With the feast day of one of history’s most sainted couples occurring this month it’s an opportune time to affirm the contribution that marriage makes to our community.
Marriage as a Resource
When we in the Church think about marriage and family life, mostly we think in terms of supporting couples. We look primarily towards marriage and family life as a group in need, and we focus our energies on providing support services for them such as counselling, welfare, financial assistance and so on. This approach has a rich history in the Church and is well developed through a vast social welfare network. It is important work and part of our Christian responsibility. And generally we do this very well.
However this approach is also seriously limited. It is grounded in a mentality that focuses almost exclusively on the needs of families and thus overlooks their giftedness. Rarely are married couples called forth for leadership in Church life specifically because of their coupleness or sacramental charisms. The troubled and dysfunctional situations in families tend to dominate our attention and subsequently, our perspective of marriage is skewed towards the problems and needs of families rather than their gifts.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II convened a synod on “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”. The Apostolic Exhortation ‘Familiaris Consortio’ (FC) was published shortly afterwards. In it, the Pope went to great lengths to emphasize the giftedness of marriage and family life, especially their evangelizing capacity.
“Family, become what you are. … The family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ for the Church His bride.” FC n 17
“Evangelization, urged on within by irrepressible missionary zeal, is characterized by a universality without boundaries. …The sacrament of marriage takes up and re-proposes the tasks of defending and spreading the faith, a task that … makes Christian married couples and parents witnesses of Christ “to the ends of the earth,” missionaries, in the true and proper sense, of love and life.” FC n 54
In this new decade of a new millennium, it is timely to turn our attention to the role of marriage and family life in the parish and the wider church. Marriage is an under-utilized resource in parish life. Before we can effectively empower married couples to take up leadership in parish life, we need to understand where the power of the Sacrament of Matrimony resides.
Sts Joachim & Anne
This saintly couple are parents to Mary and grandparents to Jesus. With such amazing offspring, Joachim and Anne must shared an extraordinary love. They have long been held up as exemplars for married couples, and in fact, they are one of the few married couple saints cannonised in the Catholic Church.
The Power of Matrimony
The power of Matrimony for renewing the Church and society rests in the very nature of the sacrament. Matrimony is the vocational sacrament within which the vast majority of adult Catholics live, and yet its capacity for teaching, renewing and leading the Church is largely overlooked.
All Sacraments reveal and witness to a dimension of God and our relationship with him. Matrimony witnesses in a very concrete way to the passionate, intimate love of Jesus for his bride, the Church. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33) spells it out very clearly. After describing how husbands are to love their wives in imitation of Christ, and wives are to regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, he quotes Genesis: ‘“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. This is a great mystery, and I am applying to Christ and the church.’ (Eph 5:31-32).
In commenting on this passage of St Paul’s, Pope John Paul II noted that the Sacrament of Matrimony had a ‘bidirectional’ nature. “As one can see, this [spousal] analogy works in two directions. While it allows us, on the one hand, to understand better the relationship of Christ with the Church, it permits us, on the other hand, to penetrate more deeply into the essence of marriage to which Christians are called.” (John Paul II, TOB 90:4) In other words, not only can couples look to the example of Christ to learn how to love each other well, they as a couple can teach the Church about how Christ loves the Church, and how we as his bride, are to respond to him.
Thus married couples are called to teach the Church about the nature of Christ’s love; through the example of their relationship, all married couples are called to be leaders, offering inspiration and prophetic witness in their parish communities.
Couples teach the Church that God’s love is as intimate as it is benevolent, and that his Kingdom is more relational, like a family, than legalistic. Like a passionately ‘in love’ couple, Jesus’ love for us is urgent, personal and intimate. He longs to be close to us, to be one with us, to be in communion. The ‘one flesh’ union of husband and wife is not just a physical joining of their bodies for brief and occasional moments. Nor is it their compensation for having to endure the difficulties of marriage and family life! No, their sexual union is a sacred gesture and is instrumental in what Pope John Paul II called ‘a communion of persons’ – the interpersonal communion of body and soul between two persons in a mutual self-gift.
The passionate married couple thus illuminates and images the Eucharistic communion – Jesus gives his body and sheds his blood in a total outpouring of love for his bride, the Church. When a couple make love, they too give their bodies and shed their blood (ie lay down their life in service) to each other in the image of Christ. And just as husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ in sexual communion, so also do we, the bride of Christ, become one flesh with Jesus in Eucharistic communion.
Sexual communion is a sacred rite; a deeply holy and sacramental act for the married couple. It is no accident that sexual union is considered essential to the establishment of the Sacrament of Matrimony when the couple marries. “In fact, the words themselves, ‘I take you as my wife/ as-my husband’ do not only refer to a determinate reality, but they can only be fulfilled by the copula conjugale (conjugal intercourse).” (John Paul II, TOB 103:2)
Married love is indeed a powerful witness and teacher. It images and makes real the profound mysteries of our faith and is thus worthy of contemplation and reverence.
www.marriageuniqueforareason.org A multi-media catechesis from the US Bishops
www.smartloving.org A series of programs and resources dedicated to equip couples in all life stages to make their relationship the best it can be
www.foryourmarriage.org A resource site from the US Bishops