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Marriage:
Supernatural and Sacramental

by Jim Auer

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.

Extraterrestrial Apparition

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."

"Wow."

"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.

"You can't?"

"No. It's impossible," he smiles. "It takes two."

"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 important."

"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 involved?

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 is sacraments.

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 jobs.

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 of heaven.

Jim Auer, author of three other Youth Updates and of several Leaders' Guides to accompany them, has been married 20 years to "one wonderful wife" and is father to "two neat teenagers."

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.

Q.

Marriage as supernatural, a connection to heaven-isn't it too good to be real? Marriage still looks pretty ordinary and sometimes it just doesn't work out.

A.

You're absolutely right. It does sound like the story of Jesus though, doesn't it? He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and people said, "Oh really? Then why doesn't he look like it?" Jesus had relationships that didn't work out, Judas being one famous example. Seeing the supernatural dimension in sacramental marriage requires faith. Faith takes time to grow. Be patient with your faith vision-and allow God to strengthen it through your prayer and your efforts to be faithful.

Q.

How does having children relate to this supernatural aspect of marriage?

A.

When God revealed to us, "This is what I'm like," the key idea was Parent. Creating new life by expressing love, and then surrounding that new life with further love-that's a human mirror of God's own action. As parents, husband and wife literally continue God's creative, loving action in the world. And parenthood provides thousands of opportunities to give of yourself that others may grow and "have life to the full"-which is continuing the presence and actions of Jesus himself.

Q.

How do you prepare for this sacramental part of marriage?

A.

First, do all you can to understand it. An article like this is a beginning, but there are books and other marriage preparation materials which talk about sacramental marriage in greater depth. Second, do all you can to develop your relationship with the Lord before marriage. That doesn't mean you must reach legendary sanctity before entering marriage. But it's difficult for a couple to make God present through their marriage if God is a near zero in their lives.

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