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Authentic Christian Marriage

The culmination of all of Scripture may be identified by the nuptial sentence, “The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). Inasmuch as Scripture guides toward salvation, this unique wedding is the image of that goal. It is the future hope of Christ and his Church forever united. Thus, the Bible is the wedding planner par excellence.

The theme of marriage is prevalent throughout Scripture. In fact, the first chapter of Genesis and the final chapter of Revelation bookend Scripture with marriage imagery. Initially introduced is human marriage, silently modeled on the eschatological marriage later revealed, after which Christian marriage is elevated as a participation in the inauguration of realized eschatology.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the Bible’s characterizations of marriage this way: “Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its mystery, its institution and the meaning God has given it, its origin and its end, its various realizations throughout the history of salvation, the difficulties arising from sin, and its renewal in the Lord in the New Covenant of Christ and the Church” (CCC 1602). Indeed, Christian marriage is an image of the New Covenant: it is indissoluble, life giving, and loving.

Human marriage

When God created humanity, he instituted marriage. This is evidenced in the first two chapters of the Bible: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. . . . Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 1:27, 2:24).

That man is created male and female so that husband and wife may bond with each other and engage in procreative activity is evident here. And implied in the phrase “they become one flesh” is also the fact that God originally intended marriage to be a lifelong relationship. Husband and wife enter a covenantal relationship that serves to make a family.

Even so, corruption infiltrated the institution of marriage even in ancient Israel. Such offenses as polygamy and divorce crept in among the chosen people. Due to Israel’s difficulty in keeping God’s law, the Mosaic Law made concessions for divorce and remarriage (see Deut. 24: 1-4). These concessions would later be lamented —“I gave them statutes that were not good” (Ezek. 20:25)—and eventually corrected.

During Jesus’ public ministry, when the Pharisees challenged him on the issue of divorce and remarriage, he responded, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

Thus, Jesus put things back the way they were originally. The Catechism explains: “Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. . . . The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it” (CCC 1614).

But Jesus went further by enlivening marriage between the baptized with sacramental graces (see CCC 1601). St. Paul teaches accordingly and goes on to more fully elaborate on the dignity of Christian marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39).

Eschatological marriage

Although it is not explicitly introduced until much later in Scripture than is human marriage, eschatological marriage (i.e., God’s covenantal relationship with his people) and its developments may be traced through much of the Bible as well. The prophets remember God’s gracious treatments of Israel in terms of a bridegroom’s care for his bride (cf. Is. 49:18), and his faithfulness to his covenant is described as liturgical and wedding-day attire: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10; see also 62:5).

Even though Israel’s unfaithfulness to God led to its exile, God does not forsake his covenant with the Israelites any more so than a faithful husband would forsake his marriage with to his beloved wife: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).

In the Book of Hosea, nuptial imagery is employed as allegory for God’s relationship with his chosen people. Here adultery is a metaphor for Israel’s idolatry. Hosea’s marriage to a “wife of harlotry” (Hos. 1:2) and “adulteress” (3:1) is displayed through his actions and his writings as a prophetic sign to Israel of its own idolatrous relationship with God. But God’s merciful love will manifest, just as Hosea’s merciful actions restore his marriage.

Thus, God’s relationship with Israel—for better and for worse—is depicted in nuptial terms. And just as corruption of marriage among the Israelites set the stage for further development of human marriage, Israel’s unfaithfulness to God set the stage for further development of eschatological marriage. A more perfect union, of course, would be realized in the fullness of God’s relationship with all humanity that unites in the eschatological marriage of Christ and his Church.

This nuptial perfection is inaugurated in the age of the Church and will be fully realized in the kingdom of heaven. The Catechism states: “The nuptial covenant between God and his people Israel had prepared the way for the new and everlasting covenant in which the Son of God, by becoming incarnate and giving his life, has united to himself in a certain way all mankind saved by him, thus preparing for the wedding feast of the Lamb” (CCC 1612).

John the Baptist introduces Jesus with nuptial imagery at the beginning of his public ministry: “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom” (John 3:28-29). Jesus also refers to himself in nuptial language in the parable of the wise and the foolish maidens (see Matt. 25:1-20), and he identifies himself as the eschatological bridegroom:

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:18-20).

The present tense language Jesus uses—“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”—is an indication of the inauguration of the realized eschatology his disciples already enjoy. Accordingly, St. Paul refers to the Corinthians in nuptial terms: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2 Cor. 11:2).

Thus we see a development in eschatological marriage theology. It is no longer simply a matter of God and the Jews in a marital union tarnished by the bride’s frequent infidelity. Instead, the union has developed to reveal God the Son, who has come as Messiah to redeem the Jews and expand the kingdom to include all nations—Jew or Gentile—in the Church.

This theology can be seen in Paul’s writing: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). No longer must the eschatological marriage remain tarnished by the infidelity of the bride. Jesus has provided the means for his bride, the Church, to be made holy. Through the liturgies of the sacraments, Jesus provides the means for realizing eschatological realities during the age of the Church.

