Question: Here’s a simple question that I think will stump you. Since marriage is a necessary, natural institution, it hardly seems necessary for it to be a sacrament. After all, marriage already existed before the sacraments. Why would Our Lord have to make marriage a sacrament?
Answer: Well, I’m afraid you didn’t stump me, but you did give me the opportunity to explain an important issue. There are actually two points that need to be made in answering your question. One is about marriage, the other is about sacraments in general.
In a certain sense, marriage is the original sacrament. St. Paul said, “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. No one ever hates his own body, but nourishes and fosters it, just as Christ does the Church, since we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, ‘and the two shall be as one flesh.’ This is a great sacrament, I mean it regards Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:28-32).
Marriage symbolizes the union between God and the human race, a unity that is the purpose for which we were created. That’s why St. Paul cites Genesis 2 and relates the natural institution of marriage directly to the spousal relationship between Christ and the Church. This union was intended “from the beginning” to be realized in Christ the Incarnate Son of God, the Bridegroom of the Church, his mystical Body. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that the marriage of our first parents, Adam and Eve, was a sacrament signifying the union of Christ and the Church to be consummated in the glory of heaven (Summa Theologiae II-II, q.2, a.7). This means that marriage was already in a sense a “sacrament” pointing to Christ even before Adam and Eve, the first married couple, fell into sin.
Many Catholics forget that there have always been sacraments, instituted by God to express faith in Christ and the effects of faith in Him. All the rites and observances of the Old Covenant, circumcision, sacrifices, and so on, were “sacraments” of faith in the coming Savior and Messiah. These Old Testament “sacraments” symbolized and pointed toward the effects of His future coming. Yet all of these were established by God after the fall, and after the promise of a Redeemer from sin and death. But marriage is different. It preceded the Fall and was the original sacrament or sign of that union between God and Man. In fact, it was from the start intended by God to be an efficacious, that is “truly effective,” cause of grace. If there had been no Fall of Adam, sanctifying grace would have been transmitted simply by natural generation, the union of husband and wife. The priesthood and worship would have been a family matter under the priesthood of the Father of the household. So when Our Lord made the marriage a sacrament of the New Covenant, He was only bringing to perfection an institution which had always been in some sense a sacrament of God’s love for the human race. It’s interesting to note that the sacrament of marriage is the only sacrament which is discussed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in terms of the whole history of our race, from creation before the fall until Christ (CCC 1601-1617). Marriage is the primordial sacrament.
Now, in the light of all this you might ask, “So what’s new and different about Christ’s institution of marriage as a sacrament of the New Covenant?” Christ came into the world to overcome sin and death, things about which Adam and Eve were happily unaware on their “wedding day,” and so marriage in Christ is not only a sign of God’s union with humanity, but most particularly sign of the sacrificial love of the Cross. St. Thomas teaches that all the sacraments in some way indicate the power of Christ’s suffering and death. In the mutual offering of their lives and bodies one to the other, man and woman in marriage share in the love of Christ on the Cross. The liturgy of the Roman Church shows this beautifully in the Mass for the Celebration of Marriage, when the special “nuptial blessing” of the couple is given after the Our Father as the Body and Blood of the Lord are lying in sacrifice on the altar. It is then that the Church prays for the fruitfulness and fidelity of their union, uniting the mutual offering of the man and woman with the offering of Christ’s Body. As any faithful Catholic married couple will tell you, there is always some cross to bear in wedded life. The Holy Sacrament of Matrimony unites these to the Cross of Christ, the Bridegroom of his Church.
Question Answered By FR. HUGH BARBOUR, O.PRAEM