What is marriage? It may seem that a priest like me is not the one to answer that question. I am not married; I have never been married and I don't intend to get married—which doesn't exactly qualify me to talk about marriage. Yet marriage is certainly a worthy topic for discussion. It is something that needs to be more clearly understood and more deeply appreciated. But this Catholic Update is not about marriage, it is about the Sacrament of Marriage.
Although I am not married myself, I have experienced the Sacrament of Marriage. I have witnessed the marriages of friends and parishioners. I have participated in the wedding ceremony many times. In fact, the Sacrament of Marriage was the first sacrament that I experienced. Even before my infant Baptism I was born into a Christian marriage. What I am going to say about the sacrament is drawn from my experience of my parents and the many married couples with whom I have discussed the meaning of the sacrament—couples from the Christian Family Movement and Marriage Encounter—and the hundreds of couples whom I have helped prepare for marriage. These couples have often told me of the meaning which they find in this sacrament. As I have meditated on the passages of Scripture which couples have selected for their wedding ceremonies and asked me to preach about, I have come to the following conclusion: Marriage involves embarking on a new life project.
A new life project
We each have something that we want to do with our lives: something we want to become. It may take us a while to find out what that "something" is, but eventually a life project forms, either consciously or unconsciously. And it seems to me that as people pursue this goal, whatever it may be—to be a skilled surgeon, to be the best kindergarten teacher that ever lived, to own a farm or whatever else they may see their life to be about—they sometimes encounter another human being to whom they are so attracted that the love of this other person supersedes all other life goals and ambitions. They undertake a new life project.
Little by little they decide that first on their agenda is now going to be the life, the happiness, the holiness of this other person. The good of this other takes precedence even over the desires and dreams they have for themselves. And when that other makes the same decision, together the two embark on a whole new adventure. It seems to me that this is the basic meaning of the Sacrament of Marriage.
The sacrament reveals the religious dimension of marriage. Besides the human, social and legal dimensions of marriage—the public sign that one gives oneself totally to this other person—sacramental marriage is also a public statement about God. The celebration of each of the sacraments reveals something of this ultimate reality: who God is and who God is for us.
In the Scriptures the relationship between God and God's people is often described in terms of a marriage. The early Christians, reflecting on Christ's love for us, also used this image. Christ and the Church embrace in mutual love and self-giving, even as do husband and wife (see, for example, Ephesians 5:21-33). "'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:31-32).
The Catholic wedding
Marriage was around a long time before Jesus. His parents were married, and at least some of the apostles were married. For example, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels we hear of Peter's mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). In the early Church, Christians got married like anyone else in the cultures where they lived. Gradually, Christians began to see that the loving union of husband and wife spoke to them not only about family values but also about God's values.
Historically speaking, it was not until the 12th century that marriage took its place among the other ritual actions which we now name the seven sacraments. Throughout the Middle Ages there was no singular wedding rite for Christians. The Catholic wedding ceremony that you might witness today dates in large part from about the 16th century.
The rite has basically the same "shape" as all the other sacraments: gathering, storytelling, the sacramental action and commissioning. The gathering rites are similar to Sunday Mass, although the entrance procession is more elaborate. (Sometimes the entrance procession is so elaborate that it can steal the whole show, but I don't want to talk here about abuses.) There was a time when the bride's father (owner) brought (dragged) the bride before the magistrate and exchanged her for a sum of money (the bride price) paid by the groom. When the father no longer "sold" the girl, he "gave her away."
Many couples today find this symbol works against the meaning of their wedding ceremony. They want their ceremony to speak of families, couples, mutuality. They arrange the procession so that the attendants enter together as couples. The groom enters with his father and mother and the bride with hers. At the front of the church they symbolically take leave of their parents and come together and speak a word of welcome to the assembly and invite them to pray that God will bless what they are about to do. The community is led in prayer by the presider and the gathering rites end.
