Imagine a young person from a broken family who stays at another family’s home for the summer. Not having had a good family experience, he really doubts whether there is any ultimate meaning to life and really doubts the existence of a loving God. He is somewhat amazed at the bond of love he finds in this family—something not experienced before.
Whether he is aware of it or not, he is seeing another bond as well, imaged by the couple: namely, the bond between God and mankind. After experiencing spousal and familial love throughout the summer, he begins to reconsider: Maybe things like love, meaning, and God are real. He has seen love dwelling right within the marriage and family life he is experiencing. He may or may not be fully conscious of this connection.
The Bible is filled with texts (see “Symbol of the Covenant”) that capture the phenomenon this young person experienced—the idea that spousal love is a great image or sign of the covenant between God and man. These texts can be viewed as metaphorical descriptions of the covenant: God’s relationship with mankind is like a marriage between spouses. The imagery goes much deeper, though, than the level of metaphor. It doesn’t just point to the covenant; it isn’t just a sign of the covenant; it is a pointer or a sign that actually makes present what it points to. Right inside of marriage we find God’s actual, faithful, permanent, covenantal love. This is what married people get themselves into!
Consider two texts from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (“On the Christian Family in the Modern World”):
The communion of love between God and people, a fundamental part of the revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant that is established between a man and a woman (FC 12).
For this reason the central word of revelation, “God loves his people,” is likewise proclaimed through the living and concrete word whereby a man and a woman express their conjugal love. Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant that unites God and his people. And the same sin that can harm the conjugal covenant becomes an image of the infidelity of the people to their God: Idolatry is prostitution, infidelity is adultery, disobedience to the law is abandonment of the spousal love of the Lord. But the infidelity of Israel does not destroy the eternal fidelity of the Lord (FC 12).
A sign, image, or pointer that makes its object present is obviously of a unique kind. It is called a “sacramental image,” an image that makes present what it signifies or causes what it signifies. Something that “does a good job at causing” is called “efficacious.” For example, a pain reliever that gets the job done is an “efficacious” pain reliever. If the medicine is too old and doesn’t have any “power” any more, we say “this pill has lost its efficacy.” A sacramental image is an efficacious image. It does what it is supposed do—it makes something present. Therefore, it is called an efficacious sign or an efficacious image.
To capture the unusualness of an efficacious sign, imagine yourself driving your car and seeing a stop sign. Now imagine if the sign were to reach out and put the brakes on or somehow bring your car to a safe stop. The sign would have caused what it signified—it would be an efficacious sign. Odd as the example is, it gives a sense of how mighty the idea of an efficacious sign is. With the sacraments we have right in our midst a set of signs that really are mighty, that really cause what they signify.
If this is true—and Catholics firmly believe that it is—then we have come upon the most marvelous thing that could possibly exist after the Incarnation. We have come upon a set of signs that make the Incarnation—Jesus Christ in person—present in our midst. Because marriage is such a reality, in marriage we are caught up in a huge mystery. We don’t “get married.” Marriage gets us.
Foreshadow to Mystery
In the New Testament, Paul speaks of the covenant between Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5:31–32, where he begins by quoting Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Paul then makes a crucial point: “This is a great foreshadowing: I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church.” The word foreshadowing here emphasizes that marriage, instituted at creation, is a sign—but a sign of something to happen in the future: the covenant. Now that the covenant has definitively happened in Christ’s redemptive work, marriage is not a sign of something to come but a sign of something that exists already.
The word foreshadows is a good attempt to translate Paul’s original Greek word mysterion, or mystery, which includes the notion of foreshadowing but also much more. It includes the entire notion of a sacramental or efficacious image. St. Jerome seems to have g.asped just that when he translated the Greek text into Latin (the Vulgate) using the word sacramentum, or sacrament. He was right in the midst of the powerful reality of sacramental imaging. The wordsacrament, then, has behind it the word mystery, for it is a tremendous mystery that (1) a human reality such as marriage is a sign of the covenant, and (2) such a sign is efficacious.
Catholics living within the sacramental life of the Church are living their lives in the midst of a huge, marvelous mystery. The more you learn about it, the better you appreciate it and are able to take advantage of it. Still, no matter how much you know and study, the reality itself always exhausts anyone’s g.asp and articulation of it.
The Flip Side
There is a rather amazing “twin concept” or “twin reality” that goes alongside of marital imaging. Recall that in marital imaging, to learn something about the covenant, we turn to marriage and discover that it images the covenant. Now we flip this relationship around: To learn what marriage is, we can look to the covenant as a model. But the covenant is such a noble and lofty reality that we will want to figure out how it is possible to live it out. Familiaris Consortio says that “the ever faithful love of God is put forward as the model of the relations of the faithful love that should exist between spouses” (FC 12).