This sets the stage for John’s apocalypse in which he is privileged to view images of the eschatological marriage fulfilled in heaven. He relates the joyful words of the multitude gathered there: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:7-8). The bride is has been made spotless.

Even though John sees this taking place in heaven, it is crucial to note the words of the angel that come next: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God’” (Rev. 19:7-9). Blessed, too, are those who are invited—clearly not all of the guests have yet arrived.

Indeed, John sees heaven reaching out in invitation to those still on the earth: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2; see also vs. 9-11). The bride—i.e., the Church—reaches out to gather in the nations until the end of time. It is in the sacraments that the Church on earth begins to realize the reward of the Church in heaven.

Now more than ever, in the age of the Church, marriage is a sign of God’s merciful, enduring love. This imagery is even found in the Church’s liturgical celebrations of the sacraments:

The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant (CCC 1617).

Indeed, the sacraments anticipate and prepare the Church on earth for the eschatological wedding feast in heaven. In fact, the Catechism tells us that the Eucharist is called the Lord’s Supper “because of its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem” (CCC 1328).

This is enlightening for Christians, since it provides meaning and direction in our own lives as members of Christ’s body, the Church.

Christian marriage as image of eschatological marriage

As we have already seen, human marriage entered the world upon the creation of man. The prophets later allegorized God’s relationship with his chosen people utilizing human marriage imagery, thus revealing eschatological marriage. Eschatological marriage was then looked to as an example upon which to base human marriage.

But now, in the age of the Church, when the eschatological marriage has been revealed more fully, Christ has elevated Christian marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. In other words, Christian marriage now more perfectly mirrors eschatological marriage in a soteriological way.

This is probably most evident in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:28-30).

Paul goes on to recall the institution of human marriage and to see in it an image of the eschatological marriage in Christ: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:28-32).

The Catechism explains: “St. Paul calls the nuptial union of Christ and the Church ‘a great mystery.’ Because she is united to Christ as to her bridegroom, she becomes a mystery in her turn. Contemplating this mystery in her, Paul exclaims: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’” (CCC 772). In other words, as members of Christ’s body in the eschatological marriage, Christian marriage must mirror the Church’s graces. Marriage is a human image of union with God.

Since Christian marriage is acknowledged as sacrament, it is an instrument of sanctifying grace (i.e., supernatural life). Human marriage is a salvific representation of eschatological marriage. This is of profound significance to married Christians! Such members of the body of Christ are instruments of salvation for their spouses. Spouses resemble Christ in their own marriages.

Practical realities of Christian marriage

It bears keeping in mind that Christian marriage is intended only for this life. Jesus taught, “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). This makes perfect sense, since the duration of marriage then mirrors its salvific purpose—salvific instruments are of use only in this life and are of no use in heaven. Christian marriage not only mirrors eschatological marriage but also eventually becomes it.

This being the case, since eschatology is already inaugurated and partially realized through the sacraments, Christian marriage must already begin to take the shape of eschatological marriage in every way that it can. In practical terms, this means three primary things: It must be indissoluble (i.e., lifelong), as Christ’s marriage to the Church is permanent; it must be life-giving (i.e., ordered toward procreation), as Christ’s marriage to the Church makes Christians a new creation and partakers of his divine life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4); and it must be sanctifying (i.e., truly loving; unifying) as an image of Christ’s love for the Church.

Regarding the indissolubility of Christian marriage, Jesus clearly taught that Christian marriage is a lifelong covenant: “They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). The Catechism acknowledges this: “The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been in the beginning” (CCC 1605). (This applies to valid Christian marriages that have been consummated.)

Therefore, the Catholic Church teaches unequivocally on this matter:

The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: so they are no longer two, but one flesh. They are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving. This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together (CCC 1644).

Concerning the life-giving aspect of Christian marriage, every couple must necessarily consist of one male and one female, as that is how God created human beings to multiply; indeed, the primary reason God created human beings male and female is for the purpose of procreation. Being ordered toward procreation makes Christian marriage an image of the divine live-giving eschatological marriage.

The Catholic Church teaches unequivocally on this matter as well. The Catechism teaches: “Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370, quoting Humanae Vitae). Contraception in marriage is therefore immoral.

These two primary aspects of Christian marriage—it is indissoluble and life-giving—seem to be the most obvious and the ones most often cited by Christian marriage supporters. However, the third aspect is just as crucial if not more so. In essence, Christian marriage must be a truly loving instrument of sanctifying grace. The Catechism makes this point: “Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man” (CCC 1604).

In concrete terms, this means that Christian spouses must make each other’s salvation a primary end of the relationship. Indeed, authentic love between Christian spouses must always be focused on heaven. This includes, among other criteria, that Christian spouses must see each other as God does, created primarily for union with him.

Issues of faith and morals must be addressed as the Church addresses them for the sake of the person’s salvation. Maintaining such standards for Christian marriage helps to assure its eventual fulfillment in eschatological marriage where “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17).

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