed into the spousal charity of Christ, sustained and enriched by his redeeming power” Ouellet, MSL 77.

[iii] See Songs 2:8-17, Songs 4:1-11.

[iv] This meaning goes beyond the purely naturalistic, since it takes into account God as Creator: “natural marriage… is fully understood in the light of its fulfilment in the sacrament of Matrimony: only in contemplating Christ does a person come to know the deepest truth about human relationships” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #77.

[v] God, as revealed in Scripture, dwells actively with his people. One option for the reception of consent in the rite for marriage references God’s action and indwelling: “May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God who joined together our first parents in paradise, strengthen and bless in Christ the consent you have declared before the Church” Rite 23, #64.

[vi] Christ, “making all things new, has willed that Marriage be restored to its primordial form and holiness.” He leads married persons “back to the beginning through the way of the cross,” restoring “God’s original plan.” Rite 1-2, #5; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #62.

[vii] Christ “raised this indissoluble conjugal contract to the dignity of a Sacrament so that it might signify more clearly and represent more easily the model of his own nuptial covenant with the Church” Rite 1-2, #5. More details on this nuptial covenant to follow.

[viii] This saving, not definitive nor guaranteed, requires continual conversion and spiritual growth on the spouses’ part. “Marriage is thus a source of grace because God has instituted it with a view to human love, but also because it has been saved by the love of Christ, who sacrificed himself for his Church” Ouellet, MSL 82.

[ix] Christ solidifies marriage by establishing an unbreakable conjugal covenant, whose creational and Eucharistic roots (see Gen 1:31a and other major covenants in the Old Testament) find ratification in Christ’s assertion of indissolubility and commitment (Mt 19:3-6). This covenant, sealed by a blessing and ratified by the Father, results in the giving of the Holy Spirit. See Rite 18, #59 and 3, #11, quoting Tertullian.

[x] The couple, by concurrently and mutually directing their good but fallen desires to God, allows marriage’s sacramental grace to purify, heighten, reform, and redirect their desires, a la St. Augustine’s Confessions.

[xi] Marriage finds its reorientation in humility, whereby it transforms humankind’s mundane and broken existence: “The heart that is configured by humility, that is, love of God above all… will find pleasure in creatures, including other people, as a reflection of the glory of the Creator and not as opportunities to exercise and admire its own power and ability.” And again, “the source of pleasure or enjoyment would be freedom, humility, and love, with no trace of self-absorption or self-admiration or other seeds of violence as an admixture.” Cavadini, Sacramentality 449.

[xii] See Tobit 7:9-8:21, where the married couple lifts their marriage to God, asking for His mercy and healing. God’s mercy reconstitutes human relationship by leading both spouses to realize “that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #320.

[xiii] The bond of marriage, an outflowing and participation in the bond between Christ and His Church, “does not depend on human choice, but rather on the Author of Marriage, who ordained it to be endowed with its own goods and ends” Rite 1, #4.

[xiv] This outward direction of marriage echoes the Song of Songs, especially 5:9-16, which often are addressed to the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” In the rite of marriage, the priest, two witnesses, and the larger community surround the couple, pointing to the sacrament’s ecclesial nature. Love is by its nature open, whence comes the Church’s condemnation of contraception: “love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #80.

[xv] The action of the Church takes up most of the space in the marriage rite’s opening welcome. The Church supports and intercedes for the couple before, during, and after the rite itself. See Rite 12, #52-53.

[xvi] Marriage’s visibility, concreteness, and constant presence make its character particularly unique. Marriage occupies time and space in a way that encourages and makes present true encounter and witness: “Marriage is a visible sign of the purifying love of Christ for the church… because, as a visible sign, it presents an encounter with that love for those who are married, it can also serve as a symbol for other ways of life in the church in which that love can be found.” More details on this participation’s orientation towards witness will follow; “Those who marry in Christ are able… to celebrate fruitfully the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church, to live it rightly, and to bear witness to it publicly before all.” Cavadini, Sacramentality 460-461; Rite 3, #11.

[xvii] These actions seem similar, but each adds its own valence and context. Thus they should be taken together. “Christian spouses signify and participate in the mystery of unity and fruitful love between Christ and the Church.” Marriage “not only signifies but also makes present Christ’s love for the church to the spouses” by imitating and making present “the transformative and healing love of Christ for the church.” Rite 2, #8. Cavadini, Sacramentality 454-455.