The central word is model. We discover what marriage is by looking at the covenant between God and man. We can look at the characteristics of the covenant (faithful love, self-sacrificial love, total self-giving) and realize that precisely these characteristics are what make for an ordered, healthy, and happy marriage.
Here are two different “summary statements” of the twin concepts:
To learn about—and experience—the riches of the covenant, turn to marriage, and to learn about—and experience—the riches of marriage, turn to the covenant.
As marriage is an efficacious sign or image of the covenant, so the covenant is an efficacious model for marriage.
Now we are about to take an extraordinary step:
The communion between God and his people finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the bridegroom who loves and gives himself as the savior of humanity, uniting it to himself as his body. . . . He reveals the original truth of marriage, the truth of the “beginning,” and, freeing man from his hardness of heart, he makes man capable of realizing this truth in its entirety (FC 13).
I’ve Got the Power
So, in the covenant, Christ reveals the original truth of marriage. But interestingly, and amazingly, the covenantal model is not any ordinary model. It actually goes another big step: After telling us how marriage ought to be, it actually gives us the power to live that kind of marriage.
When we examined marriage as an image of the covenant, we discovered that marriage was not an ordinary image but a sacramental image. We captured the richness of sacramental imaging with the term efficacious. Now we apply the same term to the twin concept of the model. The covenant is an efficaciousmodel in that it causes the very realities contained in the model. God’s covenantal love, existing as his grace infused in us, gives married couples the capacity to live out the demanding nature and meaning of marriage.
To capture the full impact of the notion of an “efficacious model,” consider an example from sports or music. Imagine you are an amateur golfer trying to model yourself after, say, Ernie Els or Tiger Woods. Or imagine yourself as a classical guitarist trying to model yourself after Christopher Parkening or the Romeros. (Fill in other examples that suit your own interests.) There is always an in-built frustration in having such professionals as models because you know you’ll never match their abilities. But what if the person is going to give you his skill? You will get his actual talent. He becomes not an ordinary model but an efficacious model. Of course, this is a pipe dream when it comes to sports or music, but when it comes to marriage, that efficaciousness really happens. God’s grace gives the married couple the capacity to live the marital adventure in its truth and fullness. Here is what Pope John Paul says:
The Spirit that the Lord pours forth gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained, conjugal charity, which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in and are called to live the very charity of Christ, who gave himself on the cross (FC 13).
One more step: The twin concepts are integrally related to one another inasmuch as they mutually affect or condition each other. After understanding the notion of an efficacious model, we come full circle and return to the “image” side: It is precisely because God’s grace so capacitates couples that marriage can be properly ordered. And, as such, it can be a true image of the covenant.
If you have enjoyed watching how Familiaris Consortio displays these twin concepts, you’ll enjoy reading the section on marriage in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (47–52), where you will find the same phenomenon at work. That document was probably written by, or at least heavily influenced by, John Paul II before he became pope.
Bigger Than the Two of Us
There is a particularly poignant pastoral application of the idea that the covenant is an efficacious model. A couple naturally tends to think that their marriage will be a glamorous experience, perhaps the ultimate solution to all of life’s difficulties. Of course, everyone is aware that there will be problems, but when two people are in love, that realism fades—as is appropriate—behind the wonderful drama of that heartfelt love. If the couple were to confront fully the real difficulties that lie ahead, they might back out of their engagement! Being in love is a marvelous phenomenon, and it is meant to assist the couple in making such an incredible commitment.
Now consider one of the most challenging moments that occurs in a marriage: The spouses become aware of each other’s finitude (faults, foibles, neuroses, etc.). They knew of such things all along, but the drama of being in love graciously overshadowed them. Now reality hits hard. The couple becomes aware of just how challenging their marital commitment is going to be. They become aware that they will not find perfect happiness in each other.
This could, and often does, lead to a tragic breakup. But it is precisely here that the covenant as an efficacious model is of great help. Instead of the mutual difficulties becoming a source of embitterment, they become a reminder that the spousal relationship is not an end in itself, an immanent source of happiness, but participates in something greater, namely, the covenant itself. The couple recognizes that their lives as spouses need to be subordinate to something higher and that through their marriage they participate in that higher purpose. Only then will they find happiness, and it will be a much deeper and profound happiness than their earlier fleeting happiness. By participating in this transcendent reality, they receive untold graces to live their marital commitment in a profoundly faithful way. Each characteristic of their marriage—permanence, exclusivity, openness to life, heterosexuality—takes on a more profound meaning because each characteristic participates in something transcendent.
A qualifier: A faithful couple, caught up in the ups and downs of daily family life, can easily get the impression that they fall very short of the lofty sentiments and ideals presented by Pope John Paul. They probably feel as if they are not really tapping in to the wonderful efficacious covenantal model. True enough, most couples have areas wherein their marriage could use a growth spurt. But by and large, these ideals are operative. A good exercise: Think of what your marriage would be like without the presence of grace.