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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

Thinking about Matrimony

There is something different about the sacrament of Matrimony and the other sacrament of service—Holy Orders. All sacraments are celebrations of God's love and contain sacred actions that are signs of this love. In addition to that, the two sacraments of service continue to be signs of God's love long after the celebration is over.

A marriage is a lasting reality and a lasting sign. As signs, all the sacraments tell us something about God's love. The sacraments of initiation tell us that God's love is welcoming, life giving, strengthening, and nourishing. The sacraments of healing tell us that God cares for us in our weakness, our suffering, even in our sin. The sacrament of Matrimony tells us that God's love is faithful and forever.

It is hard to comprehend a love as faithful and enduring as we are told God's love is. It becomes much easier to believe it when we have the example of faithful marriages and families. This is so important that, according to Catholic teaching, if it's a sacramental marriage, it has to be until death. Married couples are both signs of God's love and instruments, bringing God's love to each other and the world around them.

The world calls marriage a "tie that binds" and often misses the important point:  marriage is a free act that echoes the absolute freedom with which God created the universe. Nothing was missing in God. God did not need anything. God's choice could have been different, and we wouldn’t have existed. But this first, creating choice binds God to other beings forever in an absolutely selfless love. That doesn't limit God. God's being bound now is a continuation of the awesome freedom of that original choice to create.

Two mature people, confident of their individual strengths and their love for each other, commit themselves freely by a permanent vow. Later to grow tired of it and break that vow is not a step toward greater freedom; it is a denial of freedom.

Human freedom is not absolute like God's. Human love is never absolutely selfless. But the Church claims that human beings with God's help can make free choices that are like God's—not to be negated, lasting until death. Freely making this permanent commitment to another is what defines a Catholic marriage.

Marriage would be a poor imitation of God's creative freedom if the marrying couple deliberately bestowed their love and their commitment only on each other. The circle of their marital love is an open one, reaching out to new human life and to the community around them. The married couple and the family are people on a mission—to one another, to generations that follow, and to the whole world. 

No sacrament is private.  All sacraments are celebrations of the Church.  Because matrimony is a sacrament, because married love reaches out to all life, and most of all because people who commit themselves in marriage reflect to the whole community God's free, creative, and faithful love, the celebration of matrimony is not a private affair. It is an important part of the Church's public worship. The celebration most fittingly takes place where the community gathers to worship.

The sacramental sign that is unique to the sacrament of Matrimony is the exchange of marriage vows, the promise to be faithful until death. With these words the marrying couple give the sacrament to each other in the presence of the priest and the supporting community. But matrimony is a state of being as well as a ceremony. This sacrament is never over, and the signs of this sacrament include all the ways married people show the faithfulness of God’s love in their love for each other, in their willingness to dedicate themselves to the raising of children, and in their service to the world. Even when a husband, wife, daughter, or son acts alone in performing some service, it’s the act of a member of a family and a commitment that the whole family shares. There are many ways the sacrament of Matrimony shows us God’s faithful love.

The sacrament of Matrimony is for all of us, whether we are married, part of a loving family, touched by the love of a family other than our own, or in any way becoming more aware of the faithfulness of God's love. All those ways of love are what people celebrate when they gather for the sacrament of Matrimony.

Saving Sex. Of all the graces God has devised for the salvation of the world it is hard to imagine something greater than the gift of sex—unless it would be the gift of religion, our longing for connection with God. It’s time to ask, though: Why has this grace of God’s often worked so poorly? Sex brings us together in love and pleasure, but sex often expresses emotional pain, hatred, selfishness, insecurity, manipulation, violence, lust for power, and even war instead. Religion suggests coming together, too—a binding back into God and to each other. But religions very often divide us into warring camps. The Catholic Church cherishes seven sacraments for celebrating all the graces God gives us. How could so much grace have so little apparent effect? Why is our world not a better place? Why aren’t we better than we are?

Maybe that’s the wrong question. We are inundated with messages about how to improve ourselves:

Be all that you can be.

Experience all that you can experience.

Acquire more than you can afford.

Learn how to control your looks, your weight, your world in six easy steps.

We are told over and over, “You can be better than you are.” Some of these messages are about sex, and a large part of the ones that aren’t about sex pretend that they are. Not one of them, no matter how good the advice, is about salvation. Salvation is not acquiring something we don’t have or becoming something we are not yet. Salvation is not a climb from a lower state to a higher state. Salvation is what God has done for us already. If we still need to be saved, it’s because we refuse to be what we are. When we make sex part of our struggle to be more—more powerful, more secure, even more happy—then we are not letting sex be what it is. Then sex may be the part of being human that most needs saving.

Sex is not a means to an end. The Catholic Church teaches that sex has two natural “ends”—procreation and mutual support of husband and wife; but there is no means-end relationship here. It is like an acorn, which just naturally ends up as an oak if you let it be what it is. If we let sex be what it is, it becomes a part of God’s wonderful plan for saving humanity. How do we let sex be what it is?

I once heard it passionately argued that giving up sex (as Roman Catholic priests are required to do) is refusing to be a complete human being. That way of thinking is the opposite of letting sex be what it is; but it was a very easy mistake to make. The way to avoid that mistake is to realize that, contrary to what the advertisers want you to believe, God didn’t make any half human beings. Each one of us is whole already. We are already exactly what we need to be.

Sex is a celebration of what is already. It is not part of any pursuit, not even the pursuit of wholeness or happiness. (Thinking of happiness as a quest is what puts it completely out of reach for many.) But it is easy to make sex over into a means to some end or other because we don’t believe we are whole and we have highly paid advertisers whose job is to make sure we never do. They seem to have no qualms about making sex a means to their own ends.

Letting sex be what it is—that’s not something that a person does by some extraordinary effort. There are manuals on good sex that can be worth reading, but that’s not the way to let sex be what it is. Neither is it a matter of some undeniable feeling that this is “true love.” Rather, to put it boldly, saving sex is the accomplishment of the sacrament of Matrimony. That’s not just for Catholics. All Christians marry sacramentally, according to Catholic teaching, when they follow the procedures of their own churches. For them and, actually, for any couple who marry with the intention of being faithful until death, marriage provides the context in which sex can be what it is—something you do because of what you are, not what you need to be but aren’t yet.

Marriage, even a sacramental one, is no guarantee against abuses of sexuality. Matrimony is not the same as paradise. A mutually supportive sex life is something that loving couples know they have to work at. But just as God gives two human beings the grace of lifelong fidelity, God also graces sex so that it reflects and celebrates the love that is there already. Then that’s all sex has to do. It doesn’t have to make us whole or take away our feelings of inferiority or insecurity or boost our image. In marriage sex can be just what it is—a sharing of love and pleasure that just naturally supports a couple’s life-long commitment and, occasionally, blossoms into new life. Not every grace of God saves the world so delightfully.

Think again:

Matrimony is a celebration of graces God gives to the whole community. Think of ways you have been blessed by marriages other than your own. How is it possible to be a whole human being and to need another person at the same time? How is this like God? Here is a puzzle: Sex is a grace God gives for saving the world, and sex itself needs saving. What are your thoughts? How does the gift of sex help to save the world? In what ways does sex need saving?

 On to 16, Holy Orders