Matrimony, Sacrament of
MATRIMONY, SACRAMENT OF
The human experience of matrimony is a saving mystery. Traditional Christianity understands this as a lifelong union of conjugal love between woman and man, and calls this experience sacramental, binding spouses not just to one another but also to God. This entry examines the following topics: (i) the biblical and historical tradition; (ii) the meaning of sacramentality in a new conceptual framework; and, (iii) its pastoral and liturgical aspects.
Mystery and Sacrament
The 2000 years of Christian tradition provide a basis for examining the theology of marriage in order to develop a truly Catholic meaning of its sacramentality. History offers two historical tradition-bound eras of Christian marriage, corresponding to the two millennia. They represent two different theological contexts for the sacramentality of marriage. In the first millennium, the institution of marriage remained, largely, a secular reality. It was considered a holy and sacred state but not subjected to canonical legislation or ecclesiastical intervention. Nevertheless, Christians understood the conjugal partnership from a universal, open-ended and inclusive perspective of the Christian mystery. From the
eleventh century onward, wedding celebrations were gradually incorporated into the Church's canonical regulation and liturgical rituals. And the scholastics of the twelfth century developed the concept of sacrament.
The First Millennium: A Saving Mystery. The paramount vision of the ancient tradition stems from the consideration of the economy of salvation. Jesus gives marriage its ultimate meaning. He clearly indicates his intention to restore matrimony to the ideal presented in Genesis and to vigorously reinstate the law of marital unity. "Whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put away commits adultery" (Mt 19.9; see also Mk 10.11; Lk 16.18). Both Peter (1 Pt 3.1–7) and Paul (Col 3.18–21; Ti 2.4–5) instruct the faithful in the requirements of married life for Christians. Christian marriage should be lived "in the Lord" (l Cor 7:39) and this consideration has moral, spiritual and ecclesial implications. The foundational source of the Christian inspiration and symbolism of marriage comes from biblical revelation. It begins in the economy of creation (Gn 2:23–24) and was enlightened by prophetic revelation. Marriage images God's covenant perfected by Christ's covenantal sacrifice, and proclaimed as a reality of grace in the same covenant between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:21–33). This Pauline text presents the Christ-Church relationship as a paradigm of the husband-wife partnership.
The patristic view takes inspiration from this biblical background, developing the spiritual roots of marriage from biblical sources, especially from the heart of the biblical covenant. The patristic terminology used—such as mystery, image and type—have a deeper, broader and analogical meaning of marriage as a revelatory and participatory sign of the nuptial self-giving of Christ for the Church. Very often the Church Fathers' writings on virginity provide opportunity to envisage marriage as a covenant partnership.
St. augustine's approach to both marriage ethos and mystery brought about a new stage of development, which influenced decisively the centuries that followed. On one hand, marriage as an institution was good and was elevated by Christ. In this sense it was endowed with three objective goods: procreation, fidelity, and sacrament. On the other hand, the conjugal act, whose purpose was procreation only, was extrinsically evil by virtue of the malice of concupiscence. The concept of sacrament had the broad sense of "mystery" related to Christ. This sacramentality constituted the Christocentric foundation and source of all marriage values, including indissolubility, because "the holiness of the sacrament is more valuable than the fertility of the womb" (De Bono coniungali 18, 21). The development of conjugal spirituality and sacramentality was also influenced and enriched by the Fathers of the Christian East, such as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. Again, the sacramental conception is broad, because marriage is seen as a mysterious icon, inserted in the whole of salvation history, centered in Christ rooted in baptism, and sealed by the Eucharist.
The Church's concern is exclusively pastoral because "Christians marry like everybody else" (Epistle to Diognetus 5, 6). They followed the customary folk marriage celebrations, which were also regulated by local traditions and Roman legislation. The pastoral concern of the Church is attested from the beginning: "It is fitting that men and women who want to marry get the approval of the bishop, so that their marriage is according to the Lord, not according to passion" (Letter to Polycarp 5, 2).
An incipient liturgical rite is evidenced from the fourth century onward. It cannot be equated with a formal realization of an ecclesiastical marriage of later centuries. In general, the veiling of the bride with a special blessing by the priest could be considered the Christian nuptial blessing in Rome. Garlanding (stephanoma ) came to be the central symbolic rite in the East. Here a richer nuptial liturgy was characterized by the theological depth of the sacramental mystery, exuberant symbolic celebration, and a pastoral realism rooted in the human values of marriage and biblical revelation. Nevertheless, across the ancient world wedding rituals took place in a multiplicity of regional cultures and a variety of local rites under civil jurisdiction. The most important reference is perhaps found in Tertullian, who presented the theological implications and the Christian character of the marital covenant between two baptized believers. This covenant partnership becomes sacramental in the broad sense by virtue of the faith actualized within the participation in a Eucharistic community:
How shall we ever be able to adequately describe the happiness of that marriage which the Church founds, and the Eucharist confirms, upon which the prayer of thanksgiving sets a consent? For not even on earth do children marry properly without their fathers permission. (Ad Uxorem 2, c.8:6–9)
Some historians see here an indisputable reference to an existing liturgy of marriage integrated into the celebration of the Eucharist. On the contrary, this text is correctly understood only if it is interpreted within the context of an exhortation to shun any contact with marriage
with a pagan. The right interpretation of the key words of this text of the Catholic period of Tertullian is crucial.