We are seated and listen to the readings from Scripture. Here again the rite will resemble the storytelling at Sunday Mass. The couple select Scripture passages according to the religious meaning they wish their wedding to express. Thus, the readings will sometimes refer to creation, for husband and wife are creating something new: a new life project, a new relationship, a new family. They are sign and sacrament of the new love project God embarked upon in creating the world. Or the readings will refer to the two becoming one: Husband and wife are joined in one flesh. Christian marriage is the sacrament which shows us God's desire to be one with us.
The couple then come before the Christian assembly and vow that their love will be a sign and sacrament of God's love for us. And the community prays for them and with them that we may receive this sign and that we may, by our faithful love, support their vows.
It is the bride and groom who perform the marriage. The priest, the attendants and the congregation witness what the bride and groom do. The bride and groom come forward and, before the congregation, the priest and the official witnesses, pronounce their vows. Today most couples choose to say the entire text of their vows to one another rather than merely saying, "I do." They exchange rings as a sign of their love and fidelity and seal their vows with a kiss.
When two Catholics exchange these vows, they do so in the context of Eucharist. All that marriage says about God's love and desire to be one with us, Eucharist says in an even more all-embracing way. Bread and wine are brought to the altar, the priest proclaims the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving (the Eucharistic Prayer) and we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion—the living sign of God's desire to be one with us. And then a final blessing sends the bride and groom and the whole Christian community forth to bear witness to God's love for the world.
What makes a marriage
Sometimes you can learn a lot about something by looking at its opposite. We can learn about the marriage sacrament by considering what leads the Church, in the case of annulments, to see that two people never were truly married.
"An annulment is just a Catholic way of getting a divorce." I have heard this said by many people in many different circumstances (and there are times when I feel that there is an element of truth in this statement). Yet I remain convinced that an annulment is a very different thing from a divorce. Divorce is the legal dissolution of a marriage. An annulment is the legal declaration that a valid sacramental marriage never existed.
In order for a Christian marriage to take place the man and woman must be capable of entering into such a sacrament. The individuals must have the capacity to give such a gift. This capacity develops gradually. When we were children our parents taught us little by little to be generous—first with things, then with ourselves. We were taught to share toys, playthings, bicycles and birthday cake. Little by little, we learned to share our time and ourselves.
This gradual learning to give of ourselves is the necessary preparation for marriage. A person who has not journeyed sufficiently on the road to maturity and generosity is not capable of a true marriage, even though he or she may be quite capable of sharing an apartment or conceiving a child.
There are many reasons why two particular people cannot join their lives in the marriage project. It is not always a culpable lack of generosity. Sometimes it becomes apparent only years after the wedding ceremony that there was no marriage there in the first place. To declare publicly that the marriage never existed is what Catholics call an "annulment."
The Church does not want to say that a sacramental marriage comes to an end because we consider the love of the husband and wife to be a sign of God's unending love for us.
God's love for us can never end in divorce. God is faithful even if we are not. The Church desires that even if one of the partners of a marriage is faithless to the marriage bond, the other, by remaining faithful, gives a powerful witness to the community of the way God loves us.
Our marriage covenant with God
In each of the sacraments a window opens and we can glimpse the mystery of God and God's plan for the salvation of the world. In Christian marriage we see that God was not content to be alone, but embarked on a whole new life project. Out of love God created us and all that is. God is faithful no matter what. Whether we are faithful or faithless, God is faithful; whether we wander away in sin or remain in the embrace of love, God is always there and is ever ready to embrace us.
This sacramental sign, which the husband and wife give to each other, they also give to the entire community of witnesses. I too have made commitments to God and God has made commitments to me. There are times when I wonder if God will be faithful. I have never seen God, but I can see the fidelity of Christian husbands and wives. Their love for each other is a sacramental sign and witness of God's love for me. I believe that our human lives are interconnected, like a fabric, woven together by many commitments. The fidelity of their commitment strengthens my own commitments.
This indeed is a great mystery. It is something that touches me deeply each time I experience a Christian wedding and each time I experience the sacramental love of husband and wife.