The Splendor of the Christian Marriage
|The Splendor of the Christian MarriageAddress given by Most Rev. Godfrey M. P. Okoye
Bishop of Lagos, Nigeria
Ninth National Wanderer Forum, 1973
|Present-day Catholic theology of marriage is opposed by powerful influences attempting to interpret marriage and family life as purely profane and earthly realities.Vast masses of people and unfortunately of the baptized and not only people of weak will but even morally mature men and women let themselves be tainted, without noticing it, by a secularist view of marriage that is full of strange and extravagantly false ideas that are served up in newspapers, magazines, films, and televisions as objective truths about married life.“The enemy of our salvation (I Pt.5:8ff) today persuades men with greater insistence and cunning. We are all aware of the increasing rate of divorce. We are aware of the insistence with which certain means of propaganda promote practices which offend against conjugal chastity. Vicious propaganda is relentlessly pushing forward the cult of pleasure without any regard to the true nature and splendor and holy ideal of conjugal intimacy.“Furthermore, conscientious parents lament certain conditions which today militate against that training of their children which will make them mature, responsible and holy citizens” (cf. The Sacredness of Marriage and Family Life, p. 9-11).Anybody who has not been struck blind can see the devastation that these ideas have wrought within the sanctuary of the family and how chaotic their consequences are and will continue to be in human society.Marital discord and infidelity, broken families, and the poverty of the joy and piety that should characterize our Christian families are a challenge to Christians and theologians and pastors, and force them to reflect deeply on the religious nature and splendor of Christian marriage and family life. This talk and our gathering here today is a tiny step towards our meeting this challenge.
Marriage as A Sacred Reality and Divine Institution1
It is the Second Vatican Council that has in a most special way re-emphasized what had already existed in the teaching of the Popes;2namely, that to understand and appreciate all the real beauty and grandeur of marriage, we must strive to see it through the eyes of Christ; to see it from His own point of view, in its relationship to God. We must, therefore, strive to acquire Christ’s attitude and outlook towards marriage. Through Christ every intimate detail of of life intended for this sacred state.
Marriage belongs completely to God. It is something entirely in His hands. He instituted it. Once we understand this we possess the first essential fact to be realized concerning the nature of marriage. That marriage is a Divine institution is aptly summarized in this short prayer uttered by young Tobias:
Marriage Is A Vocation
If marriage is a Divine institution, those who embrace the married state should realize that it is a response to a Divine call. Married people are invited by God to embrace this way of life as the state in which they are to mold their life and character and become living replicas of Christ and thus be assured of their eternal happiness.
Christian marriage, therefore, is not something to be looked down upon as a concession to those who are not called to the dignity of the priesthood or of the Religious life. It is not something merely tolerated or permitted. This was the puritanistic anti-sex and anti-marriage view expressed by the Manicheans.
Marriage is a call. How does God give this call? Not exactly like the call to the priesthood or the Religious life. To put it simply, God intends marriage as the usual way of life – as a state for the sanctification and salvation of the married couples. In married life sanctification will be gained through the union of the husband and wife, a union in which there must be complete submission by both parties to the conditions of marriage as established by God.
To appreciate the full scope of the splendor of Christian marriage in the Divine plan we must go to the Scripture. Here we find that God created woman to be a helpmate for man, “a help like unto himself” (Gen. 2:18). Helpmate! Companion! Hers, of course is to be no mere status of some sort of assistant-reproducer with no further nor higher purpose in life. God’s aim in creating the woman is not merely for the gift of herself to her husband in the short-lived act of procreation. To restrict her value in such a way would be to lower her worth to a point comparable to that of a mere animal in the mating process. Her rightful status is shown by these Scriptural words, “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.
They will be two beings united, each giving to the other constant, undivided love, each complementing the other, finding ever increasing joy and fulfillment in their union together as day by day they mould their life to reflect ever more clearly and perfectly the image of Christ Who dwells in their hearts and home. This is the meaning of their call and in this lies the splendor of Christian married life.
Sacramentality of Christian Marriage 3
Nowhere does the grandeur and beauty and salvific power of Christian marriage shine out as in its sacramentality.
As a natural contract, marriage is the act of mutual consent by which a man and woman give to each other the right to relations and to the normal features of married life: living together and cooperating to meet their common needs and interests. In the Old Law, this natural contract was incapable of giving grace even though it belonged entirely to God.