The Second Millennium: The Catholic Sacrament. Changes in the theological understanding of marriage came about because of social and historical changes, and the development of new religious ideas over centuries. Whereas in the first millennium the emphasis was on spiritual foundations, now it moved to juridical categories of contract and indissolubility. In the beginning, marriage had been seen as secular but was related to the ecclesial community by virtue of Christian dignity. Later, marriage was seen as religious, made holy in a sacred place, and was related to civil society by virtue of a canonical form. A family-centered and civil celebration of marriage remained the norm in Latin Churches until the ninth century. From then until the council of Trent, there was a gradual transfer of the discipline of marriage and the regulations of its ceremonies to the authority of the Church.
The first compilation of Canon Law—the Gratian's Decree—appeared around 1140 while Hugh of St. Victor (1079–1141) made a major contribution to the sacramental definition of marriage. A contract-centered theology of matrimony emerged from the emphasis on consent or copula (consummation) as the essential elements for the validity of the sacrament. In the ensuing centuries, this approach led to the juridical essence of marriage as a sacrament. Changes also took place in the liturgical ritual. The essential element remained consent, but now there was a pre-nuptial investigation made by the priest. All of this led to the development of a canonical and ecclesiastical character of marriage.
The first official declaration of marriage as a sacrament was made in 1184 at the Council of Verona. This was followed by Thomas Aquinas' synthesis of the sacrament of matrimony that combined St. Augustine's values of marriage as its ends within a new conception of its full sacramental dignity. In matrimony, the principal effect is the permanent sacramental bond, and grace is given for the evocation of the living image of unity that is a mysterious reflection of the union between Christ and His Church (Summa theologiae Supplement, 34.2 ad 1, ad 2;35.1; 42.3).
The Protestant Reformers emphasized the holiness of marriage from the point of view of the Christian vocation as well as the covenantal nature of God's plan for the couple, although the sacramental reality was denied. In response, the Council of Trent (1563) ratified the Augustinian conception of marriage (DS 1797–1812) and this position prevailed until modern times. Trent aimed to lay the social groundwork for the validity and indissolubility of the sacrament. In the process, the biblical, mystical, and relational inspiration of Christian marriage was over-looked. This approach remained the basis of theological and pastoral thinking until Vatican II (1963–1965), supplemented by papal encyclicals such as Pius XI's Casti connubi.
Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, facing the challenges posed by modern cultures, viewed the whole question of marriage in a much broader way (especially in Lumen Gentium 11, 35,41; and Gaudium et Spes 12, 47–52, 61.) The Council Fathers defined marriage as a personal community, in which partners give and accept each other (covenant), and also as an intimate partnership of marital life and love (personalist perspective). They avoided the legal term "contract" in favor of the biblical and classical term "covenant": Marriage is "rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent"; it is a "reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with his Church, and a participation in that covenant"; it is compared to the "covenant of love and fidelity through which God in the past made himself present to his people" (Gaudium et spes 48).
This line of thinking was reiterated in the Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio of Pope John Paul II, 1980 (especially nos. 13 and 51), and in the 1983 Code of Canon law. Canon 105 states:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordained toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
Thus, the communion of the faithful and permanent love of the spouses has gradually replaced the juridical mind-set of past generations.
Postconciliar Theological Understandings of Matrimony
Marriage, like other sacraments, is fundamentally symbolic in nature. The conjugal partnership is a life experience replete with complex meanings and levels of reality, and a symbolic expression of something deep and transcendent. As a sacrament, Christian marriage has a symbolic structure that conveys a deeper meaning of the human mystery, and offers the possibility of self-transcendence. Their end is salvation both as a hope and as a means to it. Love can only be expressed through symbols, whether it is love of God or love of a human person. Although the images, gestures, or words express so deep a reality, they are, in themselves, simple. Simple gestures such as a kiss, a handshake, gift giving, or uttering the phrase "I love you" express in a profound manner a deeper yet readily understood reality.