[xviii] The Holy Spirit takes the imago Dei of the husband and wife and actively transforms it: “The Holy Spirit thus inserts the natural and personal complementarity of this man and this woman into the divine and human spousal complementarity of Christ and the Church” Ouellet, MSL 90.

[xix] Married life needs this context for its proper understanding: “the essential character of married life cannot be understood apart from reference to the love of Christ for the church” Cavadini, Sacramentality 447. For Scriptural foundations see Eph 5, Col 1:22, 2 Cor 11:2, Rev 19:7-8, as referenced in Ouellet, MSL 297.

[xx] “They love one another not only as Christ loved, but already, mysteriously, with the very love of Christ, since his Spirit has been given to them” Ouellet, MSL 84.

[xxi] This comes about through the Holy Spirit’s sacramental action. Rites 2, #9.

[xxii] The theology of marriage finds itself intrinsically bound to ecclesiology: “The sacramentality of marriage in Augustine is entirely derivative of his ecclesiology” Cavadini, Sacramentality 455.

[xxiii] Ecclesial solidarity, rooted in Christ, leads to true transfiguration: “The charity or love of the Incarnation is compassion so radical that it generates a solidarity in which the Head takes on the sufferings of his members and speaks in their voice, on their behalf, and in so doing ‘transfigures’ the members into himself, identifying with them completely” Cavadini, Sacramentality 451.

[xxiv] Marriage serves as an image and microcosm of humankind’s first vocation, to love as a member of the ecclesial Body of Christ: “the primary place to experience Christ’s spousal love is in the church, simply as a member bound to all others, not in marriage” Cavadini, Sacramentality 453.

[xxv] Ecclesial unity ties in explicitly to Christ’s Incarnation: “Members of the church are not in the first place souls in individual relation with the Word of God, but rather members of each other in the flesh that the Word ‘married’ in the Incarnation” Cavadini, Sacramentality 462.

[xxvi] Each person’s relationship to Christ stems from Christ’s marriage to the Church. The Holy Spirit, both caritas and communio, forms this indissoluble bond: “Our relationship with Christ is ecclesially mediated: in the unity with each other, which is founded in and configured to the charity of Christ, we know ourselves as beloved by Christ as by a spouse. None of us alone can claim the title spouse or bride because we do not know ourselves as such apart from the charity that binds us all together.” Christ raises the Church, though made of many fallen members, to new life; likewise, “the natural affection [of marriage] is itself transformed or taken up into the higher love that is the bond between all Christians in the church” in the sacrament of marriage. Cavadini, Sacramentality 452-453; 456.

[xxvii] This total unity stems from the spouses’ orientation towards God: “They are both children of one Father and servants of the same Master, with no separation of spirit in flesh. Indeed, they are two in one flesh; where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit” Rite 3, #11, quoting Tertullian.

[xxviii] From this unity comes perseverance: “uniting divine and human realities, they persevere… faithful in body and mind” Rite 2, #9.

[xxix] In marriage “the ‘two in one flesh’ of the literal marriage bond form a special, small Christian community in which to experience the ‘marrying love’ of Christ, the pure and purifying love of the Incarnation.” The spouses “embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God.” Cavadini, Sacramentality 456; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #73.

[xxx] The family makes present God’s action; it “manifests the closeness of God who is a part of every human life, since he became one with us through his incarnation, death and resurrection” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #161.

[xxxi] Marriage provides an overflowing source of trinitarian life, founded in the imago Dei which we receive ad intra, i.e. via our creation, from God’s design: “The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #71. See also Oullet: In this sacrament, “the family is plunged into participation in the trinitarian communion, signifies it, and communicates it to others” MSL 103.

[xxxii] This participation finds its root in the aforementioned marriage of Christ and the Church. The Father gives us a Christic form: it “proceeds essentially from the Father through the archetype of spousal charity, that is, Christ and the Church and so—by means of the eucharistic and paschal gift of the Holy Spirit—comes to shape man and woman called to participate in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4)” Ouellet, MSL 299. We see this also in the self-gift of marriage: “the gift of sacramental grace enables the spouses to ‘follow Christ’ in his paschal act of total self-gift, which is commemorated, actualized, and realized through the entire extent of their marriage life” Ouellet, MSL 88.

