A girl and a guy see each other in the distance.
They meet. They date. They fall A in love. They marry. They
have children. Their love keeps growing. It all just gets
better and better.
That's the script which everyone who's even remotely considering
marriage hopes to follow. But we live in an imperfect world
where marriages, like civilizations and cultures, are endangered
by human imperfection.
Even in this imperfect world, marriage can and does turn out
well more often than we notice. The exception of tragedy,
it seems, always gets more media attention than success. Among
believing, practicing Catholics, a good marriage relationship
is connected with the supernatural, with God, in a way that our faith calls
a "sacrament." However real, this may even seem
like a fantasy.
Perhaps a small fantasy might demonstrate the reality of the
connection between the married world of dinner dishes, diapers
and making love, and the supernatural dimension"God's
world"-which is the theme to be explored here.
Imagine you're sitting in your room trying to
make sense out of tonight's homework. A dazzling light beam
appears in your room. In its center materializes a man, or
perhaps a humanoid. He smiles at you.
"I am from ... you would call it `the other side.' Actually,
there is constant contact between your dimension and mine."
"There are many links," he explains.
"They channel energy from my dimension to yours and back again."
"I see." Actually you don't.
"The links multiply, creating still more channels, which
increases the flow of energy between the two dimensions."
quot;That's terrific," you say, still not convinced.
"I was thinking of asking you," the visitor continues,
"to be one of those channels." "I-now don't
get me wrong," you begin. "I'm sure all this does
a lot of good. But I'm not into far-out things all by myself
and-" "Oh you can't be this kind of link alone,"
the visitor interrupts.
"No. It's impossible," he smiles. "It takes
"Would I get to choose?"
"Your partner must indeed be a friendbut more than that."
"How much more?" you ask. "Everything,"
the stranger answers. "For one thing, you and your partner
must also be lovers."
"You mean, as in..."
"Sex? Certainly. There's more to it than sex, but that's
"And this channels energy from one dimension to the other?"
"Definitely. It's one of the very best ways we have."
Commercial break. Back to reality. Off the wall, right? Yet
something much like this does happen every time a couple accepts
the call to sacramental marriage. In fact, about the only
difference is that Jesus does not materialize in someone's room and say, "I'd like you to enter a sacramental
marriage and, through it, spread my presence in the world."
Like all vocations, the call to marriage is more gradual,
low key, and subtle than that.
We could discuss marriage from many approaches:
the joys vs. the difficulties, for example, or how to prepare
for a good marriage. But the specific questions (with some
answers) in this issue of Youth Update are: What is sacramental
marriage? What difference does it make? Why is the Church
For Material Girls--and Boys
Marriage or "matrimony" is officially
counted among the seven sacraments. If you thought much about
that list, you might have had the feeling that somehow marriage
wasn't even eligible for inclusion.
You have learned that in Baptism you begin to share in the
very life of God and that in Confirmation you actually receive
the Holy Spirit. You may not feel these things intensely at
the time, but you believe them. With faith you learn to recognize
the power of Jesus at work in your life, sometimes through
these channels called sacraments.
But marriage looks too ordinary. After all, most people marry.
It's the most common life-style we have. On top of that, it
doesn't always "work out." Listing marriage as a
sacrament may seem like just a public relations move on the
part of the Church, trying to make married people important.
Or it may look as though the church is trying to make marriage
"more difficult to get out of," or trying to put
pressure on the couple to "bring the kids up Catholic."
Some people may even see it simply as an official clearance
from heaven to have sex.
None of those comes even remotely close to marriage as a sacrament.
So what's a sacrament? You may sense that here comes a little
bit of heavy stuff, but I'll keep it real. Jesus wanted to
stay on earth. Good thing. We need him. Now he could have
remained on earth in the same physical body he had in Palestine.
He could have continued teaching in person in various places
around the planet. A contemporary evangelist might then record
a "Sermon in the Astrodome" to go along with the
Sermon on the Mount. People in Seattle and Chicago and Montreal
and London would all be able to say, "Look-there's Jesus!"
He chose a less spectacular approach. But he still wanted
people in all points large and small around the world to be
able to say, "Look-there's Jesus! He's here among us!"
So he chose other ways of hanging aroundways that you could
see and hear and feel and know through faith. One of these
The word "sacrament" itself means "sign."
Lit it's not the kind of sign you look at and learn that the
road ahead is curved, or that food is available at the next
exit. Those signs don't make the road curved or serve you
lunch. They don't make anything happen. Sacramental signs
do. In connection with faith, they make Jesus present in special
ways. If marriage is one such sacrament, what does that mean?
It means that the married couple are literally in "the
Jesus business." In a sacramental marriage, the couple
now have both the mission and the power to make Jesus present
to each other, to their children, to anyone whom they touch
as a couple and as a family. They're now a link, a channel
of the risen Jesus to each other and to those around them.
All the activities of their married life, everything from
making love to making house payments, bring the presence of
Jesus. Cooking meals, washing dishes, fixing the screen door,
doing laundry, cutting grass, balancing the checkbook, changing
diapers, driving kids to and from soccer practices-none of
those look very spectacular.
