The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most remarkable places in the world. The current church dates back to the 11th century, and is built on the ruins of one that dates back to the 4th century. Within this church are the sites of Our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. I remember the first time I went there, climbing the steps to the chapel on the site of Calvary, and venerating the place where Our Lord was crucified. There, under the Altar of the Crucifixion, is a small holy image – an icon – depicting Jesus at the moment when the soldiers vested Him in a purple cloak, placed a reed in His hand, and a crown of thorns on His head. His face bears a sad but loving expression. The title of this icon, I later learned, is “Christ the Bridegroom.” At the time, I thought it a strange title. But it actually makes perfect sense, if we consider the significance of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Marriage is something that has existed since the dawn of humanity. In the Creation story found in the Book of Genesis, God creates the man and the woman, giving them to each other, and after blessing them He instructs them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). In the next chapter, describing the relationship between Adam and Eve, the scripture speaks of marriage, saying: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). From there, marriage becomes a running theme throughout Sacred Scripture, and the relationship between God and His People is described using the imagery of a suitor wooing His bride – especially in the books of the Prophets and the Song of Songs. In the New Testament, Our Lord speaks of the indissolubility of the marriage bond between husband and wife – “what God has joined, let no man separate” (Mt 19; Mk 10). He also makes use of many parables that describe the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a wedding banquet (Mt 22; Lk 14). Finally, in the Book of Revelation, the Sacred Scriptures conclude with a vision of heaven that is described as the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb,” the lamb referring to the one who had been sacrificed, and yet was living and victorious over the enemies of God’s people (Rev 19). St. Paul connects all of the dots in his letter to the Ephesians, where he describes marriage between husband and wife as “a great mystery,” revealing the relationship between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride (Eph 5). The word “mystery” can also be translated “sacrament,” and we know that one definition of a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” So, the marriage between husband and wife was established by God to be a visible sign to the world of the invisible bond between Christ and the Church.
When it comes to Jesus’ relationship with the Church, we say it is three things: 1) faithful, 2) fruitful, and 3) forever. Our Lord is faithful to His Bride, the Church. In the Old Testament, despite Israel’s infidelities, the Lord never abandons His People, He remains faithful. That is true for Christ’s fidelity to the Church, which is the fulfillment of the Chosen People of Israel. Despite the sins of the members of the Church, the Lord always remains faithful to us. The relationship between Christ and the Church is also fruitful – it is life-giving. It was through Christ’s sacrifice, His death and resurrection, that we are able to receive new life in grace. Reborn in Christ through our entrance into the Church through baptism, we are filled with the new life of the Risen Christ, and receive a share in His victory over death. Finally, the relationship between Christ and the Church is forever. Nothing can break the bond that Christ enjoys with the Church. The union is permanent, surviving the threat of sin and death, and lasting for all of eternity.
The fidelity, fruitfulness, and permanence of Christ’s relationship with the Church is revealed and made visible in Holy Matrimony through the relationship between the husband and wife. Their relationship, like that of Christ and the Church, is faithful. The husband and wife promise to give themselves exclusively to each other, saying “I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” This expression of fidelity through the wedding promises is then expressed bodily through the marital act, where husband and wife give themselves to each other totally, to the exclusion of all others. Thus, polygamy is not compatible with the fidelity intrinsic to Holy Matrimony. Interestingly, the Lord often likens the idolatrous practices of the Israelites, who often gave into the temptation to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, to adultery – an act of betrayal against the promise of fidelity in marriage. By being true to their promise of fidelity to each other, the spouses reveal the perfect fidelity of Christ to the Church.
The relationship of the spouses is also fruitful. The Incarnation of Christ, His becoming man, allowed Him to offer Himself in the flesh as a sacrifice for the sake of our redemption. Through that sacrifice, we have new life. This too is made visible in the relationship of the husband and wife in Holy Matrimony. Having made their promises to each other before God and the Church at the wedding, the two become one in the flesh. Through this union comes new life in the form of children, whom the spouses raise together as parents, and whom they raise to know, love, and serve the Lord. Thus, we see that sexual intercourse within marriage is created by God to be a great good, for it is the bodily expression of the loving union of the spouses, from which springs forth new life. That’s why actions that intentionally reject the good of procreation, and which preclude the possibility of new life, are always sinful, for they do not resemble or participate in the life-giving union of Christ and the Church which was made possible by the wedding of Christ’s humanity to His divinity through the Incarnation.
Finally, the relationship between the husband and wife in Holy Matrimony is permanent. At their wedding, the spouses promise each other: “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” Nothing can dissolve the sacramental bond of Holy Matrimony, including a civil divorce decree – except the death of one of the spouses. Holy Matrimony ends with death because the marriage bond between the husband and wife is no longer necessary in Heaven, where the invisible reality of the eternal bond of love between Christ and the Church, of which Holy Matrimony is a sign in the world, is made fully manifest. This does not mean, of course, that the love of those who were spouses in this life comes to an end with death – far from it. The love that they had for each other, which grew and matured through their lifelong fidelity to each other, is perfected in the presence of the One who is Love itself. They who were spouses in the world love each other all the more in Heaven, expressing eternal gratitude to each other for their mutual help in attaining their eternal reward.
Marriage, of course, is not easy even in the best of relationships. Sometimes it is heart-breakingly difficult. But marriage is always good. God loves marriage, creating it to be a visible image of His love for us. As a sacrament, Matrimony is a source of grace for the spouses, revealing His desire that they become holy through their life together. But because of the effects of Original Sin, spouses can hurt each other, disappoint each other, and betray each other. Thus, it is important to pray for married couples, that they might persevere in loving fidelity to each other. It is also important for spouses to stay close to the Church, learning their faith, availing themselves of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), and seeking out the support of other couples who are striving to live their marriages well. The Lord Jesus understands intimately what it means to bear the cross for the sake of love, and He wants spouses to invite Him into their marriages, so that He might help them bear the crosses that come their way in life as they steadily make their way together to the Eternal Wedding Banquet of Heaven.