Marriage: Sacramental Beauty
Earlier this month, one of my closest friends got married. In anticipation of her wedding day, marriage has been on my mind a lot as I prayed for her, and her now husband, and helped with preparations. It has been my great joy and honour to witness the blooming and deepening of this couples' relationship over the last several years, and it was a delight to be a part of their day. Their's was actually the first Catholic wedding I've ever attended, and I couldn't help but compare the ceremony to others I've been to. Though each previous wedding was beautiful, there was a tangible difference this time. Both the bride and groom knew that they were entering into a sacramental union, with God at the centre. The importance of this fact and the significance of the sacrament remained the central focus in all the planning beforehand and throughout the wedding day. There was a tangible peace and joy in the church.
My favorite moment of the Mass was the exchange of vows, followed immediately by the invocation of the Holy Spirit - not just because the vows are the moment the sacrament actually takes place, but also because the choice to follow them with a pleading for God's grace in the Holy Spirit was so powerful. I had the privilege of seeing the groom's face during the vows as he gazed at his bride, promising himself to her for life, and she to him. As I took in his facial expression, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the love I was witnessing - a love they had both chosen to commit to until death, no matter what it may require. There are moments when beloved gazes on beloved and the gaze is so intense you almost want to look away, but the beauty of it draws you in. It's radiant, and reminds us of the gaze of Christ, which is always one of love and desire. I could practically hear the rejoicing in heaven.
It struck me that during the vows, all of us faced the bride and groom as they faced each other, but during the invocation of the Holy Spirit, everyone, including the priest, turned towards the crucifix at the front to gaze at Jesus. We sang together, praying that His Spirit would come and be present among us, especially in this union between the newly married couple, and it didn't even matter that it was in Polish and I couldn't understand a word of what we were saying. I could literally feel the grace. That was the real reason we were all there, because of Jesus, because He had called these two people together for His purposes, and they knew it.
When a couple loves each other in such a deep and pure way, their love, in a way, becomes inclusive instead of exclusive. We are drawn to them. The love they give and receive from each other spills over in love for others and in its greatest intesity, brings forth new life.
“Love then is not a utopia: it is given to mankind as a task to be carried out with the help of divine grace. It is entrusted to man and woman, in the sacrament of matrimony, as the basic principle of their ‘duty,’ and it becomes the foundation of their mutual responsibility: first as spouses, then as father and mother. In the celebration of the sacrament, the spouses give and receive each other, declaring their willingness to welcome children and to educate them. On this hinges human civilization, which cannot be defined as anything other than a ‘civilization of love’.”
(St. John Paul ll, Letter to Families, no. 15)
No one defends, honors and respects marriage more than the Catholic Church. It places more value on this relationship than any other organization or group in the world and will not yield in its defense, despite immense cultural and societal pressure. This is an incredible testimony to the beauty and sacredness of marriage.
I think it may be helpful here to clarify a few terms and practicals of the marriage bond, as understood by the Church. Marriages can either be valid and sacramental, or valid and non-sacramental. If a marriage is annulled it means it's been declared invalid and was never actually a marriage in the first place. The Church assumes every time a man and woman exchange vows willingly, with the intention to remain faithful to each other, committed until death, and are open to children, there is a valid marriage (regardless of cultural or religious background). One exception is when a Catholic is married outside the Church, in which case no authentic marriage bond is recognized. God graces all marriages because of His love for us, but when they are valid yet non-sacramental, they don't receive the extra special sacramental graces. A marriage is considered sacramental when it occurs between two validly baptized Christians, as baptism is the only way through which to receive any sacrament. Nothing but death can break a valid sacramental marriage bond.
In the sacramentalization of natural marriage, two people are joined by God for the salvation of their souls. They are not just drawn together through mutual attraction, but by God for His purpose. They will not just find fulfillment in each other's presence, but will find salvation. In a sacramental marriage a person's spouse is their path to holiness. Their vocation here on earth helps them achieve their ultimate vocation of sanctity.
The sacrament of matrimony is unlike any other sacrament of the Church (Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, etc.), in that a priest does not bestow it. The vows exchanged are the sacrament, and through these vows the couple becomes a sacrament of Christ's love for His Church. They are a sign to the world of His love for us. Married couples are living witnesses to the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, for His bride, the Church.
"Marriage and family become for us a sacred revelation of the inner life of the Trinity… It’s within the family that we learn to love, to believe, and to pray. It reveals Christ’s love to us as His bride and gives us a window into and a tangible example of what our relationship with Him will be like in the next life." (Bishop Donald Hying)
In relationships when we are unified under a common passion and purpose and are striving for some high ideal, when we fall in love not so much with each other, but with a third love (love for the truth, love for a country, love for God, etc.) we are actually drawn closer together through this shared love. This is a concept that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, and is discussed by others in more recent history such as Venerable Fulton Sheen and Bishop Robert Barron. As Bishop Barron states in one of his Word on Fire podcast episodes, The Spirituality of Marriage, a married couple must look beyond just their spouse towards the transcendent third, who in this case is God. It is through this gaze, this falling in love with God, that their love for each other deepens and their bond is made stronger.
Christian marriage, as explained by Fr Hugh Barbour, O. Praem. (Chaplain at Catholic Answers), is an invitation to maturity and to a moderation of passions. It is the ongoing spiritual battle to be like Christ. Marriage is meant to draw us out of ourselves and into a higher space. It is a journey towards sanctity, and is the earthly vocation most people are called to.
This all being said, marriage is far from easy, which is why the graces of the sacrament are so important. No one, no couple, can live this vocation without help, particularly from God. We need His grace. It is His love which enables spouses to love each other (and their children), in the first place. I have been very blessed to grow up with an example of many strong and long-lasting marriages around me, both in my own family and among friends. As a result, I have experienced first-hand the gift this sacrament is, particularly in a family, when fully lived out. Though imperfect, the marriages of my parents and grandparents, especially, have been a living sign for me of God's love by their love and fidelity through so many years of life's joys and sorrows. If human beings can love each other so much and can continue to choose each other day after day, year after year, no matter what, how much more does God love and choose us?
"This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy - heavier than the Law of Moses. 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. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1615)
The gift of marriage and family is the highest earthly good the Lord has given us. May we continue to recognize, defend and celebrate its beauty.