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The Sacramentality Of Marriage

December 23, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Having elevated Matrimony to the dignity of a sacrament at the wedding feast in Cana, Christ steadfastly preached throughout the course of His public ministry that marriage had been restored to the “original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1614). Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, expertly summarizes this topic as we considered it last week:
“Matrimony in the Lord” means “the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Christian marriage is a symbol of Christ’s unfailing love of His Spouse, the Church. The Savior restored marriage to its original state before the fall of our first parents. It is now to be an indissoluble, lifelong union of one man and one woman until death. The followers of Christ are given the grace to deny themselves, take up their cross, and remain faithful to each other out of love for the Savior and with the assurance of His supernatural light and strength” (The Faith, p. 137; cf. CCC, nn. 1612-1616).
Indeed, the Sacrament of Matrimony “signifies the union of Christ and the Church…[and] gives the grace that perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC, n. 1661).
We closed last week’s column by citing profound words from the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians on how the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church is to be lived out in a Christian marriage (see Eph. 5:21-33). In his book entitled Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told (JtB), Dr. Brant Pitre characterizes this text as “what has become one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament” (p. 151).
Similarly, in his work entitled The Theology of the Body Explained (TBE), Christopher West states: “One would be hard-pressed to find a passage in the Scriptures that has been more maligned and dismissed by today’s ‘politically correct’ society” (p. 310). This stems from an incorrect understanding of the inherent meaning of St. Paul’s inspired words.
Pope St. John Paul II devoted 22 general audiences over the span of approximately one-half year (July 28, 1982 to February 8, 1983) to plumbing the depths of the true meaning of this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. His insights on “the sacramentality of marriage” will, in all likelihood, be the subject of study for decades to come by learned theologians as they unpack the richness of his insights on the “theology of the body.”
What follows in this column, by necessity, will be but a brief synthesis of some of the key points made our recent Holy Father.
As stated last week, we will rely heavily on Dr. Michael Waldstein’s translation of John Paul II’s audiences: Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB). It is quickly noted in his volume that the Pauline passage being considered is centered on the body in both its metaphorical meaning (the Body of Christ, which is the Church) and its concrete meaning (the human body — male and female — and its destiny for union in “one flesh” in marriage as portrayed in Gen. 2:24) [cf. TOB, pp. 466-467].
As pointed out by West, “the convergence of these two meanings of the body gives us the key to understanding the ‘great mystery’ St. Paul speaks of [in Eph. 5:32]” (TBE, p. 311). The importance of this mystery is underscored by St. John Paul II in his 1994 Letter to Families: “Saint Paul’s magnificent synthesis concerning the ‘great mystery’ appears as the compendium or summa, in some sense, of the teaching about God and man which was brought to fulfillment by Christ” (Gratissimam Sane, n. 19 § 10).
Let us begin our treatment of St. Paul’s passage by looking at verses that are very much misunderstood in modern-day society:
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:21-25).
As Dr. Pitre rhetorically asks, “What are we to make of these words? What does St. Paul mean when he commands wives to ‘submit’ to their husbands? Does this mean that husbands can lord it over their wives and cite biblical justification for doing so?” (JtB, p. 152). Furthermore, is not the idea that the husband could be the head of his wife an affront to women?
St. Paul’s teaching on marriage is largely rejected in contemporary times because of a lack of understanding with regard to three basic elements of his message: 1) equal but different, 2) love, and 3) submission, subordination, or subjection. Equality is mistakenly equated with “sameness,” love is equated with emotional feelings rather than “serving the beloved,” and subordination is equated with mastery or domination rather than “being under the order of.”
First, the truth regarding the complementary differences between the sexes has been distorted due to a mistaken notion of equality. In no way does St. Paul’s teaching on subjection imply that the wife is inferior to the husband. Although they are different, God created both male and female in His image and likeness and they are therefore equal in dignity (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). Pope Pius XI eloquently expresses this in his 1930 encyclical On Christian Marriage:
“This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors….For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love” (Casti Connubii, n. 27).
Central to the Holy Father’s teaching is the concept of man as the head of the family and woman as the heart. When the “two become one” in Christian marriage, that unity requires both a head and a heart. When God created them male and female, He created them with strengths suited to those very roles. At the same time, this in no way suggests that men are unable to love or that woman cannot think. Husband and wife are each called to both, but each must rely on the other’s natural strengths to counteract their own natural weaknesses.
Pope John Paul II accentuates the true meaning of submission in marriage in his more recent teaching:
“When he expresses himself this way, the author [St. Paul] does not intend to say that the husband is the ‘master’ of the wife and that the interpersonal covenant proper to marriage is a contract of domination by the husband over the wife….Husband and wife are, in fact, ‘subject to one another,’ mutually subordinated to one another. The source of this reciprocal submission lies in Christian pietas [piety] and its expression is love” (TOB, p. 473).
Love, as pointed out earlier, is all too often associated with the emotions, with having “gushy” feelings for the other. For this reason, people all too often have the impression that St. Paul is letting husbands off easy by telling them to “love their wives” after having just instructed wives to “be subject to their husbands.”
However, love, correctly understood, is all about serving the other; it is willing to do what is best for the other. The model for love to which the husband is called is the sacrificial love of Christ which He expressed above all by laying down His life for His Bride, the Church (cf. Eph. 5:25).

Sanctification And Salvation

Dr. Pitre offers an excellent explanation of the love that husband and wife are called to in Christian marriage:
“St. Paul is calling the Christian husband to take the role of spiritual leadership through self-sacrificial love, and in this way to act as a kind of ‘living icon’ of Christ the Bridegroom. Likewise, Paul is instructing the Christian wife to place herself ‘under the mission’ (as in the Latin, sub-missio) of her husband’s sacrificial love, and in this way to act as a living icon of the Church” (JtB, p. 154).
John Paul II elaborates by affirming that true marital love “excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission. Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and subject in this to the Lord himself, as the wife is to the husband” (TOB, pp. 473-474).
Although spouses should “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), the husband “is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband…means above all ‘the experiencing of love’” (TOB, p. 485). Ultimately, however, “the primary goal of Christian spouses should be one another’s sanctification and salvation” (JtB, p. 154).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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