[xxxiii] Through this sacrament “Christ commits himself, the Father and the Holy Spirit to blessing the spouses’ communion of life and love… Christ assumes the totality of the persons… into his own redemptive love.” The Father blesses them “with a specific gift of the Holy Spirit” which “gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us” Ouellet, MSL 77, partially quoting Familiaris Consortio 13.

[xxxiv] Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ assumes and consecrates the spouses into His love so that they may efficaciously signify Christ’s gift for the Church. The spouses’ fruitfulness, primarily spiritual and secondarily natural, “lives, experiences, reveals, and shares with others the fact of having been ‘assumed into the relations of love between the divine Persons’” Ouellet, MSL 85.

[xxxv] The Trinity inserts them “into the mystery of the covenant between Christ and the Church through an irreversible bond of belonging that is sealed by the Holy Spirit” Ouellet, MSL 78.

[xxxvi] God rewards the couple’s sacramental consent with the “objective gift of the Spirit (charism), which, touching the intimacy of their conjugal love, transcends their subjectivity and commits them definitively and indissolubly to bring credible witnesses to the fidelity of God, who is Love” Ouellet, MSL 80.

[xxxvii] This strengthening and enflaming provides the holistic growth needed for the spouses’ healing. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #164.

[xxxviii] The nuptial blessing, placed between the Our Father and the reception of communion when celebrated within the context of the Mass, directs the entire sacrament of marriage towards the altar. Marriage images and imitates Eucharistic intimacy, serving as a vibrant, life-giving, unifying school of love (and thus of holiness) for the spouses and for their children. The combination of Eucharistic and conjugal communion nurtures the spouses’ charity and raises them up “to communion with the Lord and with their neighbor” Rite 26, #74; 7, #35. The couple is also commissioned to work to sanctify their children through catechesis, example, and lives of prayer.

[xxxix] Spoken by Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC, as commentary on John 2, the miracle at the Wedding Feast at Cana.

[xl] The graces of marriage transform “their mutual love into charity,” which “joins them to the triune God and calls them to live the [outward-facing] logic of gift, welcome, and communion” Ouellet, MSL 85.

[xli] Marriage, rather than isolating couples from the church or putting families at odds with the church as a whole, “rather makes the community of the two spouses authentically ecclesial” Cavadini, Sacramentality 456.

[xlii] This perseverance flows from the entire sacramental economy, particularly the Eucharist: “the food of the Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a ‘domestic church’” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #318.

[xliii] The Catechism puts this in terms of encounter and indwelling: “Christ ‘now encounters Christian spouses… He dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens’” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #73, quoting the CCC #1642.

[xliv] Love rejoices, bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. This involves “deep compassion,” the happiness of [unstintingly] giving,” restraining one’s tongue, “limiting judgment,” and the hope of heaven for each person. 1 Cor 13:1-13; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #92, 94, 112, 117. See also #91-119 for further explication of 1 Cor 13.

[xlv] The sacraments of Confession and Anointing also heal sin and perfect persons in a gradual way. These two sacraments work together with Marriage towards the sanctification of the spouses, their family, their community, the Church, and even humankind.

[xlvi] See Ouellet, MSL 85.

[xlvii] Pope Francis praises “family life, its loving communion, its simple and austere beauty, its sacred and inviolable character. May [Nazareth] teach how sweet and irreplaceable is its training, how fundamental and incomparable its role in the social order” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #66, quoting Paul VI’s Address in Nazareth, 5 Jan 1964.

[xlviii] Parents must take up their duty and right to educate their children explicitly (by their words) and implicitly (by their example). Parents transmit human life. By raising their children, engaging in the community, and living their lives in continually reformed and reforming love (love lived ad intra), they cooperate with and interpret God’s love to their children and to the larger community. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #85; Ouellet, MSL 80, quoting Gaudium et Spes 50.

[xlix] In the family “one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous… forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #86, quoting CCC 1657. See also Ouellet, MSL 101, quoting CCC 1666, and 86, quoting Familiaris Consortio 13.

[l] Parents must see their children not as their right, but as their undeserved gift(s). “The child is not merely the result of their ‘natural’ love, but the fruit of their offering to God in faith, an offering that God blesses either with the gift of a child or with a gift of supernatural fruitfulness” Ouellet, MSL 99. See also Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #81.

[li] Each person freely consents to give themselves to the other, to accept the other, and to live in complete fidelity and unity. This mutual embodied encounter, characterized by a sense of serious, dignified wonder (see Songs 5:9-16), “enables us to appreciate the sacredness of a person, without feeling the need to possess it.” Rite of Marriage (New Translation) 1, #2; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #127. See also Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #151 on the interpersonal and sacred nature of sexuality.

