In looking at the sacrament of Matrimony, in the light of being both a sacrament of faith and a sacrament of salvation, it is interesting to note that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to it as being “at the service of communion.” By this, it means that it is “directed towards the salvation of others,” (CCC §1534). It is through this service to the spouse, that the sacrament may contribute as well to personal salvation.
Sacrament of faith
The first point the Catechism makes in this section is that the sacrament presupposes faith and also nourishes and strengthens it (CCC §1123), which is why it is called a sacrament of faith. The People of God are formed into one by the preaching of the Word that is required for the sacramental ministry itself, as the sacraments are sacraments of faith and draw their origin and nourishment from the Word. In the Sacrament of Matrimony, the liturgy of the Word together with the minister’s homily, which extends its proclamation, is an integral part of the sacramental celebration; nourishing the faith of the couple, and strengthening their understanding of the commitments they are making (CC §1123). Initially of course, whatever has drawn the couple to want to marry, their Christian faith, whether strong or otherwise, calls them to marry in the Catholic Church, before the witness of a priest. There they will minister the sacrament one to the other, in the words and liturgies laid down by Mother Church. Their faith will hopefully have been strengthened by adequate pre-marriage preparation where a full explanation of God’s plan for marriage will have been opened up for them. This too will have included the opening of the Word, as the Word feeds the faith that is needed, and “forms” the couple in order that they can receive the sacrament.
In looking at the faith of the two individual believers here, the Catechism also draws our attention to the fact that faith is also communal: the Church’s faith preceding that of the individuals’ who are invited to adhere to it (CCC §1124). As the Church celebrates the Sacrament of Matrimony, she confesses the faith received from the apostles. This is important as most couples marry because they are in love. This is a decision based primarily on feelings, and perhaps not a decision in which they are aware of all the richness of marriage that Tertullian encapsulates so beautifully: “…the happiness of a marriage joined by the Church, strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels and ratified by the Father…” The faith of the Church through teaching can enrich the couple’s perception of marriage, and encourage them to see the fullness of God’s plan in all its beauty. To understand that the graces proper to Matrimony are intended to perfect their love and faithfulness, and to help lead each other to attain holiness, and overcome the human weaknesses of selfishness and egoism. It can also help them to see their home as the setting for religious and moral formation for themselves and their children.
Sacrament of salvation
Matrimony, in common with all the sacraments, has been instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church to enable divine life to be dispensed to us by the visible rites by which the sacrament is celebrated. The Catechism teaches us that God established marriage in the beginning, by creating man and woman with a complementary spousal nature, enabling them to make a total self–gift of themselves to one another, the two becoming one flesh. (Gen. 2:24); but, through the Fall, selfishness and egoism became established in the relationship. However, Christ came to renew humanity and made it possible to learn to truly love again with his help—the only path to salvation. In marriage therefore, couples are called to a discipline of mutual total self-giving, to be of service to one another, and to help in leading their spouse along the path to salvation, and by so doing contributing to their own, (CCC §1534).
A sacrament is a sign that points beyond itself to something else; we see then in marriage the love of the couple, points to the love of God. The sacrament acts ex opere operato, that is it confers grace by the very fact of the actions being performed (Council of Trent DS 1608), which in this case, is the total self-giving love of the spouses for one another. These graces are conferred by virtue of the saving work of Christ, and are irrespective of the holiness or otherwise of the ministers of the sacrament—the couple themselves.
In considering marriage as a sacrament of salvation then, we see that it is very much at the heart of revelation and of God’s plan for his creation. The marriage of Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:27, 2:20–25), can only be fully understood in the light of the final ‘marriage’ between God and his people (Rev. 21:1–3, 22:17), and the Church has consequently seen marriage in the light of what God has revealed about this final marriage to the Lord. This same sign is seen throughout the scriptures, where in the Old Testament, God’s love for Israel is spoken of in terms of marriage (e.g. Hosea 2:4–20), as is Christ’s love for his Church in the New Testament, where Christ is referred to as the Bridegroom (e.g. Mat. 9:15, 25:1–3).
We learn also from the Council of Trent that sacraments “confer the grace they signify” (DS1606). That is that firstly, they are “signs,” inferring that they point beyond themselves to something else. Secondly, that they confer the particular grace that that sacrament signifies. So sacraments are much more than signs inspiring us and leading us to God, they actually bring God to us. Sacraments having been instituted by Christ and entrusted to his Church, enable divine life to be dispensed to us by the visible rites by which they are celebrated. “The Father always hears the prayers of his Son’s Church which…expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit.” (CCC §1127).
As the signs of marriage are effective and confer the particular graces that the sacrament signifies (Council of Trent DS 1606), a couple’s love for one another draws them into the love that Christ has for the Church. They are transformed and enabled to love as he loves, and be in turn ever more able to be signs of his love for the Church and the world. The graces of the sacrament further help the couple “to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children” ( Lumen Gentium 11§2). Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (CCC §1642). Truly the path to salvation!
Although God is always present in the sacrament of matrimony, the couple need however to be open to receive the grace he wants to give. If this is ignored and the couple are unresponsive, he cannot help them. A lack of consent to be totally open would make the sacrament null and void: for example a marriage contracted under duress.
As Christians, the sacraments—including marriage—are the most appropriate and necessary way that God has provided for our salvation; through them the Spirit heals and transforms, and the faithful become partakers in the divine nature in a living union with Christ (CCC §1129). Ultimately our hope is that we will be brides of the one Bridegroom in the Heavenly Marriage.