Sept. 20, 2013
One of the special “perks” of being a priest (or bishop) is that you have the privilege of celebrating weddings in your own family. I recently had the honor of celebrating the nuptial Mass of my oldest niece, who is also my goddaughter. The experience had me reflecting on the true meaning of marriage, especially at a time when marriage and family life are in such trouble, and when efforts are afoot to redefine the essential meaning of the marital covenant itself.

There are four essential things that must be present for a marriage to be a true marriage. These were strongly emphasized in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and were enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. (see especially Gaudium et spes, ## 47-52) In fact, these four things must be intended when a couple marries in order for the marriage to be considered valid.

These four essential elements and properties of marriage reflect the fact that the marital covenant is meant to symbolize the nuptial union between Christ and his beloved Bride, the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, St. Paul reminds us that the Church is called to love her divine Spouse in the same way a woman loves her husband. And in even stronger language, a man is called to love his wife with the same sacrificial love with which Christ loves us. Let’s look at these four essential things that make a true marriage in the light of that symbolism.

• Permanence. The promises made between a man and a woman on the day of their wedding are permanent. The couple is questioned during the ceremony, “Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?” The couple of course responds with a hope filled “yes.” The permanence of the covenant bond of marriage is a visible sign of the permanence of Christ’s love for us, sealed in his own Blood. The covenant he entered into with us from the Cross is permanent. He will never take back his love for us. This permanence is reflected in the “for life” nature of the bond of marriage.

• Fidelity. A man and a woman being joined to one another in marriage must promise and intend complete faithfulness to one another, i.e. one man joined to one woman for life. In their vows the couple promises “to be true” to one another. The exclusive nature of the marital covenant is a powerful reflection and reminder of the fidelity of Christ to us in the new covenant God has entered into with us. God uses this imagery of marriage in many places in Sacred Scripture to teach his people about their infidelity to him, comparing the people to adulterers when they abandon the Lord and adopt the ways and gods of the nations around them (e.g. Hosea 3: 1). Just as a man and a woman joined in marriage work hard to remain completely faithful to each other, so the Church seeks always to remain faithful to her Savior and Spouse, Jesus Christ.

• Communion of the whole of life. By this is meant that a man and a woman completely and mutually give and accept one another in establishing the bond of marriage. This is a partnership of the whole of their lives, meaning that they hold nothing back from the other, but completely give themselves to each other. A man takes all that he is and trustingly places his whole life into the hands of his bride. A woman does the same in placing herself in the hands of her groom. This mutual exchange is a selfless act of giving which is meant to reflect that Jesus has given himself completely for us, holding nothing back, not even his very life. I have sometimes shocked couples in marriage preparation by asking them to look at the other and ask themselves if they would be willing to die for their fiancé. If not, maybe they should think twice about this. It is precisely in and through this mutual exchange that a man and a woman, joined together in the marriage covenant, help sanctify one another in the ordinary and daily living out of the duties and rights of their beautiful state in life.

• Procreation and upbringing of children. Here we come to an essential element of marriage that is sometimes minimized or even forgotten. “Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children. Indeed children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves.” (Gaudium et spes, # 50) This essential good of marriage recognizes that the conjugal act of sexual union is by its very nature ordered to the procreation of new life, as couples cooperate with the Creator, following his command to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis 1:28) Even when a couple is unable to conceive a child, this essential element is still present, both in their desire and symbolized in the language of their conjugal union.

Again, these four essential properties and elements go into making a true marriage. It is important also to note that this is true by the very nature of marriage itself, not just Christian marriage. Even a natural marriage between two non-Christians is defined by these four elements. What Jesus has done is raise this union of man and woman in marriage to the dignity of a sacrament between baptized persons, strengthening them through the grace of the sacrament for the living out of such an awesome covenant.

Now, of course, we are all sinners. This is a result of our fallen state following the original sin of our first parents. This means that we will not always live up to the demands of the Gospel or even the natural law inscribed upon our hearts by our Creator. This is certainly true for efforts to live out the high calling of the covenant of marriage. We know that some attempts at marriage fail, sometimes spouses are unfaithful, we find it hard to completely rid ourselves of our own selfishness and give ourselves completely to the other, and sometimes couples do not remain open to the possibility of children.

But such attempts that fall short should never cause us to cast aside the very ideal of married love. We need to hold fast to the ideal given us by God the Creator and strengthened by Christ our Lord. So as we seek to strengthen and support married couples in their awesome vocation, and as we work to prevent things that further erode the true dignity of married love, we look to the true nature of the covenant of marriage as our model and guide.

Let us pray for all married couples, that they may be given every grace, strength and help they need to remain faithful to the promises made on the day of their wedding. May God bless and strengthen their witness to Christ’s love in the world!