[lii] This offering involves dialogue, exemplified in the sacrament of Confession and the structure of the Song of Songs. In Songs, each speaker works to find the other, identify and appreciate the other’s goodness, and place the other within the world and within one’s own conception and experience (keeping the other as the point of reference, second only to God). This vulnerability, giving up of control, and openness to change manifest themselves in how we approach speech—with listening, silence, a loving gaze, and a space-making facilitated by the Holy Spirit. See Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #137.

[liii] Familial communion provides a true path to sanctification. In addition, “Loving kindness builds bonds, cultivates relationships, creates new networks of integration and knits a firm social fabric.” The parents build up and form their own domestic church, which echoes God’s command in Gen 1:26-28 and the description of the early Church in Acts 2. Through their vocation to love and to hospitality, the family participates in the Church’s motherhood and transforms the world. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #316, 100, 324.

[liv] See Cavadini, Sacramentality 463.

[lv] We see this continual relationship in Songs 1:7-17. Couples take up, fight for, rebirth, renew, and reinvent until death this challenge to strive for and grow in true, selfless, humble love. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #124, 321.

[lvi] This sacrament makes “the ‘self-donation’ of the spouses a function not primarily of natural inclination but of the long, hard, purifying pedagogy in the loving humility of Christ, which begets the only true joys” Cavadini, Sacramentality 463.

[lvii] Marriage “turns fallen sexual desire… into a locus of continuing incorporation into Christ’s body… lust itself is exercised within the healing bounds of continence.” This involves “integrating [moments of intense enjoyment] with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal.” This should result in “A configuration to [Christ’s] way of loving.” Cavadini, Sacramentality 458; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #148; Cavadini, Sacramentality 451.

[lviii] “Both in embracing conjugal life and in accepting and educating their children, they help one another to become holy and have their own place and particular gift among the People of God” Rite 2. “Their salvation… is accomplished together, and each spouse is to a certain extent responsible for the other” Ouellet, MSL 88.

[lix] The couple serves as “a permanent reminder for the Church of what took place on the cross” Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia #72. Parents must receive “the ‘most excellent’ gift of children not only as a natural event but also as an incarnate sign of the gift that the Father-Creator makes to their love for the sake of Christ and the Church” Ouellet, MSL 87.

[lx] Marriage is oriented towards witness to all (Rite 27, #74). “May you be witnesses in the world to God’s charity, so that the afflicted and needy who have known your kindness may one day receive you thankfully into the eternal dwelling of God” Rite 28, #77. In this sacrament, “human love is placed at the service of a greater love: God’s love for humanity in Christ” Ouellet, MSL 86. In sum, “the spouses’ love is taken up into the love of Christ and the Church so that the God who is Love might be loved, served, and glorified, and so that the world might believe in Love” Ouellet, MSL 106.

Why Matrimony? By Pat Gouker

The Sacrament of Matrimony joins together a man and a woman into one flesh,[1] through their “irrevocable consent,”[2] so that together as one, hand in hand, they might embark on a lifelong adventure[3] wherein they will journey through both the joys and sorrows[4] of this life while building up a domestic Church[5] to promote the worship of God.[6] By entering into this sacrament, the spouses “signify more clearly and represent more easily” the nuptial covenant between Christ and the Church by sacrificing for one another’s greater glory, bearing fruitful witness to this union in their own relationship and lives as well as in the lives of their children.[7] In so doing they consecrate themselves and the whole of their lives to God, making even their “day-to-day life itself” sacramental.[8] “[B]onded at the altar [and] sealed with the seal of the Cross,”[9] the couple enters “in a new way into the passion of Christ,…not by the pain of Calvary, but of the love manifested by Christ there,”[10] and then becomes restored to the fullness of their humanity by being drawn back into a relation in love between each other, their children, and, most importantly, the self-outpouring love of the Trinity.[11] This same out-pouring displays itself as the couple enters into the mystery of the Incarnate Son’s Holy Family.