The pledge of the old Anglican wedding rite, "with my body I thee worship," speaks profoundly of the central meaning of the analogy. Like worship, which etymologically means, "ascribing worth to another being," marriage is a total validation of the other in the devotion and service, celebration and mystery of the relationship. Just as the experience of worship engages the whole person, so too marriage is the total gift of self to the other.
Postconciliar developments in the theology of matrimony have explored the rich complexity of marriage from various overlapping perspectives. These include: marriage as vocation, marriage as communion, marriage as covenant, marriage as sacrament, and marriage as partnership. Taken together, these theological perspectives embrace and express the sacramentality of marriage.
Marriage as Vocation. Marriage is a true vocation. Theologically, a vocation means a call or invitation given by God to the Christian life or to some particular service or state. "The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1603). Theologically speaking, marriage is a divine call, which empowers the couple to set up an intimate community of persons able to love and serve. The Church has always seen marriage as a vocation and has emphasized, especially in more recent times, the "universal call to holiness." All people are called to this holiness, not only those in the monastic or celibate states. Marriage is perhaps the vocation "par excellence," for here the spouses are God's co-creators in the gift of new life.
It is the desire of the Church, in promoting a better understanding of marriage as an on-going process, or an initiation into a vocation, that the spouses come to see that God has initiated a great work in them. An understanding of what it means to be "called" by God and to live out that special "calling" will greatly assist the married couple in dealing with the challenges of married life. God's call always implies a bestowal of grace to meet the challenge of the call, and therefore God's assistance and grace is constantly available to the spouses.
Marriage as Communion. Marriage is God's creative reality raised to the dignity of a sacrament, established as a covenant of intimate communion of life and love, by which the spouses signify and share in the mystery of love and fidelity between Christ and the Church (Rite of Marriage, 1990, Introduction). Communion with another means a mutual sharing of the gift of self. In marriage this means a total sharing of joys, sorrows, pains, and successes in a complete gift of self to the other. Thus, the man and the woman who "are no longer two but one" (Mt 19:6) help and serve each other by their marriage partnership; they become conscious of their unity and experience it more deeply from day to day (Gaudium et spes 48).
Marriage as covenant. "Covenant" is the graced and intimate personal encounter between God and His people fulfilled in Christ. It is the cornerstone of Christian sacramentality. Marriage when it is lived as mutual self-giving and intimate sharing between a man and a woman exemplifies this biblical concept of covenant.
From earliest times, the Church has regarded marriage in this way (cf. Eph 5:32). Patristic theology drew insights from the biblical paradigm to describe marriage as the "image and likeness" of God's covenant with humanity. This understanding was reiterated at Vatican II: "Just as God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of marriage" (Gaudium et spes 48). The section on Marriage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with the assertion: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601). And again, "Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant" (ibid. 1617). The ultimate prototype of this is the marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church, in which he sacrifices everything for her, even his life. It is the couple's faith as expressed in their lives that renders them people of the covenant and consequently makes their union a sign and a Christian sacrament of the covenant.
Marriage as Sacrament. The idea of marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the Church was developed by the eleventh-century scholastic theologians and adopted officially by the medieval hierarchy in the following century. This understanding stemmed from the meaning of sacrament as mystery, proposed by the early Church Fathers, especially Augustine, who spoke about the three foods of marriage: offspring, faithfulness, and sacrament. Consequently, "marriage as a sacrament" can be said to have two different, but not separate, dimensions—1) human mystery and 2) saving reality.
Marriage is a human mystery. Faithful love is the very essence of the marital partnership and the heart of its meaning; this unconditional fidelity makes marriage a primary and universal symbol. In addition, all peoples, of all religions, acknowledge marriage as the original, universal sacramentality known to human life. Thus, the sacramental mystery of marriage is fully anchored in human reality; it is a radically human sacrament. The three specific elements of Christian marriage—faith, baptism, and community —stem from the Christ-Church spousal relationship. This is the ecclesial dimension of marriage and what makes a marriage truly Christian.
Marriage as Partnership. Marriage is a life-long journey during which the couple widens its field of love to embrace the children. In this way, a partnership community is built, and a closer and closer union among the members is established: "The intimate partnership of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the creator" (Gaudium et Spes 48). This perspective takes into account what happens in the total life experience of husband and wife, and finds here the real sacrament. Although the aspect of partnership has been included in the other understandings of marriage, such as "communion," the conjugal partnership against the background of the sacramentality of all creation, i.e., from the perspective of a renewed Christian anthropology, psychology, and a historical consciousness that envisions marriage as a process. Pope John Paul II articulates the view of marriage as a process in the following terms: "The gift of Jesus Christ is not exhausted in the actual celebration of the sacrament of marriage, but rather accompanies the married couple throughout their lives" (Familiaris Consortio 56). Therefore, the marriage partnership is not a mutual accommodation, but a total, whole-hearted and life-long commitment of each spouse. This implies the larger, inclusive, and life-long journey of the sacramental life of marriage and family.
