Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Sacrament of Marriage:
Sign of Faithful Love
What is marriage? It may seem that a priest like me
is not the one to answer that question. I am not married; I have
never been married and I don't intend to get marriedwhich
doesn't exactly qualify me to talk about marriage. Yet marriage
is certainly a worthy topic for discussion. It is something that
needs to be more clearly understood and more deeply appreciated.
But this Catholic Update is not about marriage, it is about
the Sacrament of Marriage.
Although I am not married myself, I have experienced
the Sacrament of Marriage. I have witnessed the marriages of friends
and parishioners. I have participated in the wedding ceremony
many times. In fact, the Sacrament of Marriage was the first sacrament
that I experienced. Even before my infant Baptism I was born into
a Christian marriage. What I am going to say about the sacrament
is drawn from my experience of my parents and the many married
couples with whom I have discussed the meaning of the sacramentcouples
from the Christian Family Movement and Marriage Encounterand
the hundreds of couples whom I have helped prepare for marriage.
These couples have often told me of the meaning which they find
in this sacrament. As I have meditated on the passages of Scripture
which couples have selected for their wedding ceremonies and asked
me to preach about, I have come to the following conclusion: Marriage
involves embarking on a new life project.
A new life project
We each have something that we want
to do with our lives: something we want to become. It may take us
a while to find out what that "something" is, but eventually a life
project forms, either consciously or unconsciously. And it seems
to me that as people pursue this goal, whatever it may beto
be a skilled surgeon, to be the best kindergarten teacher that ever
lived, to own a farm or whatever else they may see their life to
be aboutthey sometimes encounter another human being to whom
they are so attracted that the love of this other person supersedes
all other life goals and ambitions. They undertake a new life project.
Little by little they decide that first
on their agenda is now going to be the life, the happiness, the
holiness of this other person. The good of this other takes precedence
even over the desires and dreams they have for themselves. And when
that other makes the same decision, together the two embark on a
whole new adventure. It seems to me that this is the basic meaning
of the Sacrament of Marriage.
The sacrament reveals the religious dimension
of marriage. Besides the human, social and legal dimensions of marriagethe
public sign that one gives oneself totally to this other personsacramental
marriage is also a public statement about God. The celebration of
each of the sacraments reveals something of this ultimate reality:
who God is and who God is for us.
In the Scriptures the relationship between
God and God's people is often described in terms of a marriage.
The early Christians, reflecting on Christ's love for us, also used
this image. Christ and the Church embrace in mutual love and self-giving,
even as do husband and wife (see, for example, Ephesians 5:21-33).
"'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be
joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is
a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church"
The Catholic wedding
Marriage was around a long time before Jesus. His
parents were married, and at least some of the apostles were married.
For example, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels we hear of Peter's
mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). In the early
Church, Christians got married like anyone else in the cultures
where they lived. Gradually, Christians began to see that the
loving union of husband and wife spoke to them not only about
family values but also about God's values.
Historically speaking, it was not until the 12th century
that marriage took its place among the other ritual actions which
we now name the seven sacraments. Throughout the Middle Ages there
was no singular wedding rite for Christians. The Catholic wedding
ceremony that you might witness today dates in large part from
about the 16th century.
The rite has basically the same "shape" as all the
other sacraments: gathering, storytelling, the sacramental action
and commissioning. The gathering rites are similar to Sunday Mass,
although the entrance procession is more elaborate. (Sometimes
the entrance procession is so elaborate that it can steal the
whole show, but I don't want to talk here about abuses.) There
was a time when the bride's father (owner) brought (dragged) the
bride before the magistrate and exchanged her for a sum of money
(the bride price) paid by the groom. When the father no longer
"sold" the girl, he "gave her away."
Many couples today find this symbol works against
the meaning of their wedding ceremony. They want their ceremony
to speak of families, couples, mutuality. They arrange the procession
so that the attendants enter together as couples. The groom enters
with his father and mother and the bride with hers. At the front
of the church they symbolically take leave of their parents and
come together and speak a word of welcome to the assembly and
invite them to pray that God will bless what they are about to
do. The community is led in prayer by the presider and the gathering
We are seated and listen to the readings from Scripture.