The man and woman enter the liturgy of Matrimony already bound by love.[12] They come “without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly”[13] for enrichment and strengthening by that “sacred seal” of the Cross “that they may be faithful to each other for ever and assume all the responsibilities of married life.”[14] As Christ “was faithful over God’s house,”[15] so the spouses promise to remain faithful over the “home of their own,”[16] the domestic Church they here begin to build. Beyond fidelity, the couple makes a promise to carry out the second aspect of their marriage which is to “accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and [H]is Church.”[17] This propagation of the human race is the “natural function of Christian marriage” and serves to build up the Mystical Body of Christ.[18]

The love between husband and wife naturally wishes to give of itself, since “[a]ll love must be giving, for without a giving there is not goodness; without self-outpouring there is no love.”[19] Yet, as one spouse finds himself lacking, he goes to the other and draws strength from her soul, finding available from their mutual self-giving a mutual self-recovery. Here too the couple images Christ and His Bride, for from Christ does the Church find the “source and summit”[20] of her strength in the Eucharistic Bridegroom just as Christ’s Body is built up by the evangelical and sacramental work of His Bride. And, “[t]here is self-recovery as they beget not the mere sum of themselves, but a new life which makes them and earthly trinity. Love that is ever seeking to give, and is ever defeated by receiving, is the shadow of the Trinity on earth; therefore, a foretaste of heaven.”[21] The father thus participates in the Divine paternity of the Father; the mother, likewise, participates in the life of Christ the Son by allowing her flesh to become the locus of “communion with human life at the breast” as there is a “Communion with divine life at the altar” in the Flesh of the Son. Finally, their children proceed from them out of their love, as the Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son.[22]

Participation in the life and love of the Trinity occurs through Matrimony by consecrating the Christian family it founds to “the suffering Heart of Christ” Whose love “accepted suffering and rejection,” and wherein “the joys of human companionship shared a place…with the sorrows” brought on by friends and brethren.[23] Matrimony draws the baptized and confirmed spouses into a New Alliance[24] with Christ that permits an “ascension in love” from the purely carnal sexual love (eros), to the personal love (philia) that finds reciprocity almost entirely necessary, to Christian love (agape) which “requires no reciprocity.”[25] Participation in the life and love in the Trinity breeds agape, that is, the ability to “bear the burden of one another’s failings.”[26] Thus agape necessitates that spouses “bear the cross for the sake of the sanctification of the other” rather than separate from one another.[27] Rather than shrink away from the bitter trial, a spouse draws on the agape which binds him to the other and remains patient, kind, without envy, boastfulness, arrogance, irritability, or resentfulness, but instead rejoices in the truth, finding the trial and all things bearable and even sweet. In a word, the spouse draws on agape so that he might endure all things, unconquerable.[28]

Matrimony raises the raises the ordinary to something quite extraordinary. Man and woman and the mundane events of their daily life become sacramental. Rather than instituting a new liturgical ceremony or assigning a new significance to an existing ritual, Christ in Matrimony “adopted a natural human institution as a sacrament.”[29] In Matrimony, God takes the basic fiber our humanity: our relationship of love in companionship[30], and uses it as a means by which He restores humanity to Himself. He thus transforms the physical love of spouses into the instrument of the Spirit Who sanctifies and empowers them, laying on them at times the bitter trial of the Cross, and yet sweetens that trial with the true agape especially through children, making the family, the domestic Church, an image of the Trinity, thus giving the spouses a foretaste of salvation which is participation in the life and love of that same Trinity.

This image pictures the nature of the agape that forms the bond of matrimony. This love must be a love that endures even unto death. This love participates in the joy of the wedding day of the couple yet also in the sorrow of the Cross. The indissoluble bond of matrimony is represented by the fact that both Bride and Groom nail themselves to the same Cross. They, like Jesus, will not be taken down from this cross until death, thus representing that matrimony lasts until death do they part. Finally, the bride and groom, focused on Christ as is necessary for a good marriage, form a trinity with Christ. And through Christ are drawn into union with the other divine Persons as He commends them, with his Spirit, into the Father’s hands, placing their human love “at the service of a greater love,” that of the Trinity This represents the special participation in the Holy Trinity that the couple enjoys as a result of the Sacrament of Matrimony (Ouellet, 86).

Romances: The Incarnation, St. John of the Cross

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2017.) 66-7.

Now that the time had come

When it would be good

To ransom the bride

Serving under the hard yoke

Of that law

Which Moses had given her,

The Father, with tender love,

Spoke in this way:

“Now you see, Son, that your bride

Was made in your image,

And so far as she is like you

She will suit you well;

Yet she is different, in her flesh,

Which your simple being does not have.

