By Micah Kiel
My wife’s parents had a tradition: any suitor interested in their daughter had to ask both mother and father — independently — for the honor to marry her. I took my mother-in-law out for breakfast. I was expecting repeatedly to profess my love for her daughter, how I would take care of her, how we could have a family. In the end, I did very little talking.
My mother-in-law pummeled me with language about sacraments, solidarity and service. Having grown up in a protestant church in which marriage is not a sacrament, this was foreign to me. I had been Roman Catholic for less than a year and during that breakfast I learned that I knew very little about the sacrament of marriage. My head was spinning after my future mother-in-law’s language about “reaching out to the world” and “service to others.”
In the end, it all worked out. Eleanor and I have been married for almost 22 years. My mother-in-law helped reveal to me the importance in our Roman Catholic faith of thinking of marriage as a sacrament, which I’d like to explore more in depth here. (Claiming and exploring the theology of the sacrament of marriage in no way precludes our protestant brothers and sisters — or people from other faith traditions — from having strong, faith-based marriages as well!)
All sacraments are grounded in our understanding of creation. God’s presence and grace is bred into the very structure of the universe. From the beginning, God created humans to be in relationship with others. Our Scripture testifies to our longing for belonging. Here we need to distinguish our beliefs from how our culture often talks about marriage and relationships. The famous line, “you complete me,” from the movie “Jerry Maguire,” is NOT the right way to think about marriage. If you read Genesis closely, it says that God created us in God’s image, “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). We unite to embody the image of God. The divine image is a relational image, manifested in community. No human being completes another. Yet, together we complete the image of God.
Recognizing that we are made for community leads to a second observation: marriage is about service. All the sacraments ought to be connected to Christian action in the world and marriage takes a unique place in this regard. Marriage is about mutual service to each other. Theologian Richard Gaillardetz points out that God is not present in a marriage as a third party; rather, God transcends the marriage itself. In other words, a proper sacramental understanding of marriage does not ask us to seek God through prayer or church, but in the moments when we turn to the other person in mutual love, in service.
This service within the marriage is not to be hoarded. Like the overflowing divine love shared among the three persons of the Trinity, the love and service within a marriage should overflow to others. For many, this initially means children and the role they play in the family. It should not stop there. When my mother-in-law talked to me about how marriage can and should change the world, she knew that any sacramental marriage should be outward-focused, serving those in need, creating further community through love and hospitality. The foundational teaching of the Church is that Christian fulfillment comes through giving and sacrifice, never through greed and accumulation. If you want to be happy, seek the happiness of others. This is the Christ-like pattern of living and should be a sign of every sacramental marriage.
My wife and I (honestly, mostly her) recently presided over the funeral of our son’s beloved pet snake, Winston. The sacramentality of marriage helps us face the mystery of life and death. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection is writ large throughout human experience. We live and die many times each day. This embrace of life and its fragility connects marriage with all the other sacraments. They are all pieces of this great puzzle we call a life of faith, as we seek God’s grace in the midst of the human condition.
(If you’d like to read more about the sacrament of marriage, I would highly recommend the book, “A Daring Promise,” by Richard Gaillardetz. Some of what I’ve said here was inspired by ideas in this book, although he does not offer liturgical language for a snake funeral.)
(Micah D. Kiel, Ph.D , is professor in the theology department of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)