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Catholic Spirituality: Realizing the Beauty of Sacramental Marriage
Why get married in a church? This question is becoming increasingly relevant for many Catholics. Because traveling is so much easier today, “destination weddings” are becoming much more popular. But if the church is just a beautiful setting for a wedding, we’re missing the point.
The real reason for “wedding in the church” is to perform the sacrament. Whether you are newly engaged or a married veteran, understanding what it means to live in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony can bring a new level of meaning and beauty to your life.
What does it mean to call marriage a sacrament? A sacrament is a holy sign established by Christ that gives grace. A sacramental sign is a physical representation of a spiritual reality. But it is not just a symbol. Sacramental signs do accomplish what they signify. This is the power of the sacrament.
Therefore, baptism is a sign of purification from original sin and return to the family of God. The water of baptism – a sign of purification – actually does all that.
A sacramental sign?
The Bible uses marriage as a sign of God’s love for His Church. Jesus is the bridegroom waiting to be united with his bride. The church is a bride preparing to love her husband. In the Old Testament, Israel is often portrayed as an unfaithful wife. Revelation ends with the image of a great wedding – an image that Jesus also uses in his parables.
Marriage is a sacramental sign of God’s love for His Church.
What does this sign tell us? This is a wonderful description of the relationship God wants to have with us. God does not seek cold relations between slaves and master. He certainly doesn’t want the long-distance “fairy godmother” relationship we so often get into. God wants a real relationship with us. A relationship filled with trust, intimacy and love.
Marriage as a sign of God’s love for us also shows us that our relationship with God should be built in the same way as other relationships. It starts with trust, builds with intimacy, strengthens with commitment, and bears fruit in love. We see this same progression in salvation history in the Bible. We also see these same steps of relationship in the theological virtues. Hope is trust in God. Faith is intimacy and commitment. Charity is love. Marriage is a beautiful and profound sign of our relationship with God.
Attraction About what it means
But, like all sacramental signs, marriage is not only a poetic reminder of God’s love. Sacramental signs accomplish what they signify. Marriage makes God’s love for his people real and present.
It does this first of all by teaching spouses to love as Christ loves. Marriage is a vocation, like the priesthood and the legal life. All vocations are a call to love, as Christ loved us on the cross. In other words, it is a call to make yourself a perfect gift of love to others.
Second, it is the nature of love to expand. This process of learning to love perfectly creates an environment of love. The couple then brings new life into this loving environment and creates a family. Their efforts of selfless love extend to their children, and they teach their children to love. When a man and a woman start a new life, they are not simply performing the biological act of reproduction. They cooperate with God to create an immortal soul – a soul with an eternal destiny. They then partner with God to nurture and mold that soul to help their children become the masterpieces God wants them to be.
They raise their children in family love and lead them to the love of God. Children first come to love God through the love of the family. That is why the Church calls the family the “domestic Church”. Families bring their children to baptism, making them members of God’s family. Then they teach their children how to be disciples of Jesus and how to live as children of God.
As a family, they bring their love to the larger community, and so the love expands even further.
… Which gives grace
The final part of the definition of a sacrament tells us that its purpose is to give grace. What grace does the sacrament of marriage give us?
First, we must understand what grace is. Grace is the gift (that’s what grace literally means) of the very presence of God in our souls. Grace makes a close relationship with God possible both because God is present before us and because grace empowers us.
What grace does the sacrament of marriage give us? The grace of marriage is centered around the theological virtue of love. Charity helps us to love Christ.
Consider this: What would happen to us if we truly loved as Jesus loved? Jesus loved us by sacrificing everything for us. He poured out Himself on the cross for us – His divinity, His dignity, His very life.
Now you and I are mortal. What would happen if we tried to love our spouses and children in this way? They would pour out… and there would be nothing left. It’s not exactly a relationship.
But what if we could love with the love of a God who is infinite and eternal? If we could unite our love with God’s love, we could love them as God loves – pouring ourselves out completely and constantly, never exhausting ourselves. This is part of the message about the Resurrection. This is the grace that the sacrament of holy matrimony gives us.
This grace is at work in our practical daily lives, inspiring us to make sacrifices, giving us joy in times that would normally seem difficult. Because we are still sinful human beings, grace also includes the power of healing and forgiveness.
But such love is not instantaneous. Far from it. It’s a process. The calling is to learn to love as Christ loves. Grace strengthens us for mission. Marriage provides most of us with our own “school of love” in which to practice. This is the power, meaning and beauty of sacramental marriage.
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