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In the first part of this reflection we looked at how Christian Baptism provides transformative spiritual gifts to men and women, subdues the effects of Original Sin, and binds us in an intimate relationship with God. To be in relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is life changing, since it is the ultimate relationship of love. Our relationship with God profoundly effects our understanding of God’s design for the marital relationship and spousal love.
As an original blessing of God to humanity, marriage is the unique relationship between a man and a woman that makes of them a communion of persons, oriented to the future of the world. Because men and women were harmed by Original Sin, it is understandable that marriage too was harmed, being threatened by sin and the inclination to do evil. But Christ’s suffering and death on the cross redeemed men, women and marriage as well. Christ, in fact, raised the natural gift of marriage between Christians to a sacrament that would signify His own love for each of us, his Church (Eph. 5:32).
Writing about marriage, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council said that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love” (The Church in the Modern World, no. 48). Marriage is specifically “enriched by Christ’s redeeming power” (Ibid.). As Jesus is self-giving love – sacrificial love – He is the one who restores marriage “to its original purity of permanent self-giving” (USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, p. 30). Jesus is the one who invites husband and wife to participate in His spousal love. This is a participation in the love that is “modeled on God’s inner life” (Ibid).
When a Christian man and a Christian woman exchange marital consent, they participate in “the unbreakable covenant between Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church” (Ibid). This is a love that is faithful in the good times and the bad. It forgives and forgets. It accepts children gladly. It does not blame. It is willing to lend a hand. It perseveres and endures until death. Jesus therefore sets the standard for marital love – it is a love that is total, faithful, permanent, life-giving and self-giving (The Church in the Modern World, no.49-50 and Humanae Vitae, no.9).
As “nothing less than a participation in the covenant between Christ and the Church,” Christian marriage has a special character (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, p. 31; see also 32-33). As a sacrament it is “an efficacious sign,” something that “does not merely symbolize or signify something, but actually makes present what it signifies” (Ibid, p. 32).
When Christians marry, their love is joined to the love of Jesus. Ideally, as they grow in their relationship with each other, their love for each other will deepen their relationship with the Lord – both as individuals and as a couple. So, when life presents heart-breaking difficulties, their natural love, by the grace of the sacrament, is joined and perfected by the love of the Lord to sustain them through their heartaches and sorrows. They have the Holy Spirit to strengthen them. Christian marriage is a sacrament of Christ’s love, loving as He loves, and by doing so reflecting his love to the world.
The sacrament of marriage is an awesome gift from God that Christian men and women should carefully prepare for!
Theresa Notare, PhD, is assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. © Theresa Notare.All rights reserved.