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Aug 6, 2018

The Sacramentality and Indissolubility of Marriage

Nicholas LaBanca

One of my good friends loves to get people riled up. Well, I suppose he doesn’t necessarily “love” doing things to rile people up, but he certainly gets a kick out of certain reactions. He’s a non-Catholic Christian, and he’s always ready to let people know that he’s a Christian and in love with our Lord Jesus. One of the most powerful ways he witnesses to this? By telling people this one simple statement: “I love being married”.

Now perhaps that doesn’t seem all that controversial, but bear in mind that he and I both have many acquaintances that come from broken homes, have endless one-night stands, have serial monogamous relationships, have divorced once, or twice or even more, and have a general disdain for “the old lady”.

But his love for the vocational state that our Lord has revealed to him is a powerful witness. It prompts the question, “Well, why do you love being married?” I’ve found myself saying those four simple words, “I love being married”, more and more now. And as I deepen in my understanding of the theology and sacramentality behind marriage, the more I want to share it with my peers, friends, and family. In a world that increasingly sees marriage as a mere “piece of paper”, we need to boldly witness to our vocation as my friend has, showing that marriage is more of a covenant than just a simple contract.

The ‘Irrevocable Covenant’

Towards the end of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI made these comments regarding Holy Matrimony:

“Marriage is the irrevocable covenant between a man and a woman. Mutual trust, in fact, is the indispensable basis of any agreement or covenant. On a theological level, the relationship between faith and marriage has an even deeper meaning. Even though a natural reality, the spousal bond between two baptized persons has been elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament.”

Throughout the centuries, the Church has elucidated its theology on marriage, and has done so most beautifully through the Theology of the Body by Pope St. John Paul II in recent times. But before looking at this aspect, it’s important to dig a bit deeper into what Pope Benedict had to say about the “irrevocable covenant” and “the spousal bond between two baptized persons”. What is it about this relationship that is sacramental? Perhaps the better question would be—especially for a post-Christian society that does not see life in a sacramental sense—what is a sacrament?

First, it’s always important to note that the Church sees marriage as a covenant, and not as a contract; if the Church did see things this way, then the people who view marriage as “a piece of paper” would be correct. But look how the Bible describes a covenant. It’s irrevocable. It’s permanent. It’s unconditional love.

The Nuptial Imagery of the Cross

Nuptial imagery is found in Sacred Scripture from cover to cover. The first book of the Bible begins with the creation of man and women in God’s likeness, and the last book ends with “the wedding feast of the Lamb.” Our Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry begins where? At a wedding in the small village of Cana. And where does it end? On “the bed of the Cross”, as the Church Fathers so wisely put it. On the bed of the Cross where our Lord says “It is consummated”(John 19:30)!

Very often these last words of our Lord are translated as “It is finished!” But such a simple translation doesn’t lend to the imagery of nuptials that takes place on the Cross. As St. Augustine said in one of his many sermons:

“Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber … He came to the marriage-bed of the cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage.”

The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, the world’s first true “televangelist”, took the imagery even further, following in the footsteps of St. Augustine:

“Who is our Lord on the cross? He’s the new Adam. Where’s the new Eve? At the foot of the cross. … If Eve became the mother of the living in the natural order, is not this woman at the foot of the cross to become another mother? And so the Bridegroom looks down at the bride. He looks at his beloved. Christ looks at his Church. There is here the birth of the Church. As St. Augustine puts it, and here I am quoting him verbatim, ‘The heavenly bridegroom left the heavenly chambers, with the presage of the nuptials before him. He came to the marriage bed of the cross, a bed not of pleasure, but of pain, united himself with the woman, and consummated the union forever … And so from these nuptials ‘Woman, there’s your son’ this is the beginning of the Church.”