In perfect love

This law holds

That the lover become

Like the one he loves

For the greater their likeness

The greater their delight.

Surely your bride’s delight

Would greatly increase

Were she to see you like her,

In her own flesh.”

“My will is yours,”

The Son replied,

“And my glory is

That your will be mine.

This is fitting, Father,

What you, the Most High, say;

For in this way

Your goodness will be more evident,

Your great power will be seen

And your justice and wisdom.

I will go and tell the world,

Spreading the word 

of your beauty and sweetness

And of your sovereignty.

I will go seek my bride

And take upon myself

Her weariness and labors

In which she suffers so;

And that she may have life,

I will die for her,

And lifting her out of that deep,

I will restore her to you.”

I chose the seventh part of the Romances of St. John of the Cross, based on the Song of Songs. This portion of his masterful poem focuses on the Incarnation. It recalls Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church, after whom human spouses model their marriage. In a particular way, the lines “In perfect love/this law holds/that the lover become/like the one he loves,” remind us not only of the Eucharist and becoming that which we love and receive but also the nature of matrimony wherein the two spouses love one another so much that they become like each other; the two become one flesh. They sacrifice for each other, “tak[ing] upon [themselves the other’s] weariness and labors.” They become willing to die for the other and share their merits such they might aid each other to heaven and “restore” the other spouse to his/her rightful place with God, representing a healing aspect present in marriage rightly lived.

[1] This language of two becoming one flesh comes from Genesis but is also cited throughout the New Testament on numerous occasions in relation to a theology of matrimony. Citations of this quote from Genesis can be found in Mt. 19:5, Mk. 10:8, and Eph. 5:31. The original use is found in Gen. 2:24.

[2] Matrimony is an indissoluble sacrament. The consent given by the spouses is irrevocable and thus, no power on heaven or earth can pull asunder that which God has joined together. That is to say, this indissoluble bond makes divorce impossible. A marriage is permanent; it cannot be ended except by death. It is worth noting, however, that a couple could separate for just reasons. And, even if the reasons are not just (for example, one spouse abandons the other, the marriage endures, and the abandoned spouse must continue to live a chaste life as though he were still married. Occasionally the Church grants and annulment. This is not the same as a divorce, though it is mistakenly considered the Church’s special version of divorce. Rather, this is the Church stating that, as best as she can determine, the sacrament of matrimony was never properly conferred. Thus, the Church is not ending a marriage, as she does not have the authority nor the power to do this. Instead, she is simply stating that the marriage that was perceived to have taken place, did not, in fact, occur, thus freeing the man and woman to go their separate ways and even get remarried without committing a sin. The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.2.

[3] In the pre-Vatican II Rite of Matrimony the bride and groom could be greeted with an exhortation in which the faithful welcomed the couple “to this new lifelong adventure which [they] approach hand in hand.” The term “lifelong,” it must be noted, is crucial. Not only does this suggest the permanence of marriage, but it also reminds us that marriage comes to an end only at the end of the life of one of the spouses. Thus, marriage is permanent here on earth, but the spouses are released from their bond upon one of their deaths. The New Sanctuary Manual 1961, Ritus Celebrandi Matrimonii Sacramentum, Exhortation before Marriage.

[4] The pre-Vatican II exhortation emphasizes that there will be hardships in the couple’s married life. While there will certainly be joys, such as that of the wedding day, there will also be days of sorrow. More on this and the response to these sorrows will follow in the course of this essay. Ibid.

[5] The exhortation focuses greatly on one of the necessities of the sacrament which is the “accepting and education [of] their children.” The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.8.

[6] Matrimony, as with all sacraments, “promotes the worship of God and heals the wounds of sin” Colman E. O’Neill, OP. Meeting Christ in the Sacraments. Edited by Romanus Cessario, OP. (New York: Alba House, 1991), 235

[7] The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.5

[8] O’Neill suggests that the “theological lesson [of Matrimony] is that all that is human must be consecrated to Christ through the sacraments” (O’Neill, 237). This then necessitates that even the joys and sorrows of the spouses’ daily life must become sacramental, must be opportunities for their mutual sanctification.  O’Neill, 236.

[9] Fulton Sheen, These Are the Sacraments (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 55

[10] This love, it must be noted, is a self-sacrificing love, which is the nature of the love of the Trinity. O’Neill, 250.

