In the first installment of this catechesis on marriage, we explored the very nature of marriage as it comes forth from the hand of God who created the human person, male and female, in his own image and likeness. We discovered that all marriages, whether sacramental or not, have four essential elements and properties.

Marriage is established between a man and a woman for the communion of life and love that will exist between them, which is for their own good as spouses. Second, all marriages are ordered to the procreation and education of children, flowing from the mutuality of the sexes and the conjugal union of husband and wife. Third, all marriages are an exclusive bond between one man and one woman, from which flows the fidelity of the spouses to each other. Finally, the bond of all marriages is permanent, which is for the security and stability of the family, i.e. for the good of the spouses themselves and any children coming from the union.
This is all true for marriage by its very nature. But Christ our Lord raised the natural bond of marriage to the dignity of a “sacrament” between a man and a woman who are baptized. So we need to explore what this means. How is marriage, as a sacrament, realized and lived between baptized spouses?

It strikes me that, before we explore specifically how marriage is a sacrament, we need to review our understanding of the sacraments in general. Just what is a sacrament? I can already hear some of you of an older generation shouting out your Baltimore Catechism response. Good for you! But for the benefit of those of us who need some reminders, please indulge this presentation.

Here comes the definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

Whew! That is a mouthful. Perhaps that Baltimore Catechism response, which is still valid, says it more simply: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” In both definitions there are three essential points. First, all of the sacraments are given to us by Jesus Christ. They are not of human origin or invention, but were instituted by Christ himself. Second, there is always a visible sign and ritual by which the sacraments are celebrated. Third, these visible signs and ritual elements accomplish what they signify. In other words, the visible signs and ritual actually communicate the divine life of God’s grace to those who receive them, through the power and action of the Holy Spirit.

God uses natural elements to be the visible signs and elements of the sacraments. These include water, oil, bread, and wine. Also included are ritual gestures such as pouring water, anointing with oil, making the sign of the cross and the laying on of hands. Finally there are the ritual words which give meaning and definition to the ritual actions and natural signs of the sacraments. In traditional terms, we call the visible elements and ritual gestures the “matter” of the sacraments, and the ritual words are the “form” of the sacraments.

Let us consider a couple of common examples to help us understand this definition. Let’s look at baptism. Jesus Christ gave us this sacrament in the Gospels. He said we needed to be born again by water and the Holy Spirit in order to enter the Kingdom of God. He commanded the apostles to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we use the natural sign of water which is poured over the person (or the person is immersed in water). This imitates the “baptism” Jesus himself received from St. John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

But the pouring of water over a person would mean nothing unless ritual words were used to specify the meaning: “(Name), I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” So the “matter” of the Sacrament of Baptism is the pouring of water, and the “form” of the sacrament is the ritual formula just quoted. Through these visible rites, the life of divine grace is given to the person, original sin is blotted out, the person is adopted as a child of God and becomes a visible member of the Church, and the Holy Trinity begins to dwell in the soul. Amazing!

Let’s now look at the Holy Eucharist. Jesus Christ, of course, gave us this sacrament at the Last Supper, after having taught about it in the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John. He used the natural elements of bread and wine in order to communicate his divine presence to the apostles, commanding them (and their successors) to celebrate this ritual in remembrance of him.

At Holy Mass, we use the same natural elements as the “matter” of the Holy Eucharist, i.e. bread and wine. But bread and wine on the altar would mean nothing unless the ritual “form” of the sacrament was recited by the priest: “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” (a shortened version of the full sacramental formula used at Mass). At that moment the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ become truly and substantially present. There is no more bread and there is no more wine. They have been really and completely transformed into Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God. That is why we genuflect before him! He comes to us in the sacrifice of the Mass to renew his act of our redemption and to fill us with his grace and life in Holy Communion.

Okay, so that is essentially what we mean by a sacrament. But how does this definition apply to the Sacrament of Marriage? Stay tuned for part three of this series!