This imagery and language fully illuminates what happened on the Cross. Jesus gave birth to his Church right there. Our Lord, as the Divine Bridegroom, spent himself fully on the Cross. In a similar way, the bridegroom does the same with his bride on their wedding night, and each time the Christian husband and wife come together in the marital act, they renew the covenant they made at their wedding. (This is certainly one way to understand why sexual activity outside of marriage is gravely sinful; because the couple involved does not have any covenant to renew. They are essentially “lying” to themselves with their bodies.) The spouses renew the love they promised to each other, the vows they made as well. Vows which include self-sacrifice, that is, self-sacrifice that is to mirror our Lord. It’s clearly laid out in Scripture, particularly when St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians in this way:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:25, 28-30).

Sometimes people get hung up on the prior verse, where St. Paul tells wives to be subject to their husbands. But this isn’t some kind of oppression; it’s an image of the Church. The members of the body (the Church) are subject to the head (Jesus Christ). As head of the Church, we reverence him and submit ourselves in love. That sacrifice isn’t so difficult once we keep in mind the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross. Husbands, therefore, are given a pretty large task by St. Paul. They must love their wives the same way Christ loved the Church; by sacrificing themselves! It’s a tall order, for sure, but with God’s grace flowing through the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the Christian husband has nothing to fear. Indeed, St. Paul goes on to say in that same letter:

“Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

The Sacraments as Mysteries

It is fitting that Eastern Catholics (and Orthodox) refer to the seven sacraments as “mysteries”. St. Paul closes this portion of his letter saying, “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). This whole marriage thing is mysterious, but then as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:

“Christ’s whole life is mystery.” (CCC 518)

Our Lord however, does not leave us in the dark, and presents us with tangible signs of his love and grace.

So getting back to our second question from earlier, just what is a sacrament? The Catechism puts it this way:

“The saving work of [Christ’s] holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call “the holy mysteries”). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body” (CCC 774).

Indissoluble Unity

What’s awesome about the sacrament of marriage, is that it differs from the other six sacraments in that it existed before the inauguration of the New Covenant. Although marriage “is not purely a human institution” (cf. CCC 1603), it has been present in different cultures since time immemorial, and it is this which Christ elevated to the level of a sacrament. Summarizing from the Council of Trent (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799):

“The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC 1661).

As Catholic Christians (and Orthodox Christians as well), we recognize that the grace of God strengthens the covenant we made with our spouses. The covenant between my wife and I is a microcosm of the covenant that Christ made with his bride, the Church.

Sadly, all too often, our non-Catholic Christian brethren are largely unaware of this nuptial imagery, and thus (in practice), put a lower emphasis on marriage. I say in practice because we see many Christians (and this includes Catholics too) who divorce their spouses and see no real problem with remarrying later. Only the Catholic Church fully understands the indissoluble covenant that is contracted between two baptized Christians, and this is why it takes the annulment process so seriously.

Far from being a “Catholic version of divorce”, the annulment process serves to determine if a covenant was actually ever created. The Church always assumes that a covenant was created between the spouses unless direct evidence of the contrary is brought forth. If a defect is discovered, then a “decree of nullity” is issued, confirming that because of said defect, no covenant (that is, no marriage) was ever effected.

The Church takes marriage seriously because God takes marriage seriously. So often we in modern culture think we “deserve” to be separated from our spouses because of infidelity or adultery. But if that were the case, God would have abandoned Israel almost immediately after making his covenant. For every mortal sin we have committed, our Lord would have locked us out of the Kingdom of Heaven forever with no chance of repentance. God’s covenant is irrevocable, and if our marriage is a microcosm of our marriage to the Divine Bridegroom, so is ours. The prophet Hosea states this reality clearly:

“And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Ba′al.’ For I will remove the names of the Ba′als from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:16-20).

For those of us that have received this beautiful sacrament, it’s important to realize that God has given us many graces to succeed, despite our own frailty. But just as it is with the other sacraments, we have to cooperate with God’s grace. We have to “unlock” those graces, as it were (cf. Colossians 1:24-26).

If we can show others how our own marriages have improved our lives, we can also witness to our faith. Be bold and tell all your friends how much you “love being married”. If they’re secularized, you may get some stares, but it will give you a wonderful opportunity to profess your faith in Christ, showing them that your own loving covenant mirrors that of the covenant between Christ and his Church.

Photo by Gabby Orcutt on Unsplash


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About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, “Christ Is Our Hope”.