When, however, Christ came on Earth, He lifted this natural contract into one of His abiding saving mysteries. Christ the Lord is the wellspring of grace. “Of His fullness we have all received” (John 1:16). Through His Life, Death, and Resurrection, He has made all things new (Apoc. 21:15), healed them, and conferred on them a new holiness. He has thus abundantly blessed marriage and conferred on it a new holiness. 4
Through Christ this supremely natural reality became a supremely supernatural reality fitted to the task laid on it of revealing the dimensions of the mystery of salvation.
In making marriage a Sacrament, Christ simply took the natural contract and made the Sacrament identical with it. Henceforth, the very act of mutual consent by which a Christian man and woman become husband and wife is capable of giving them grace. Every Sacrament is an encounter with Christ. As the marrying pair meet each other in their consent, they meet Christ as well who now makes perceptible and active in them His saving effectiveness. Christ becomes sovereignly effective to bind and sanctify these two people. The partners themselves achieve in this Sacrament a veiled contact with the Lord. This is what it means to say that marriage is a Sacrament.
Marriage as a Saving Mystery
From the sacramentality of marriage flows its salvific value. In the sacred ceremony of this Sacrament, the bridal pair themselves, are the chosen tools of Christ’s sanctifying and saving work. As they give the consent of marriage with sincere hearts they open for themselves the treasury of sacramental grace, from which they can draw supernatural strength that will enable them to fulfill their obligations and functions faithfully, holily, and perseveringly until death. In the words of Vatican II:
The salvific dimension of the exchange of consent must be very clearly and constantly brought to the forefront in our marriage instructions to prospective couples. The words “I will” with which couples pledge to each other a love ready to carry out God’s aim of living in unity and bringing new life into the world, and the continual discharging of this promise, have a bearing on their salvation.
From the altar, the married couple, therefore, take away with them a binding and honorable pastoral task. It is they who by the love of Christ and the Church have brought the Sacrament to each other and it is they who in the first in-stance have the care of each other’s souls.
When St. Paul said, “The husband is the head of the wife. as Christ is the head of the Church” (Eph. 5:23), his first and principal purpose should be understood as a religious one. It means that a man must lead his wife and children in the witness of faith, in trust in God, in steadfast love and in the working of God. Only then does he become like Christ, Who is “the savior of His body” – the Church (Eph. 5:23).
Likewise the wife should so behave in the family and should so honor her husband that she gives him a better idea of his true dignity. She should so turn the various affairs of everyday life in the family into a manifestation of married love that she will thereby fulfill her responsibility for the salvation of her husband. “Then if there are some husbands who have not yet obeyed the word, they may find themselves won over, without a word spoken, by the way their wives behave, when they see how faithful and conscientious they are” (I Pt. 3:1-2).
Christian Marriage: An Image of the Love Between Christ and the Church
In one of the prayers in ‘the New Rite of Marriage the Church thus prays for the married couple, “Father, in the fulfillment of this Sacrament, the marriage of Christian man and woman is a sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church.” And in another prayer we read, “Father, You have made the union of man and wife so holy a mystery that it symbolizes the marriage of Christ and His Church.”
In the Christian tradition beginning with St. Paul, Christian marriage has always been regarded as being a profound spiritual reality modelled upon the union of Christ with His Church. In order to grasp a little of the beauty and splendor that is Christian marriage, we must, therefore, understand better the deep mystery of the union of Christ with the Church, and see therein the perfect love which should be typical of the two in one flesh in Christian marriage.
Christ came on Earth only for His Church, the society that He wished to found. As soon as founded, the Church’s only concern henceforth was for Christ, her Master: Christ gives Himself entirely and dies for the Church. The Church suffers and is persecuted constantly as she struggles to win more souls for Christ, souls in which and through which Christ continues to live on Earth in His Church.
A union as intimate, a fusion of hearts as complete, an affection as mutual, exclusive, and durable as that of Christ for His Church and the Church’s for Christ is the model God intended for marriage when He raised it to the dignity of a Sacrament. Any Christian marriage that falls short of this ideal will flounder helplessly around in the midst of unending confusion and frustration. On the other hand the Christian couple’s faith in this mystery of the mutual love between Christ and the Church, to which it is their task to bear witness, enables them to persevere together even in times of suffering and to look forward in trust to the second coming of Christ when all the love between Christ and His Church and all love sanctified in Christ, will be brought to a glorious consummation.
Factors That Jeopardize The Splendor of Married Life
The Church in her moral teaching remains ever loyal to the authentic principles but realizes as well the struggle required for the attainment of the ideal. The Christian in this world is an ever perfectible being. He is often beset with difficulties.
