Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 29, 2002
Why does the church say marriage is a sacrament?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
How and why does the Church consider marriage a sacrament?
There is so much one could say about marriage as a sacrament but I will try to emphasize a few aspects. First, we need to look at the meaning of sacraments, in general. As Jesus used the ordinary around him to express the spiritual, so too, sacraments use the ordinary as signs of (as well as to bring) God's grace, God's life, God into our lives.
Their purpose is to make us holy. The sacraments remain a part of us and cannot be undone whether we are faithful or not. For example, we cannot say, "From now on, my Baptism doesn't exist" or "Christ is no longer in the Eucharistic bread."
A glance at the seven sacraments shows how each comes at a significant moment of our lives and gives us God's grace to enable us to carry out our mission as faithful disciples of Christ. We are born into natural life and reborn through Baptism into divine life.
Penance (Reconciliation) and Holy Eucharist are first received when we become conscious of moral right and wrong and therefore in need of God's forgiveness and help.
Confirmation is received in the Western churches at adolescence when the strength and gifts of the Holy Spirit are needed to enable us to live as mature Christians ready to serve God and one another.
Matrimony and Holy Orders give us God's grace so that we can become holy in the vocations God and we have chosen. The Sacrament of the Sick strengthens us when we are sick or dying and even heals us.
Marriage is a special sacrament, for right from the beginning God blesses Adam and Eve's union, hence marriage in general. In the Gospel of John, Jesus' first miracle is not healing the sick nor forgiving sins but changing water into wine at a wedding celebration and so save the couple from embarrassment.
Wow! Just think of that! Marriage and its celebration receive God's special attention and blessing, long before any other sacraments, even Baptism, are mentioned. Marriage is also different from the other sacraments in that the couple being married are the ministers of the sacrament. The priest is only the Church's official witness.
In spite of this, marriage had a rather rough start as a sacrament in the Church. At the time of the early Church, movements unfavourable to Christian belief such as gnosticism believed, among other things, that everything material was evil, including marriage.
Early Christian writers defended marriage as being good since it was created by God. Because they did not write complete treatises on marriage, they seem to be influenced by the gnostics and other current philosophies like the Stoics who condemned any form of pleasure. Therefore, we inherited a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards sex in marriage.
Marriage was firmly established as a sacrament, that is a sign and cause of God's grace, in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas.
The councils listed marriage as a sacrament as early as 1184 at Verona, 1274 at Lyons and at the Council of Florence in 1439. Florence clearly stated that the bond of legitimately contracted marriage is perpetual.
Vatican II emphasized positive aspects on marriage, including marriage as a covenant. Marriage is not simply a contract which can be broken upon the agreement of the two parties. It is a covenant which is a love/trust relationship which cannot be broken.
As God is faithful to the covenant with the Hebrews so too husband and wife must be faithful to the covenant they have undertaken.
Covenant love is not the emotional feelings we often call love. Rather, it is the bond of loyalty, service and obedience to one another.
That is why Paul can say to all Christians but especially to husbands and wives "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."
Marriage, more than anything else, is a witness of the most intimate and self-giving love which most resembles the love that Jesus showed us in his death on the cross.
In this sacrament, Jesus gives his spirit of love to man and woman, making it possible for them to share his glorious life in the Trinity by sharing in his self-giving love.
In marriage, authentic holiness is lived out in the day-to-day life situations.
Within these, the married couple experience a transformation in Christ for no task, however banal, is too insignificant for God's presence to come forth.
All other vocations need the witnessing and modelling of married love to help then understand their baptismal call to love and service.