But in that respect, marriage is much like e "material"
of other sacraments. Water is pretty ordinary. So are bread
and wine. It takes faith to see and experience Jesus through
the water of baptism, through the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
This shouldn't surprise us. Jesus himself looked pretty ordinary
to most people. To people who expected a great spectacle from
the sky, he was quite a disappointment. Only the believers
could see who Jesus really was.
Contract or Convenant?
Because sacramental marriage brings Jesus, it's
a sign of the covenant between God and couples. Jesus is our
New Covenant. People sometimes speak of "the marriage
contract," but that's not a good term at all. A covenant
is not a contract or even like one in many ways.
Contracts are something that occurs in the business world.
"XYZ Construction Company agrees to lay a concrete driveway
five inches thick with steel reinforced rods, and Mr. and Mrs. Jones
agree to pay XYZ $1,500." Contracts use business-type
jargon to say things like, "If you don't do this, then
I don't have to do that." Or, "If such and such
happens, then I'm not responsible to do such and such, and
moreover I can tell you to take a hike."
A covenant says, "I belong to you, and you belong to
me. We will be devoted to each other." It doesn't include
exceptions or lists of circumstances when it's all right to
mouth off. (Can you imagine what it would be like if God's
covenant of love for us included clauses like "unless"
or "until" or "except when"?)
This does not mean tolerating absolutely any kind of behavior
from the other person. In the end, God does not "put
up with" all the bad things the People of God sometimes
do. So covenant does not mean that a husband or wife must
tolerate a spouse who wants to make a life-style out of knocking
off convenience stores with a .38 revolver, for example.
It does mean continuing to care and to hang
in. Covenant is the reason behind the words "For better
or for worse ... all the days of my life." That's what
God tells us in the covenant we have through Jesus, and sacramental
marriage is a sign of that covenant. When a couple in a sacramental
marriage lives up to all that their marriage can be, people
can see the love, the commitment, the hanging in there and
conclude, "You know, that's a lot like the way God feels
and acts toward us."
Even when a couple doesn't live up to the ideal of their marriage
covenant, that's proof that there was and is and should be
something to live up to-that a marriage is not a matter of
"Try this brand and see if it works for you."
This is the reason behind the marriage laws
of the Church. It's not that the Church is trying to run the
private lives of its members. The believing community is trying
to safeguard the meaning of marriage as a sacrament. Our society
tends to say, "If something isn't working exactly the
way you want it to, get rid of it and try a different brand."
If marriage is treated that way, its meaning as sacrament
and covenant is shattered.
Helping Marriages Work
With all this sacramental reality going for
it, why doesn't marriage always work out? Because we are (a)
not robots and (b) not perfect. God doesn't force us, not
even through the sacraments, into being the way we should
be. We don't always do what we have the power to do. We don't
always act like what we actually are.
This example isn't perfect, but it may help. Let's say I get
elected to the Presidency and I'm sworn into office. I possess
the authority, the power, and the mission to accomplish good
things for the country.
That doesn't mean I always will. Instead I may occasionally
or even totally mess up. Even if that happens, it doesn't
mean that electing a president is stupid. Nor does it mean
that presidents in general will mess up. Messing up a marriage,
however, is quite possible!
Sometimes two people begin a marriage so poorly that they
severely limit, or practically eliminate, the possibility
of its permanence. The Rites of Marriage will not rescue a
relationship that never got much deeper than a hormonal rush
between two people who have trouble holding down fast-food
For many reasons, even sacramental marriages sometimes end
up tragically. That doesn't mean that the power and the possibility
for a different ending was never there. Jesus himself moved
among many people, but their relatio. ship did not always
have a happy ending. Even great marriages have problems and
pain and tough times.
Again, Jesus himself knew pain. A marriage is good when it
recovers and grows, just as the resurrection followed from
the pain of crucifixion and death.
And finally, remember that even Jesus himself, our Covenant,
was ministered to by others who helped in making his work
happen. Mary and Martha opened their house to him. Peter and
John went ahead to make arrangements for the Last Supper.
When Jesus fed the huge crowds, as John's Gospel tells the
story, it was partly because a kid with a few barley loaves
and some fish was willing to part with them.
You can also help make the work of Jesus happen in marriages
that touch your lives, especially, of course, your parents'
marriage (not that it's your responsibility to make the marriage
work, or your fault if it doesn't). When things are tense,
try not to add unneeded stress by complaining a lot or by
being very demanding. And when things aren't going well, give
your parents a boost by letting them know that you're glad
they met, married and had a family. Do something to help celebrate
their anniversary, for example. It doesn't have to cost a
lot-a few decorations and/or a personal note. You can't imagine
the impact that will make. ("Honey, wait till you get
home-you won't believe this! The kids decorated the kitchen
for our anniversary!")
So it's a little crazy. Being a little crazy in a good way
is part of the fun of living. And when it helps support a
marriage, it helps the reign of God to begin now-on this side
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, asked important questions and offered helpful
advice are Jennifer Darnell, 18; Megan McCarthy, 16; Jake
Noble, 16; and Matt Noble, 15. All are members of Our Ladv
of Visitation Parish in Mack, Ohio.