In the field of married life the Christian today is beset with difficulties in the attainment of the ideal. His married life is often placed in jeopardy by forces both within and outside himself. It is for this reason that we shall not simply stop at outlining the holy ideal of Christian marriage as intended by God and sanctified by Christ, but must also touch, even if briefly, the problems our married couples face in today’s world and suggest practical helps towards the overcoming of these problems.
Most conspicuous among these problems are: lack of true love, marital infidelity, and false notions and practices of responsible parenthood. Let us consider them briefly and singly:
Lack of True Love
Love is the mainstay of married life. Where there is no love there-will be no successful marriage. Many think and say they love, but love is often not well understood. In the words of Jean Guitton:
When we speak of love being the mainstay of marriage we should understand principally spiritual love, true Christian love, the love born of God which guides all loves.
But what on the contrary do we often see but the contrary. In fact when people today speak of love they are referring to no other love but the instinctive and erotic love which without the agape is in constant danger of imbalance. This type of love is superficially more attractive and vastly easier to follow. It is the type of love that leads to so many divorces and remarriages in today’s society. When people speak of such a love they are not only indulging in fairy tales fit only for the frustrated but they are also giving an utterly erroneous idea of love.
Such a love is often selfish and egoistic and does not know, what is sacrifice. Such a passing love cannot stand the test of Christian marriage, since it is often limited to the emotional satisfaction of people’s unruly desires.
The Christian love required in marriage is Divine love. It is benevolent and consists mostly in giving and sacrificing. It is solicitous for the happiness and salvation of the loved one. It is this love that transforms and ennobles and guides the married couple in their intimate relationships.
Another danger that threatens the married life today is unfaithfulness in marriage. So many reasons account for that. We have the venomous influence of some advertising agents and exaggerated newspaper reportings. There is so much talk of the “inseparable companion” even among the married people.
While we must rejoice today at the progress in the emancipation of women we must likewise lament the dangers that can confront both men and women today in their places of work. A little disagreement in the family, a discovery of unfaithfulness by one of the spouses, and a thousand and one other things can arise in the family which can be for one of the spouses an occasion for a temptation to which he or she can easily succumb given the circumstances of today’s industrialized life.
The long absences and long separation between husbands and wives occasioned by the nature of their work can be very trying to marital fidelity, whilst we do not doubt that for some it may increase the desire to return to their homes.
There is need today more than ever for greater formation of both men and women in the solid Christian virtues especially that of conjugal chastity if they will withstand the dangers to their marital fidelity created by life in the modern world.
The Problem of Family Planning
We must in all sincerity admit that one of the greatest difficulties that face the consciences of our Christians, one that debars a good number from living their Christianity to the full is the question of birth control. Even in Africa where children are greatly desired, this is becoming a problem among the urban middle class.
We shall not go here into details as the problem is already well known to our audience. There is no one here who is ignorant of the extent to which human technology has led people into untold means of birth control all in order to contradict the laws of the Creator. What shall we say of such practices as abortion and infanticide?
The problem that faces the loud clamor for birth control is insincerity. What are we up to? Do we see with the Church? If we do, here is the Church’s view: “Conjugal love requires in husband and wife an awareness of their mission of ‘responsible parenthood’ ” (Humanae Vitae).
Welcoming children, as understood in Catholic morality in conjunction with a certain planning of births in responsibility before God in accordance with the same Catholic morality is vastly different from its counterpart in birth control which is simply and in an unqualified manner hostile to large numbers of children.
The Church opposes immoral means of birth control because they are immoral and because she is aware of the danger to which universal admission of contraception would lead us. It may be helpful to mention but a few. If marital union is shorn of its procreative purpose, what shall one say of extra-marital relationships or even of flirtations within marriage. If it is all right for man and wife to enjoy themselves while deliberately excluding the begetting of children by artificial contraception, how shall we be able to reprimand unmarried boys and girls if they also have recourse to such means.
Widespread approval and practice of contraception leads to a general lowering of the moral tone of society. Discipline and self-control will give way to license and self-indulgence.
The problem of birth control in short is the problem of sex control. Birth control, therefore, should be handled hand in hand with the virtue of chastity which teaches us that the sexual urges can be mastered and kept within bounds by Divine love – agape.
Realization of the Ideal In Christian Married Life
Courtship as a prelude at marriage must be taken seriously like marriage itself. It is an important preparation for marriage and sometimes can be regarded as more important because if there is bad courtship the married life is already jeopardized. There should be holiness in the preparation, in the interpersonal relationship that precedes this holy institution. Chastity in those who are engaged is a prelude to true love in the married life because if there is no reverence before marriage there will be no reverence in married life.
