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Marriage, Sanctuary of Life

Gabriel Li

Helen Alvare - published on 06/18/14 - updated on 06/07/17

When people talk about marriage in terms of their own happiness, they just might be forgetting someone.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.  
This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church
(Ephesians 5:31-32).

St. Paul could not have been more correct. This Christian teaching—that marriage and the relationship between Christ and the Church, shed light on each other—remains “a great mystery.” What can it mean?

At the very least, it must mean that marriage is a far weightier matter than bridal magazines and television shows indicate. It also means that God himself made marriage, and had it in mind when he made two “opposite” sexes who are able to become “one flesh.” Finally, from the reference to Christ and his Church, we get the distinct impression that marriage—like the relationship between God and the People of God—might involve great sacrifice for the other, total fidelity, and not a few ups and downs.

The New Testament’s direct teachings on marriage—St. Paul’s above, and Jesus’ in Matthew 19:6 (“what God has joined together, no human being must separate”)—were prefigured in the Old Testament’s many allusions to the marital qualities of the relationship between God and Israel, right down to calling Israel an adulteress when she strayed from fidelity to God.  

How far is this picture from our modern conversations about marriage which, when they are not about the gown or the “destination wedding,” still verge on the economic and the utilitarian? Not a week goes by that we don’t read about a new study or survey talking about young men and women making strategic decisions about marriage based on their educational plans, their incomes, and/or their desires to consume certain experiences and adventures before settling down to the adult life of marriage and children. Increasingly frequent, too, are stories or studies purporting to show the “death of marriage” on the grounds that a sexually-active single life or cohabitation are essentially superior, or that women would do better to enjoy their newly elevated incomes alone, or that fidelity is well-nigh impossible (and maybe not even desirable).

Christianity points to a life so different from this life of calculated self-interest that it is difficult to see how Catholics can wrap their minds around it while still living in this world. Any adequate reply will have at least one foot planted firmly in the ample modern data showing that the Catholic way of marriage “works” to support the flourishing of individuals, families and communities. It will have its other foot planted firmly in an understanding of the dignity to which God has called each of us, made in his image and likeness as male or female, and called to live as he lived, in love and service to the other unto death.  

Starting with the last point, Blessed Pope John Paul II could not have been clearer in his Encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, no. 81): “The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love.” For most people, that meaning is discovered in marriage. Even today, about 80% of Americans marry by age 40. It is no surprise that John Paul II calls marriage “the primordial” (i.e., the first, most fundamental) “sacrament,” and the “central point of the ‘sacrament of creation’” (Pope John Paul II, Wednesday Audience, Oct. 6, 1982). In other words, and simplified greatly, the authentic gift of self between a man and a woman in marriage is bound up with the mystery of Christ and the Church. In this sacrament, husband and wife make visible the invisible grace of the perpetual, fruitful love of Christ, who as Son of God belongs to an eternal communion of love known as the Trinity. God desired to enter into the most intimate communion with his creation by coming among us, as one of us—Jesus Christ, true God and true man—and by giving himself for the life of the world. Married couples manifest this “invisible reality” of communion through a lifetime of mutual, perpetual self-donation, which is also the source of procreation.

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