The Sacrament of Matrimony - A Sacrament of Service

A Reflection On Our Relationship With God In Christ
In the Old Testament the relationship between God and Israel or Jerusalem is described as that of the covenant between a husband and a wife. In the second chapter of the prophet Hosea, he writes,
18 In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
19 I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.
This covenant is one of faithfulness, respect and compassion. Initiated by God the sacraments are themselves covenants and therefore marriage is itself a perfect analogy.
Thus, the marriage bond is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
CCC 1639 The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself.143 From their covenant arises "an institution, confirmed by the divine law, . . . even in the eyes of society."144 The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God's covenant with man: "Authentic married love is caught up into divine love."145
In the letter to the Ephesians Chapter 5 we find this covenant relationship reflected in Christ’s relationship to us, the church. Through our baptism and Eucharist we become and are sustained as one body in Christ. Here we see reflected the couples experience of mutual love, of giving to each other their whole selves just as Jesus gave his body and blood in love for us.  
 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
The History Of Matrimony
Our modern day understanding of romantic marriage is far removed from its historical development. The Church recognises the cultural, social and spiritual variations and developments CCC 1603.        As we see in the Scriptures, marriage began as a social/political contract where women were viewed as possessions and had no say in who they were married to. The families agreed a legally binding betrothal with the bride remaining with her family before the payment of the dowry and wedding feast. Thereafter the bride would move in with her husband and the marriage consummated. At this point in time there was no religious or state marriage ceremony.
The first description of a Christian marriage ceremony dates to the ninth century C.E. and only the ruling classes employed blessing ceremonies. By the 11th century the Latin Church had developed a Christian wedding ceremony and at the Council of Verona in 1184, marriage was declared the 7th Sacrament of the Church.
The importance of marriage as a sacrament is also founded on Jesus first sign as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John was at the wedding in Cana.
CCC 1613 On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign - at his mother's request - during a wedding feast.105 The Church attaches great importance to Jesus' presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ's presence.
The Marriage Rite
CCC 1601 "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."
Marriage, as a Sacrament of Service is a vocation - similar to Holy Orders.
Uniquely the couple confer the sacrament on each other CCC 1624. It is symbolised in the exchanging of rings.
Unlike the early stages in the development of marriage both parties male and female are equal in dignity as created in the image and likeness of God CCC 1614. Consent given freely by both parties is mandatory CCC 1627. Given that there is no impediment by law (natural or ecclesiastical) there can be no marriage if there is not consent CCC 1626 or if that consent has not been given freely CCC 1628. The requirement for freedom of consent prompted Pope Alexander IV in the 13th century to enact canons against arranged marriages. The marriage also requires 2 witnesses to verify the freedom of consent given, in the early development of the sacrament this was the role of the clergy CCC 1630. This was enshrined by the Council of Trent in 1547.
Central to the marriage covenant is the acceptance to the possibility of the gift of children. All children are seen by the church as gifts from God and it is important to recognise that the Church does not deem any child ‘illegitimate’. The legitimacy of a child is a state legal term with respect to legal rights and inheritance. The Church recognises all children as gift.
In the cases where only one partner is a confirmed Catholic the Church recognises and emphasises the consecration of one spouse by another and a sharing of commonality in faith as well as a respect of difference and an emphasis on Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, CCC 1636, 1637
In 2015 Pope Francis wished to ensure the annulment process would be free and handled with the utmost sensitivity and compassion. Different from the State legal divorce which focuses on the dissolution of the civil contract, the annulment declares the Sacrament null and void. The Church considers the ways in which consent was not fully and freely given, looking at factors possibly unknown to the couple at the time of the marriage. This may be with respect to their understanding of the marriage as a sacrament or in maturity or full knowledge of the spouse or if the marriage was never consummated.
Questions for Reflection
  1. How can we best foster and celebrate marriage more fully as a Sacrament of Service?
  2. How does viewing the sacrament as a covenant reflecting God’s own covenant deepen my understanding and possible challenge my own relationship?
  3. How has reflecting on the historical development in our understanding of relationships and marriage surprised or challenged my views?
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