Here again the rite will resemble the storytelling at Sunday Mass.
The couple select Scripture passages according to the religious
meaning they wish their wedding to express. Thus, the readings
will sometimes refer to creation, for husband and wife are creating
something new: a new life project, a new relationship, a new family.
They are sign and sacrament of the new love project God embarked
upon in creating the world. Or the readings will refer to the
two becoming one: Husband and wife are joined in one flesh. Christian
marriage is the sacrament which shows us God's desire to be one
The couple then come before the Christian assembly
and vow that their love will be a sign and sacrament of God's
love for us. And the community prays for them and with them that
we may receive this sign and that we may, by our faithful love,
support their vows.
It is the bride and groom who perform the marriage.
The priest, the attendants and the congregation witness
what the bride and groom do. The bride and groom come forward
and, before the congregation, the priest and the official witnesses,
pronounce their vows. Today most couples choose to say the entire
text of their vows to one another rather than merely saying, "I
do." They exchange rings as a sign of their love and fidelity
and seal their vows with a kiss.
When two Catholics exchange these vows, they do so
in the context of Eucharist. All that marriage says about God's
love and desire to be one with us, Eucharist says in an even more
all-embracing way. Bread and wine are brought to the altar, the
priest proclaims the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving (the
Eucharistic Prayer) and we approach the altar to receive Holy
Communionthe living sign of God's desire to be one with
us. And then a final blessing sends the bride and groom and the
whole Christian community forth to bear witness to God's love
for the world.
What makes a marriage
Sometimes you can learn a lot about something by looking
at its opposite. We can learn about the marriage sacrament by
considering what leads the Church, in the case of annulments,
to see that two people never were truly married.
"An annulment is just a Catholic way of getting
a divorce." I have heard this said by many people in many different
circumstances (and there are times when I feel that there is an
element of truth in this statement). Yet I remain convinced that
an annulment is a very different thing from a divorce. Divorce
is the legal dissolution of a marriage. An annulment is the legal
declaration that a valid sacramental marriage never existed.
In order for a Christian marriage to take place the
man and woman must be capable of entering into such a sacrament.
The individuals must have the capacity to give such a gift. This
capacity develops gradually. When we were children our parents
taught us little by little to be generousfirst with things,
then with ourselves. We were taught to share toys, playthings,
bicycles and birthday cake. Little by little, we learned to share
our time and ourselves.
This gradual learning to give of ourselves is the
necessary preparation for marriage. A person who has not journeyed
sufficiently on the road to maturity and generosity is not capable
of a true marriage, even though he or she may be quite capable
of sharing an apartment or conceiving a child.
There are many reasons why two particular people cannot
join their lives in the marriage project. It is not always a culpable
lack of generosity. Sometimes it becomes apparent only years after
the wedding ceremony that there was no marriage there in the first
place. To declare publicly that the marriage never existed is
what Catholics call an "annulment."
The Church does not want to say that a sacramental
marriage comes to an end because we consider the love of the husband
and wife to be a sign of God's unending love for us.
God's love for us can never end in divorce. God is
faithful even if we are not. The Church desires that even if one
of the partners of a marriage is faithless to the marriage bond,
the other, by remaining faithful, gives a powerful witness to
the community of the way God loves us.
Our marriage covenant with God
In each of the sacraments a window opens and we can
glimpse the mystery of God and God's plan for the salvation of
the world. In Christian marriage we see that God was not content
to be alone, but embarked on a whole new life project. Out of
love God created us and all that is. God is faithful no matter
what. Whether we are faithful or faithless, God is faithful; whether
we wander away in sin or remain in the embrace of love, God is
always there and is ever ready to embrace us.
This sacramental sign, which the husband and wife
give to each other, they also give to the entire community of
witnesses. I too have made commitments to God and God has made
commitments to me. There are times when I wonder if God will be
faithful. I have never seen God, but I can see the fidelity of
Christian husbands and wives. Their love for each other is a sacramental
sign and witness of God's love for me. I believe that our human
lives are interconnected, like a fabric, woven together by many
commitments. The fidelity of their commitment strengthens my own
This indeed is a great mystery. It is something that
touches me deeply each time I experience a Christian wedding and
each time I experience the sacramental love of husband and wife.