We continue our catechesis on marriage with a look at what we mean when we call marriage a “sacrament.”

We have already looked at the natural origins of marriage and those essential properties and elements that are common to all marriages, whether sacramental or not. Next we looked at the sacraments in general according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and our common experience of the ritual and outward signs of the sacraments which bring us God’s grace.
We said, in short, that each sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give us grace. We saw how God takes natural elements as the outward sign of the sacraments, and when combined with the ritual action and the formula for the celebration of the particular sacrament, God’s grace is truly communicated to those who receive them. Now we need to apply these principles to the Sacrament of Marriage.

The first question we must ask is, “What is the ‘outward and efficacious sign’ of the Sacrament of Marriage?” We saw how the pouring of water is the outward sign of Baptism, and how bread and wine are the outward signs of the Holy Eucharist. So what is this outward sign of marriage?

When I have asked this question of couples that I have prepared for marriage, I would often get answers such as the wedding rings, or even the unity candle (which is not actually a part of the ritual). The closest that anyone has gotten to the correct answer is when they named the vows of marriage. While the vows are essential to the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage, and the rings are a powerful symbol of the couple’s union, neither of these is the actual sacramental, outward, efficacious sign. So what is?

It is the matrimonial covenant itself, i.e. the bond of marriage itself — the union of the man and the woman in holy matrimony. In a sense we do not “see” the outward sign in the same way we do in Baptism or the Holy Eucharist. We do not visibly “see” the bond of marriage between spouses, but we know that such a union exists between them through the exchange of the promises of marriage. It is this union that is the outward sign of the Sacrament of Marriage.

So we have identified the outward sign of the Sacrament of Marriage, but we must now ask, “What is it a sign of?” The pouring of water in the Sacrament of Baptism is a sign of the cleansing from sin and the new life it brings to the one who receives it. The bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist are signs of the Body and Blood of our Lord, which we receive as spiritual food for eternal life. So what does the covenant bond of the Sacrament of Marriage signify?

It is a sacramental sign of the love and union between Christ, the bridegroom, and his beloved bride, the Church. Man and woman, baptized and joined in the Sacrament of Marriage, symbolize the love between Christ and us, the Church. St. Paul powerfully captures this in his letter to the Ephesians. I quote it extensively here. I warn you that this is a passage that some find difficult, but please don’t shut down. Read it all the way through with an open mind and heart, especially the admonition to husbands!

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” (Ephesian 5: 21-33)

This is such a beautiful and powerful teaching, when properly understood. We will take some time to probe the depth of this mystery, but for now, I wish to point out two things. Apart from the teaching of the attitude of wives toward their husbands, look at the instruction given to the husbands. They are told to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Christ suffered and died for his bride, the Church. This is the kind of selfless love he has for the Church. And this is exactly the kind of love a husband is called to have for his bride — an unselfish and pure love.

Second, the man and woman are united in marriage and become “one flesh.” This symbolizes how we, the Church and the bride of Christ, are one with him in his body. When Christ loves us, his Church, he nourishes us as his own body. So a husband is called to love his wife as himself, as his own body, since he is one flesh with her. He must nourish his wife as part of himself.

There is so much more for us to ponder here, but for now let us see that the sacramental bond of marriage is an outward and visible sign of Christ’s love for the Church, and our reciprocal love and devotion to him.