By Corinne Winter
As of June 21, my parents have been married for 60 years; my husband’s parents celebrated their 60th anniversary this past October. A young couple for who my husband and I served as sponsor couple during their marriage preparation has been in our prayers recently as they celebrated their marriage. Those events and the frequent sight of wedding parties posing for pictures at Vander Veer Botanical Park in Davenport lead me to some reflections on the sacramentality of marriage.
Among the great treasures of the Catholic Tradition is our sacramental system by which we recall and receive God’s grace through effective signs at many times throughout our lives. At the heart of that system is the Eucharist. The Catholic Catechism tells us that, “All other sacraments are ordered to it as to their end (CCC 1211).” Each of the seven sacraments makes God’s love present in a unique way. Catechesis on marriage often seems to stress canon law and those elements necessary for the validity of marriage. Marriage preparation brings to the fore other vital aspects of the sacrament which are beneficial to the Church.
One of the unique aspects of the sacrament of marriage is that it is the only sacrament of which, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition, lay persons are called the “ordinary ministers.” The man and woman, in making and living their vows “administer” the sacrament to one another (CCC 1623). The priest or deacon stands as an official witness as the vows are made. This teaching that the persons being married, in fact, confer the sacrament is a rich one for our sacramental theology in general. For the understanding grounded in the teaching of Vatican II that the Church itself is the fundamental sacrament of Christ who is the sacrament of God means that all of us, as members of the Church, are called to live lives that are signs to others of the presence of God in Christ.
Moreover, marriage is recognized in a special way as a lived sacrament. While we tend to have the elaborate celebration when the couple first makes their vows, we are intuitively even more impressed when we see or hear about couples living those vows faithfully for numbers of years. And there is truth behind that intuition, for the sacramentality of marriage is grounded in the biblical teaching that the spouses’ love for one another is both a way to holiness for them and an effective sign for others of the strength of God’s love for his people (see Ephesians 5).
Now, we certainly can’t deny that few married couples offer flawless witness to God’s love, and, indeed, a significant number of marriages fail altogether to offer such a sign. However, just as we ought not lose our reverence for the Eucharist because most of us who receive it frequently fail to give constant witness to its effects in our lives, we ought rather than set aside our respect for the sacrament of marriage renew our efforts to foster that reverence.
Because it is the way to holiness followed by most Christians, because most of us receive from our parents the first experiences of love that will allow us to believe in God’s love, because marriage is a sacrament that envelopes the ordinary efforts one makes every day to love whole-heartedly, the sacrament of marriage should receive very special attention, support and reverence from the Christian community.
We ought always to speak of married life as a “vocation,” a call to holiness. The fact that it is the more common choice does not mean that it is an easy choice. When couples who have been married for many years are asked for the “secret” of their fidelity, they are often not given enough time to articulate the convictions by which they have lived. But I have never heard a couple say, “Oh, it was easy; we never had any doubts or had to struggle to stay together.” We ought to ask more married couples for their testimony and we ought to pay very careful attention as they tell their stories.
We ought to celebrate the holiness of married love. It seems quite odd to me that the patron saint of marriage is Father John Francis Regis. Why not a married saint? But how many married couples can we find on the list of canonized saints? That is likely related to the fact that those who are canonized are those whose accomplishments are widely known, but maybe we, as Church, need to do some work in that area.
Part of the Good News of the Incarnation is that the very ordinary aspects of living on this earth (think of water, oil and bread) can become instruments of God’s working in our lives, means of our sanctification. Honoring the holiness of loving one another in everyday ways, of supporting a family and maintaining a household, would honor those implications of the Incarnation of God. We have just finished celebrating the Year for Priests; can we now call for a Year of the Married Person in honor of that vocation?
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)