Marriage: Sacrament of Christ and His Church
(Giotto Marriage Feast at Cana) Getty
Marriage: Sacrament of Christ and His Church

Marriage: Sacrament of Christ and His Church

Fr Kevin Douglas FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2014

What exactly is marriage? And what role does marriage play in God’s plan of salvation? In this Tuesday morning talk to the Faith Summer Session, Father Kevin Douglas attempted to answer both those questions.

“In the beginning was the Word” is the first verse of St. John’s Gospel. The evangelist uses the Greek term “Logos” for “word”, which as many of you may know, is much richer in meaning than the English term “word.” Take a simple word. Why is it that C A T corresponds to the idea of a particular type of animal rather than T C A which doesn’t mean anything? Because there is an ordering thought behind the organisation of those three black squiggles on a white surface that arranges them C A T and establishes that the sound “cat” corresponds to our concept of a furry four-legged feline. This is what Logos really means: thought, concept, or better yet, the organising intelligence responsible for the thought that is expressed as a word.

St. John continues, “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.” Looking at our universe, we observe the stable laws of physics, the scientifically measurable and predictable qualities of matter, the ordered relationships of organisms to their environment and the process we call “evolution” by which living things develop. In all this we discern a principle of intelligence, giving order and meaning to our universe. We witness the effects of the Logos in creation. We, as intelligent beings, are only able to think and understand the world around us because it is ordered by the Logos. Among the things we notice is the division of the sexes. Human beings are distinguished into two sexes. We are either male or female. We’ll come back to this because it is at the foundation of everything that is shared in this talk.

“When we ask ‘why are men and women different?’ the fullest answer to this mystery is because ‘the Word became flesh’.”

St. John continues, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This event is called the Incarnation, when human nature is united to the divine second person of the Trinity. Now, because this Logos is the principle of meaning behind the entire universe, in the Incarnation everything that exists finds its meaning and purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that every time you ask why; why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? Whatever the question, the real and most profound answer is: because “the Word became flesh.” Consequently when we ask “why are men and women different?” the fullest answer to this mystery is: because “the Word became flesh.”

This is the most basic insight at the heart of this talk: everything revolves around the Word becoming flesh. In the rest of this talk, therefore, I’ll develop three points from this fundamental insight:

i) Marriage is for Christ. At the heart of the relationship of marriage is the division of the human species into two sexes. This sexual-differentiation enables God to become man in a way that is coherent or in harmony with what He established in creation.

ii) Marriage serves Christ. Marriage establishes family life and tends towards children. By establishing the family, marriage, in the order of creation, then serves Christ’s purpose.

iii) Marriage reflects Christ. Marriage between baptised Christians is a sacrament. Christ gives special helps, called graces, to those who have a vocation to marriage and their married relationship reflects Christ’s love for His Church.

Human Sexuality is for Christ

The first point is the division of the human species into male and female actually leaves a space in which God can take the initiative and unite human nature to Himself.

God has one plan that stretches from the first moment of creation to the final realisation of this plan. The final realisation of God’s plan is His glorification in creation and particularly in us human beings. In the unfolding of this plan, there are moments of transition from one level to another. An example of these moments of transition would be when God infused the spiritual soul in the first human being. Let’s trace the plan up to this point so you can see what I mean. The process of material evolution develops from the Big Bang onwards through to the emergence of life (I suppose that would also be a transitional moment). Then increasingly complex forms of life evolve until this process arrives at an upper limit of complexity: The process produces a physical organ, the human brain that is becoming too complex to draw its life-pattern from a purely material environment. At that juncture, God infuses the spiritual soul into the being that possesses this highly complex material brain. This constitutes a qualitative leap in his plan: God has established the laws of matter to guide the process of evolution, but now this process is assumed into God’s wider spiritual providence. There is also, however, an overarching continuity and harmony. For example, God couldn’t infuse a spiritual soul into a bluebottle fly and remain coherent with His intention as expressed in creation. The material organ of the bluebottle’s brain is not sophisticated enough to support the operations of the spiritual soul. In God’s single coherent plan the foundation that has been laid by the process of material evolution is not swept away or disregarded; rather, it is built upon, and in this way the lower process serves God’s single overarching design. Father Edward Holloway, the founder of the FAITH movement would call this one overarching design God’s “Unity Law of Control and Direction”.

Because God’s design is a unity we can ask questions like “How does this feature of the universe serve God’s plan?” And so it is meaningful to ask: what is the purpose of the division of the sexes? Why couldn’t we, for example, reproduce asexually? (This is called parthenogenesis and it does happen in certain species of snakes and fish). Some scientists speculate that the division of the sexes speeds up the efficiency of the processes of evolution; it allows for greater genetic diversity among individuals within a species. No doubt that is true but I’m not sure that, on its own, it is a full explanation. If God is the Creator and He is almighty, is it logically impossible for him to have introduced some sort of mechanism that would generate genetic mutation even in asexual reproduction? Or if two sexes are good, why not three or four or even five? Wouldn’t that generate even more efficient mutations? At this stage I should confess I am not a scientist, but I’m sure I remember seeing an episode of Star Trek in which the aliens had more than two sexes. If a second-rate science fiction script editor can dream up something like that, then I think we have to suppose that Almighty God could have made a better job of it, had it suited His purposes.

“The division of the sexes and the process of human sexual reproduction, therefore, find their deepest explanation in the event of the Incarnation.”