Self-Mastery And Self-Denial In Married Life
Nowhere else is the saying of Christ more true, that “whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33) “and he who loves his life loses it and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Since Christian marriage is patterned on the self-sacrificing love of Christ for His Church, Christian couples cannot but follow in the footsteps of Christ, daily taking up their cross and following Jesus (Luke 9:23). “They are bound to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give to one another an unfailing and unselfish help.” 7
Truly, there will be times of joy and ecstasy. But the secret behind any successful marriage will always be sacrifice, self-mastery, and self-denial, rooted in that deep reverence by which one will always study to please and not to hurt the other. It will always be the joy of the spouses to give, rather than to receive (cf. Acts 20:35), to be deprived rather than to cause concern, sorrow, or suffering to the other. Christian couples who observe this fundamental rule of the Gospel will experience such a deepening and enrichment of their love that their marriage will grow from strength to strength towards the ideal splendor that God intends for Christian marriage.
Large-Heartedness And Forgiveness
Large-heartedness and forgiveness is another virtue that should flourish in an ideal Christian family. Let Christian families ask themselves: “Are we large-hearted enough to let bygones be bygones, to forgive and forget, not to nurse injuries and wrongs, not to study how to hurt the other by words and deed?” Peace and happiness will abound in the family if the man and his wife are ready each time to write off the past and to begin afresh on a clean page.
True Spiritual Love
Authentic marital love must thoroughly animate married life if it will not be left to be dominated by a purely sensual element. This love must be the love born of God, the love that guides all loves. It is benevolent love and consists mostly in giving, sacrificing, submission, and solicitude for the happiness, and salvation of the loved one.
Conjugal love expresses itself in the marital union, hence the spouses must be faithful in love to each other so that marital intercourse may express and foster conjugal love and fidelity and also help the practice of chastity in the state of wedlock.
Therefore, there should be no excessive preoccupation about sex that can easily deprive them of the joy of mutual love. Balanced love is not overanxious about sex.
The splendor and grandeur of Christian married life and love sometimes demands heroism. Let us listen to Pope Pius XII:
The case of a childless marriage is also a case that calls for heroism on the part of the couple so affected. It is a great sorrow for them to find themselves childless. This is even more true in my country than in yours. Their difficult position is understandable, but here again, as I said before, is a case for heroism in marriage. It demands great faith to preserve fidelity. But if after all human and licit means have been tried and yet there is no offspring, Christian couples have the grace to accept God’s will.
Great rewards await those who endure such crucial trial for the love of God. They carry a heavy cross for Christ and for the love of Christ. Therefore, great indeed will be their reward in the Kingdom of Christ. They have borne witness to Him. They have confessed Him before men, they have shown their determination to cling to Him at all costs. He will also confess them before His Father in Heaven and will reward them most abundantly by granting them the joy of His company forever.
My wish and hope is that all may respect the sanctity and holiness of marriage so that its splendor may shine out more brightly. Every vocation in life has its difficulties and demands sacrifice. The state of wedlock is no exception. Created in a certain order which was destroyed by sin, this union is recreated in Christ at a level of perfection which it could only attain with the help of redemptive grace. It is this grace which will restore for married couples the wounded human unity, not in a perfect sense, since there may still be lapses, but nonetheless in a real sense, because they have sacramentally been joined to God.
The husband and wife who give the consent of marriage with sincere hearts open for themselves the treasury of sacramental grace, from which they can draw supernatural strength, enabling them to fulfill their obligations and functions faithfully, holily, and perseveringly until death. By sacramental marriage, Christian couples obtain a right to the help of whatever grace they need for the discharge of their matrimonial duties (Casti Connubii, Pius XI).
On our part as pastors we must not indulge in exaggerated pessimism. In every Christian the sense of growth to perfection is already evident from the day of his baptism. There are well-intentioned couples who are determined to live up to the standard and who are actually doing so. We must not allow the aberrations in the married life of the noisy minority to overshadow the great efforts of the silent majority. What, we hear and see in newspapers should not blind us to the enduring value and sacredness and splendor of Christian marriage.
For the rest, the Church is a teacher as well as a mother. In her teaching and moral demands she remains every loyal to the authentic principles but adopts equally the pedagogy of patient expectation for the fullness of time, the eschatological time, the final time when all will be perfect, when there will be no more marrying and giving in marriage and when the splendor of married life will give way to the splendor of the beatific vision of Heaven for those who have lived faithful married lives.
This article, The Splendor of the Christian Marriage is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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