Fr Patrick Bridgman
In this series of articles we have been taking a fresh look at the sacraments of the Church celebrated in the life of the faithful, and we have explored the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist: as well as the Sacraments of Healing: Reconciliation and Penance. Now we turn our gaze to the Sacraments at the Service of Communion: Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.
This phrase, Sacraments at the Service of Communion, is not widely used and yet in its wording the underlying orientation of these sacraments can be discerned. Marriage and ordained priesthood are for the service and up building of the community of faith and well as for the well-being of all God’s people. The catechism describes them with these words: ‘Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.’ (CCC, 1534)
When we read the above, and compare this with the understanding of marriage as displayed through the media in shows such as Bridezilla, we can recognise that though many people may refer to marriage, what they are in fact referring to can be radically divergent in meaning from a Christian marriage.
Marriage existed in human societies well before a sacramental understanding of it came to be revealed in the ministry of Christ, in the development of the Church’s tradition and in the writings of scripture. And no doubt the form of marriage in secular society will not always correspond to the Church’s understanding. The history of marriage in different times and cultures has been varied and complex. In the scriptures of the Jewish people we see an ongoing development in their understanding of how God desired his people to live in relationship. It was in the ministry of Jesus and in the early Church that clarity was expressed in the monogamous and permanent nature of marriage: ‘In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. Permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder”.’(CCC, 1614)
The Church clearly articulates its Christian understanding of marriage when she teaches in both the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law: ‘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 baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament’. (CCC, 1601)
We can recognise in her teaching the Church differentiates between marriage that can be undertaken by any man and woman and that of baptised persons. In their 2006 letter on Marriage the New Zealand Bishops wrote: ‘A true marriage between two baptised Christians, including inter-church marriages, is a sacrament. A sacrament embodies and makes present something that God is doing. What God is doing for husband and wife is embodied and made present in what they are doing for each other. Their love for each over, their sacrifices and their faithfulness are the human forms that God’s love for them takes. And so the whole of their married life becomes a sacrament “a sign of God’s love for them and their family”.’
The Church still sees the presence of goodness in marriages that are not according to the manner of the sacrament. This has been expressed in the preparation document for the Synod on the Family to be held later this year: ‘Valid elements, therefore, exist in some forms (of marriage) outside of Christian marriage – based, however, on a stable and true relationship of a man and a woman – which, in any case, we maintain are oriented towards Christian marriage. With an eye to the popular wisdom of different peoples and cultures, the Church also recognises this type of family as the basic, necessary and fruitful unit for humanity’s life together.’ (Lineamenta: The Vocation and Mission of the Family, 20.)
In the ritual for marriage within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, the couple themselves confer the sacrament upon each other, while the priest blesses the marriage and acts as an official witness on behalf of the Church. The couple pray their vows following the three questions asked on behalf of the Church, which affirm consent and show the couple are free in their decision to marry, intend their union to be life long, and are open to the blessing of bringing children into the world.
There is the old adage, ‘Two is company, three is a crowd!’. Yet in Christian marriage the presence of Christ with the couple is fundamental:
‘Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”, and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love.’ (CCC, 1642)
This is a high calling, and when reading those words people could easily respond, ‘Impossible’. Yet, we know with God nothing is impossible, while without God Christian marriage would be impossible!
Just as God’s healing Spirit is not limited to the Sacrament of the Anointing when it comes to bringing healing to the world, nor is the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony the only means of God’s love being experienced and celebrated in the world. It is though, the means by which we can recognise in our living the love Christ has for his Church.
How beautiful it is to stand with a couple as they come before the Altar, unknowing of what lies ahead except for the truth of their love, which, because it is founded upon Christ, can be life-long. And then to stand with them again as they come again before the Altar, this time with their newborn to be baptised. The family grows in service according to the command of Christ.
Fr Patrick Bridgman is the parish priest for Te Awakairangi Parish.