By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB
This is the last article in the Abbot’s special Year of Faith series on the seven sacraments.
Rooted in scriptural images
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with the vision of the ‘wedding-feast of the Lamb’” (CCC 1602; Rev 19:7, 9; Gen 1:26-27).
No wonder that the Church’s theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony is deeply rooted in sacred Scripture.
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The same was true in the Old Testament dispensation — the accounts in Genesis (1:1ff; 2:4ff) show that God is the author of the deep and intimate relationship between man and woman, and therefore is the one who truly sustains the marriage bond.
Marriage is an image of how God loves us
The prophets developed this fundamental vision of humanity, to show that human marriage was actually an image — or a kind of sacrament — of the relationship that God wanted with His people.
Just one example (of many possible) may be used to illustrate this, i.e., Jeremiah 31.
In this chapter, the prophet proclaims a new relationship between God and His people — a new Covenant which will sanctify their relationship, much like a marriage relationship:
“This is the covenant which I will make with them . . . after those days: I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
New Testament teachings
When we come to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, we find that two special points emerge in the Gospel teachings:
- The affirmation of the plan of God that married life is within the economy of creation found in Genesis (cf. Lk 20:34ff).
- An eschatological view, in which the search for the Kingdom of God takes precedence over everything, including marriage — and so celibacy appears, along with marriage, as a characteristic Christian way of living the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:12).
St. Paul develops this Gospel vision in his teachings to the various communities he founded.
He does so in the light of his own sense that the end of the world is near. That makes him value celibacy even more: since there isn’t much time left, why go through the hassle of marriage and family and work, etc. (cf. 1 Cor, cf all of ch. 7)?
Obligations of the spouses
And yet, he knows that to make a total rupture from ordinary life would be unrealistic for most people.
So he makes clear the obligations of Christian spouses: each has a right over the body of the other, and that right must not be denied, except for a time and by mutual consent, and this for the sake of better prayer.
Rite of Marriage today
The Rite of Marriage that is celebrated in the Church today places the human love and attraction of one man for one woman into the context of the Scripture background we have seen.
It also shows that the human love is paralleled by divine Love, that the natural union of man and woman is a sacrament pointing to the supernatural union of God with His beloved People.
Thus, the Preface of the Mass at which the marriage is celebrated says, “By this sacrament your grace unites man and woman in an unbreakable bond of love and peace.
“You have designed the chaste love of husband and wife for the increase both of the human family and of your own family born in baptism . . . In Christian marriage you bring together the two orders of creations: nature’s gift of children enriches the world, and your grace enriches also your Church.”
Not merely human love
The Church’s view is to rejoice in the love of man and woman, but not leave such on a merely natural and human plane.
Rather, we are called to see that our natural love is really an invitation to enter more deeply into God’s divine Love. That means that although in one way the couple is at the center of a marriage, and thus of the wedding rite, in another way, God is at the center of the marriage — if it is authentically Christian.
If such a vision of faith sustains and nourishes a couple in their plans for a wedding, it will have a great impact on the externals surrounding that wedding — from the music chosen for the celebration, to the toasts given at the subsequent banquet. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God . . .” (1 John 4:7).
Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.