In my last column we continued our exploration of the Church’s teaching regarding marriage by introducing what we mean when we call marriage between two baptized persons a “sacrament.” It might serve well to review that previous column. Here I would like to reflect more deeply on the Sacrament of Marriage.

We have already seen that a sacrament, in general, is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. We saw that the “outward sign” of the Sacrament of Marriage is the union between the man and the woman itself — the bond of marriage. Next we learned that the bond of a sacramental marriage is an “outward sign” of the love and union between Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, and his Bride, the Church.

This is a profound teaching with deep and far reaching implications in the Church, not just for marriage, but even for the “spousal” union between a celibate priest (who ministers in the person of Christ) and the community of the Church, the Bride of Christ. But we’ll save that for another time!
We read in canon law a teaching that is taken directly from Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes):  “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” (c. 1055)

Notice how, just as Jesus took “natural” elements as signs in the other sacraments such as water, bread, wine and oil, so he has done with the Sacrament of Marriage.  He has taken the natural bond of marriage, something that is written in the heart of man and woman by the hand of the Creator, and elevated it to a sacramental sign of his love for us. It is almost as if God said, “How can I show what my love is like for my people?  What can I use as a sign and symbol so my people can understand the depth of my love for them?” He turned to the natural bond of marriage to be that sign.

But God did even more than that. He not only took the natural union of man and woman in marriage to be sign of his love, but he also transformed the nature of married love itself to a deeper level so that it might more accurately reflect the kind of love he has for us. He called married couples to a higher kind of love, just as he did for all of us in the Gospel.  

In the previous column we explored this sacramental sign of Christ’s love in marriage by reflecting on the often misunderstood passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 5:21-33).  This passage is often misunderstood because we tend to read it through our contemporary mindset, which completely misses the point that St. Paul is making.  Try reading it in a new way.  

St. Paul begins by admonishing each spouse to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Now jump down to what he says to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” St. Paul is telling husbands that the way they are to relate to their wives is the same way that Jesus subjected himself and sacrificed himself for us, his Bride — the Church. He has much more to say to husbands than he does to wives!

In other words, husbands are not to subject their wives to themselves as if somehow they were of lesser dignity, or worse yet property. This was a common view in the culture of apostolic times. No! St. Paul says that husbands must love their wives as sharing equally with themselves in the dignity of a common baptism. Beyond that, husbands subject themselves to their wives in the sense that must be willing to sacrifice themselves for their spouse as Jesus did for his Bride, the Church.

Even more, St. Paul recalls that in marriage a man and a woman are united in such a way that they become “one flesh” — “one body.”  So a husband must love his wife as he does his own body, since they are one.  He must nourish and care for his wife in the very same way he would nourish and care for his own life.  This is a profoundly beautiful teaching.

So, with this understanding of how a husband is called to love his wife, when we return to St. Paul’s admonition to wives to be “subject to their husbands as to the Lord,” this is the kind of love to which they submit themselves. Who would not be at peace submitting themselves to a love that gives everything for the other as Jesus did for us?  Do we as members of the Church, Christ’s Bride, resent being subject to his sacrificial love for us?

This forms our fundamental understanding of marriage as a sacrament of the New Covenant in Christ.  Next we will explore the effects of this sacramental bond on the couple and on the children they bring into the world.