[11] O’Neill helps us understand that the couple enters into the passion by entering into the love of Christ which is self-giving. Sheen’s theology helps us understand that this self-giving results in a self-recovery. One can only give so much before exhaustion and fatigue set in; thus, to recover from this mutual self-giving, one spouse finds himself “filling up, at the store of the other, the lacking measure,” as the Church is daily refreshed at the altar by receiving the Eucharist and the Body of Christ is in turn renewed as new members enter it through Baptism. Sheen, 57.

[12] The post-Vatican II Rite of Matrimony begins with a prayer which acknowledges first the blessings Christ has and is presently lavishing on the couple through the “love that binds [them]” in that very moment. The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.59.

[13] Ibid, n.60.

[14] Ibid, n.59.

[15] Heb. 3:6

[16] The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.52

[17] Ibid, n.60.

[18] The building up of the Mystical Body naturally means also the promoting of the worship of God. This worship of God is the telos of the human race and thus this “natural function” of a marriage is meant to orient humanity towards its end (Benedict XVI, In the Beginning…). It is of note that this is not the only eschatological aspect of a marriage. Certainly, Matrimony is eschatological in the sense that it is clearly pointing the human race to its telos. However, the focus of the liturgy of Matrimony on the bride is also eschatological. The bride is the focus here on earth only because it is the Bridegroom who is focused on in the heavenly realm (Sheen, 56). Heaven is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, where the Bridegroom emerges to meet His Bride. O’Neill, 246.

[19] Sheen, 57.

[20] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1324.

[21] Ibid, 57.

[22] Matrimony and the domestic Church (the family) established by it restores the spouses (and, to some extent, their children) to the life of the Trinity. The love that unites the family is like that self-outpouring love which unites the Three Persons of the Trinity. It can be seen, then, that Matrimony restores the spouses to the true nature of their humanity, which is to be related in love, as Ratzinger put it. Further, it allows them to journey toward their telos which is participation in the Divine Life in the Trinity, sharing and expressing the love of the Trinity. For, indeed, Christian marriage is “an overflowing source of trinitarian life, a specific participation in the very fruitfulness of God in Christ” (Ouellet, 97). The couple thus is assumed “into Christ’s love through the Holy Spirit” and consequently fulfills “a mission of service rendered to the Love of God.” This mission, Ouellet continues, “flows precisely from participation in trinitarian love, which assumes, elevates, and transforms the reality of marriage in Christ…[making marriage] an ‘ecclesial sign.’” And, “[t]he sign or reality is actualized to the extent that the fruitful couple (a fruitfulness that is first spiritual, based on faith in the Holy Spirit, but also natural) lives, experiences, reveals, and shares with others the fact of having been ‘assumed into the relation of love between the divine Persons’” (85). Ouellet, Marc, Michelle K. Borras, and Adrian J. Walker. Mystery and Sacrament of Love: a Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Company, 2015.

[23] O’Neill, 250.

[24] Ibid, 246.

[25] Sheen discusses the types of love at length. He classifies sexual love (eros) as the lowest since it cannot exist without reciprocity; personal love (philia) just higher than sex love because it does not always need reciprocity, but it generally does; and, Christian love (agape) as the highest because it does not need reciprocity. Sheen, 53.

[26] It should be noted that, just as one can bear the burdens of another’s failings, so too can one share in their successes, as, for example, when a spouse draws from the store of the other what is lacking within him. This is important to understand because it means that the spiritual merits of one spouse can spiritually profit the other. Where one lacks, the other can pick up the spiritual slack so that one can truly help the other reach heaven, fulfilling the marital duty of spouses to help each other attain the telos of living in the Trinity in Heaven. Gal. 6:2. For another example of the sanctification of one spouse by drawing on the spiritual fruits of the other see also 1 Cor. 7:14.

[27] Sheen, 58.

[28] These sentences draw on the description of love found in 1 Cor. 13:4-7.

[29] O’Neill, 235.

[30] Our companionship was the one thing we had from the beginning and which is considered the “one blessing not forfeited by original sin.” The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, n.74.

One Response

  1. “Matrimony draws the baptized and confirmed spouses into a New Alliance[24] with Christ that permits an “ascension in love” from the purely carnal sexual love (eros), to the personal love (philia) that finds reciprocity almost entirely necessary, to Christian love (agape) which “requires no reciprocity.” Participation in the life and love in the Trinity breeds agape, that is, the ability to “bear the burden of one another’s failings.”
    Beautifully expressed.

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