As we continue this important catechesis on marriage, it is time for us to bring together two important facts about sacramental marriage. We need to see how the essential properties and elements of marriage are, in a sacramental union, strong signs of Christ’s love for the Church.
In the very first column in this series we laid out the essential elements and properties of marriage that belong to all marriages, both sacramental (between baptized spouses) and natural bond (when at least one spouse is not baptized). The essential properties of marriage are permanence (indissolubility) and unity (fidelity between one man and one woman).
The essential elements of marriage are based on that to which marriage, by its very nature, is ordered. These are the well-being of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children. The permanence and fidelity of the marriage bond are necessary and serve the well-being of the spouses and the good of the children coming from their union. This again is for all marriages, and these essential properties and elements receive a special strengthening through the sacrament of matrimony between the baptized.
These elements and properties of marriage are called “essential” because they are of the very essence and being of marriage. They constitute what marriage actually is. There are many attempts these days to redefine marriage, or to leave out what is essential to marriage. But these things are essential to marriage, and this is an objective truth coming from the Creator that we have no power to change or redefine.
In fact, these four realities are so essential to marriage, that to deliberately exclude one or more of them at the time of the celebration of the marriage vows is to invalidate the marriage. To exclude faithfulness, to exclude a marriage that is for life, to deliberately exclude openness to children (even when it is not possible to have them) or to exclude the total giving of each other for the whole of life, is to exclude marriage. Whatever the relationship might be at that point, it is not marriage as it comes to us from the hand of the Creator.
Now we need to see how these essential properties and elements of marriage are, in a sacramental bond between the baptized, powerful signs to us of Christ’s love for his spotless Bride, the Church. Recall that we said that the marital covenant between a man and a woman in a sacramental marriage is a sign and symbol of the love that Jesus, the Bridegroom, has for his Bride, the Church. Jesus has entered into a covenant with us, sealed in his Precious Blood shed on the Cross for us. Sacramental marriage is a sign of that covenant.
Christ’s love for us is permanent. He has entered into a covenant that is eternal. He will not take back his love for us. He has permanently united himself to us in his Church, his spotless Bride. The permanence of the marriage bond is a sign of the permanence of Christ’s love for us. The indissolubility of the marriage bond stands as a powerful symbol to the Church and to the world of the permanent and undying nature of God’s love for his people.
Closely related to this is the fidelity of Jesus to his Bride, the Church. He remains faithful to the covenant he established with us at so great a price. He is always true and always faithful. Even when we in the Church turn away from his love through our infidelity and sin, he remains ever faithful to us in his great mercy. The fidelity that a man and a woman hold for one another in marriage is a powerful sign of Christ’s faithfulness to us. Even amidst all the hardships, sufferings and sins that can become a part of married life, the couple remains faithful to each other, one man and one woman for the whole of life.
God’s love cannot touch us without bringing us new life. Christ’s love for us in the Church is a fruitful love. When his love touches us it brings forth fruits of great joy in abundance. God’s love is “life giving” as we go from one glory to another as new creations in Christ. This life-giving power of Christ’s love for us is powerfully symbolized in a married couple’s openness to new life in the form of the children God may bless them with. A man and a woman in marriage can have the great privilege of cooperating with God in bringing new life into the world. Even when a couple is beyond childbearing years, or when it is sadly not possible for a couple to conceive and give birth to children, the openness expressed in the marital union to new life is nevertheless present.
Finally Christ has given himself totally to his Bride, the Church. He has held nothing back. He did not hold back from us even his very life, which he offered on the Cross for our salvation. Our covenant with him was sealed in his Precious Blood poured out for us. He could not give us any more because he had given his very self for us, and he continues to do so. This is the kind of “giving over” to each other that a man and a woman must intend when they marry. Their love in the sacramental bond of marriage is meant to powerfully symbolize self-sacrificial love for us. We must learn to die to self and live for the other, as Christ has done for us.
When a man and a woman marry, they must be prepared to “lay down their life” for the other, permanently committing themselves to each other and being, faithful to one another. This is for their own well-being and for the good of any children God may send them. So it is with Christ in his love for us.