The Celebration of Marriage: A Grand Feast of Life and Love
The development of the new Order of Celebrating Marriage, promulgated in Rome on March 19, 1990, was the liturgical response to the postconciliar II theological, pastoral and cultural developments. This revised Roman rite was built upon the basic structure and themes of the earlier 1969 rite. The theological focus in both the 1969 and 1970 rites stemmed from the Christocentric and the historico-salvific view of marriage, perceiving the celebration of marriage as a total giving of mutual service, and a sacramental action, which integrates all the aspects of conjugal life and love.
The preparation for the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage is of paramount importance. In recent years, the Church has laid much greater stress upon this aspect of the whole ritual process of marriage. Within a broad theological and catechetical view of the sacrament, three themes are prominent: 1) marriage is God's creative reality raised to a sacrament of dignity; 2) established as a covenant of intimate communion of life and love; 3) by which the spouses signify and share in the mystery of love and fidelity between Christ and the Church. Here, the idea of a sacred and life-long bond, originating in God and effected by the irrevocable consent of the spouses is stressed, together with the sacramental nature of this bond, rooted in baptism. This human bond makes an indissoluble covenant, which images God's creating and redeeming relationship with us, and raises it to the sacramental dignity and holiness. In contrast with the contractual overemphasis of the past view of marriage, this view emphasizes that the essence of Christian marriage is spiritual, not legal.
The created reality of marriage is presented not simply as a historical fact but in relation to the "great mystery" (Eph 5:32). The 1990 Roman rite affirms that a sacramental marriage signifies and shares in the sacrificial and transformative, healing and fruitful mystery of grace by which Christ encounters the spouses. "Those who marry in Christ are empowered to celebrate effectively with faith in God's word the mystery of Christ and the Church, to live rightly, and to bear witness in the eyes of all" (Rite of Marriage 1990, 11). The theological, pastoral and liturgical content of the introduction to the 1990 Roman rite of Marriage presents the best of the Western patristic tradition, articulating the foundational themes of marriage as vocation and partnership. It offers a vision of the vocation of the spouses, and points out that their celebration actualizes the presence of and the encounter with the total mystery of Christ. Symbols, words and prayers focus on this mystery of graced love and call for its integration into "the intimate community life and love" (Rite of Marriage 1990, 4).
Mutual consent and the nuptial blessing reveal the sacramental meaning of marriage and are the two principal moments on which the whole celebration of matrimony hinges. They express the two essential aspects of the reality of marriage: the anthropological root of love manifested by the consent of the couple, and the covenantal bond that seals the Christian character of the marriage.
In the actual liturgical celebration of matrimony, the entrance rite, which allows for different arrangements of the procession, sets the tone for a joyful and prayerful celebration. The liturgy of the word, an integral and essential part of the sacramental celebration actualizes the mystery of the Bridegroom Jesus in the presence of the couple. The homily focuses primarily on "the mystery of Christian marriage, the dignity of wedded love, the grace of the sacrament, and the responsibilities of married people, keeping in mind the circumstances of this particular marriage" (Rite of Marriage 1990, 57). The function of the priest in receiving the consent, one of the central moments of the entire rite, is more than that of a witness. He is a sign of the presence of Christ, and, by means of his blessing, he ratifies the sacramental action accomplished by God through the couple's covenant. The 1990 rite provides an alternative formula in terms that make present the history of salvation, and emphasizes the sacramental meaning of God's covenantal action.
The symbolic action in which the central meaning of marriage and Eucharist intersect is the couple's sharing in the Eucharist, the nuptial banquet of Christ's love. As Pope John Paul II explains:
The Eucharistic liturgy is the proper way to celebrate marriage, since both realities are intimately connected. The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage … In this sacrifice of the new and Eternal Covenant Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed. (Familiaris consortio, 57)
Bibliography: g. martinez, Worship: Wedding to Marriage (Oregon 1993), from which much of the content of this essay derives. s. parenti, "The Christian Rite of Marriage in the East," in a. chupungco, ed., Handbook for Liturgical Studies, v. 4, Sacraments and Sacramentals (Collegeville, MN 2000) 255–274. a. nocent, "The Christian Rite of Marriage in the West," ibid., 275–301. t. buckley, What Binds Marriage? Roman Catholic Theology in Practice (London 1997). m. lawler, Marriage and Sacrament: A Theology of Christian Marriage (Collegeville 1993). w. kasper, Theology of Marriage (New York 1980). e. schillebeeckx, Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (New York 1965).
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