Friday, August 3, 2012

The Sacrament of Marriage

Okay, here goes.  This is my attempt, as a layman and a minister to the engaged, to explain the sacramentality of Christian marriage within the context of the Roman Catholic faith.

I often hear critiques of Church doctrine (and all my references to “Church” here are meant to be solely in reference to the Roman Catholic Church) as being reactionary – the Church hierarchy disagrees with some popularly or semi-popularly expressed view and comes up with an argument against it.  I have found from my own research and studies that, most times, the Church goes back to fundamental principles and builds from those in understanding, applying both Scriptural examples and the wisdom that comes from over 2,000 years of existence.  This is certainly the case in the understanding of how Christian marriage can be sacramental.  I’ll be tackling this topic in three sections:
1.    The Sacrament of Marriage
2.    Sexuality in Marriage
3.    Forgiveness in Marriage
For my readers who may not be Catholic or didn’t get to experience full catechesis on this topic, a primer on sacraments seems appropriate here. 

Part I – The Sacrament of Marriage
What is a sacrament (within the Church)?  St. Augustine put it quite simply: A sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible.  Those of us who were at least partly catechized prior to Vatican II learned in the Baltimore Catechism that “a sacrament is a visible sign, instituted by Christ to confer grace.”  The current Catholic Catechism tells us “the sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.”  I’m not sure that the current catechism adds more clarity by adding more words, but then I’m not (yet) a degreed theologian.

The Church recognizes seven sacraments (yes, I know that’s more than most of our Christian brethren, but that’s what we do): the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, First Eucharist, Confirmation; the sacraments of healing – Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick; and the sacraments in the service of communion (not Holy Communion – more like the community) – Matrimony and Holy Orders.  In keeping with the three definitions of sacrament in the preceding paragraph, each sacrament has a visible sign:
·         Baptism – the water with which original sign is washed away
·         First Eucharist – the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ
·         Confirmation – the oil of chrism by which we are anointed as soldiers for Christ
·         Reconciliation – the penitent, freely choosing to acknowledge his/her sin and seeking forgiveness from and reconciliation with God and the broader Christian community
·         Anointing of the Sick – the oil of chrism (different than that used in Confirmation) with which the sick are anointed for spiritual and physical healing
·         Matrimony – the couple united in marriage in the presence of God and modeling His love and forgiveness and the potential for the creation of new life
Holy Orders – the priest/bishop living his vocation in service to the people of God.

Okay, so how can a married couple be a sign of the sacrament?  By being a daily, living example of the way God loves us, by loving and forgiving each other each and every day, and by always being open to the possibility of creating and nurturing new life within their marriage relationship.

Part II – Sexuality in Marriage
All right, how did we get to this understanding?  Ah, here’s where we go back to first principles and our best understanding of what God intended in His creation.  We know from Genesis that God created us male and female.  We also know that it is not good for man to be alone (and that has so many other meanings beyond marriage, but those are other topics).  We know that man and woman are made for each other, that they are to be fruitful and multiply.  Jesus added that the marriage covenant is meant to be eternal and precludes divorce.  So God intended men and women to be united and to be fruitful, that is, to procreate.  God gave us these bodies that we might do so, and in that gift, He also gave us the gift of our sexuality.  Let’s deal with that aspect of marriage first.

Far from proscribing sexual activity, the Church celebrates it, but only within the context of marriage.  That is because the Church recognizes that our sexual activity has two basic expressions, one procreative and the other unitive.  The unitive aspect is best explained as that incredible openness and vulnerability with each other that is only achieved when two people who truly love each other and are committed to each other make love to and with each other.  Those of you who have experienced that know that’s the most incredible experience and is so much more than merely physical.  So the unitive aspect is the aspect that makes us desire to make love and share love with our spouse.

The procreative aspect is where the married couple shares something with God – the ability to create new life.  Yes, animals do that, too, but they do not create life that has a soul.  This shared ability with God is considered so sacred, so special, that the Church teaches it must be reserved to couples who have publicly committed themselves to marriage.  Certainly, non-married persons can also create new life, but it again is not the same thing as when a married couple does so.  The commitment of the prospective parents to each other and to that new life is what makes it so special.  Certainly, God valued the experience of being raised in a home with loving parents, as evidenced by His choice of Mary and Joseph to parent Jesus.

Okay, so the unitive aspect helps inspire and better the procreative aspect.  So we see that part of what makes a Christian marriage sacramental is the ability to bring new life into the world.  What about couples who are infertile or past child-bearing ages?  Well, God has shown us that those two things are no barrier to His plans.  Abraham’s wife Sarah conceived long after she was considered barren and too old.  So did the mother of John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.  What humanity views as a barrier is no barrier to the will of God.  The issue for the presumably-infertile couple or the couple past the age of child-bearing is their openness to the possibility of new life.  This ability to create new life solely from the union of the two married couples is integral to our understanding of sacramental Christian marriage.

Part III – Forgiveness in Marriage
So that’s a good chunk of what makes Christian marriage sacramental, but it’s not all of it.  The other side of the coin is the manner in which the married couple lives their daily life together, modeling for each other, their children, their families, their friends, and even strangers, the love AND forgiveness of God.  That means the married couple must make a decision to love each other each and every day – and maybe throughout the day – even if, and especially if, they may not be all that happy with each other at that time.  It means acting in a loving and caring way, all the time, showing your love by actions big and small.  It means deciding that the love you have for each other is so much more important than a wet towel on the bathroom floor, or a cereal box that’s not put away.

But forgiveness?  That can be the most difficult part of this whole “living sacramentally” thing.  We know that God will forgive us any sin, even murder, if we are truly contrite and seek reconciliation with him.  We are called, as married couples (and even just as fellow Christians), to do no less.  When Jesus died for our sins, he didn’t say he was dying for these 47 sins, but not those 23 sins.  He died that all our sins might be forgiven.  He even forgave those that murdered him.  That is what we are called to do as married couples, to round out the fullness of living a sacramental marriage. That even means forgiving adultery, should that horrible circumstance become part of our life together, as difficult as that will likely be.

I’m going to suggest a formula for seeking forgiveness from each other, which I freely admit to stealing from Catholic Engaged Encounter: if you are the one seeking forgiveness, say to your spouse, “Please forgive me for hurting you when I did/said/forgot to do/forgot to say _______”.  This formula shows the offending spouse acknowledges that he/she did something to hurt the other and is actively seeking forgiveness for doing so.  On the other side, this formula calls for a response by the offended spouse, a decision to love, to reach out, and to help heal.  All too often in our society, we hear the formula used, often by celebrities and other public figures, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I did or said.”  That is useless to me as an apology.  It doesn’t acknowledge an offense was committed and it doesn’t take responsibility for committing the offense, nor does it seek forgiveness and reconciliation.  How refreshing it might be if instead we heard, “Please forgive me for causing you pain and hurt because of my stupidity in acting or speaking the way I did.”  But, I digress.

So, in summation, a sacramental Christian marriage is one between two baptized persons (I know I didn’t cover that part), in which each party is fully and freely committed to the possibility of new life being created from their relationship, and in which each party is fully and freely committed to modeling God’s love and forgiveness in all they do.  By doing so, the married couple truly become a sacrament, manifesting God’s love and presence to all around them.  Look around you – I’m sure you’ll see many married couples who are living sacramentally, whether they are Catholic or not.

If you, dear reader, have any questions on this topic or other topics relative to the Roman Catholic faith, I’d be happy to hear from you.  I will not engage in debate with people who do not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s position on sacramental marriage, nor will I debate civil marriage equality in response to this posting.  Thank you for reading this and may God bless you in all you do.