So why the division of the sexes? Because “the Word became flesh.” Human sexual differentiation is the foundation within creation that God builds upon in order to bring about the Incarnation. In the normal process of sexual reproduction, the male and female, father and mother, cooperate with God in the creation of a new human person. Neither male nor female is more important. But they do, even at a purely biological level, fulfill different roles: both are required in different but complementary ways. Certainly the female is not passive or inert. I don’t want to turn this talk into an anatomy lecture, but you all know from biology class at school that the various facets of a human female’s fertility are internal to her body: the ovaries and womb are internal to a woman’s body. Not so with a male, his genitals are external and he ejaculates outside of himself. Moreover, sperm cells are mobile in a way that the ovum isn’t. At a purely biological level, then, the role of the male is to introduce something new into the context of female fertility which enables that fertility to come to fruition. In this sense, the male adds something to the female’s potential for fertility. This something that the male adds completes, or in the language of Father Holloway, “determines” the fertility of the female. And the result is a baby: a new human person.

The Case of the Incarnation is Slightly Different

Parenthetically, you understand there is a difference between person and nature. The response to the question “what is Peter?” is different to the response you would expect to the question “who is Peter?” One question looks to the nature: Peter is a human being; the other to the personal identity: Peter is one of the Twelve, a fisherman and a friend of Jesus. However, Peter’s nature does not exist separately from his personal identity. There is no abstract, general human nature with an independent existence. Human nature exists in human persons. Our human nature is personified, or in technical theological language “enhypostatised”, in individual persons. Close parenthesis.

Turning back to the Incarnation, in the case of Jesus Christ, He is true God and true man. Those are his two natures. But if we ask who He is, then He is the second Divine person of the Blessed Trinity. So when Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary there is a human nature but not a human person. The full human nature, his body, his soul and his human will exists in the divine person of the Logos. So how is it that the Logos takes to Himself a human nature?

This is the reason for the Virgin Birth. In the normal process of human conception, the human father completes or determines the fertility of the human mother and a human person is conceived. In the virginal conception of Jesus, there is no human father. The absence of the human father leaves space for God to intervene directly. Jesus takes his full human nature from his real human mother, Mary. But Mary’s fertility is not determined by a human father. Important to note here that we are not saying as they do in Greek mythology, for example, that the god Zeus seduced such and such a maiden and through an act of intercourse a half-divine, half-human child was conceived. Rather, Mary’s fertility is determined by the creative will of God. That is the meaning of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary at the Annunciation, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters in the creation account in the book of Genesis. From this creative will comes a human nature taken from Jesus’ human mother that is personified by, exists in, is “enhypostatised” by the divine person of the Logos.

It is very interesting that when St. Thomas Aquinas asks if God could have united the nature of an angel to himself, although in the end and on – I think – pretty weak grounds he rejects this argument, he speculates: “There are some who say an angelic nature could not have been assumed because angels not being generated or corrupted are from the moment of their creation perfect in their personality,” (ST III, q.4, a.2). Angels are not conceived sexually and are persons from the moment of their creation. Hence God cannot unite an angelic nature to Himself. This certainly was the opinion of St. Albert the Great and many of the great scholastic theologians. Only with the division of the sexes, and only in the case of the Virgin Birth, when there is not a human father, is there space for God to directly determine Mary’s fertility and unite this un-personified human nature immediately to the second person of the Trinity, the Logos.

The division of the sexes and the process of human sexual reproduction, therefore, find their deepest explanation in the event of the Incarnation. It is the condition of possibility that enables God to unite human nature to himself in a personal way without first obliterating a human person, and in a way that is coherent with his original creative design.

Returning to John’s Gospel, it wonderful to see how in his prologue the account of creation found in Genesis is appropriated. Genesis opens with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” and John, whose Gospel recounts the history of the Logos that “became flesh”, echoes this at the start of his prologue “In the beginning was the Word…” With that phrase “In the beginning” John ties together the two events the Creation and the Incarnation. The evangelist thus underlines the unity of God’s plan. As we have seen, the division of the sexes that is part of the created order finds its deepest fulfillment in the Incarnation.

The Division of the Sexes Serves Christ

Moving on, the division of the sexes not only allows God to unite humanity to Himself in the Incarnation, it also serves the final purpose of the Incarnation. Jesus himself states the purpose of the Incarnation. He says “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn10:10). If that is the purpose of the Incarnation, it follows there must be a “they” who receive life abundantly from Christ. So who is this “they” to whom Christ wishes to give His life? Where does this “they” come from? Obviously, Christ means we human beings, and the increase in the human race requires sexual reproduction.

Sex is, therefore, not simply something enjoyable that two consenting adults agree to do to one another after a few drinks in a nightclub on a Saturday night, nor is it just one among many expressions of love, nor is sex in itself necessarily even the highest expression of love. We know what that is as Jesus told us “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn15:13) Sex is part of God’s plan to share His life and love with us in Jesus Christ. Sex is a vocation, a call to share in a ministry that centres on serving the plan of God by cooperating in the creation of new life. This ministry is given a stable form and supported by the institution of marriage. Marriage is not just a private agreement into which two parties enter and which they can redefine as they wish; rather the shape and structure of marriage flow from its purpose. Father Holloway would say “the office of marriage is a co-sharing with God and with Christ in the work of creation.”

Reflecting on the “office” of marriage and its purpose of cooperate in God’s life-giving designs, the Church’s tradition has specified three essential characteristics of marriage. St. Augustine calls these the goods of marriage (de Bono Coniugali, 401AD against the Manichees proles, fides sacramentum). They are, first children: marriage tends towards family life. The raising of children is neither an easy nor a quick process. From a purely biological perspective, babies are absolutely helpless for a long time, and children are vulnerable, depending on what criteria of judgement you want to use, until at least their teenage years. This is not even considering the psychological, emotional, cultural and spiritual dimensions of raising a child. Thus, the importance of a good mother and a good father in protecting and forming the character of their children is paramount. In short, to raise children requires stability and trust, generosity and a unity of purpose. From these requirements flow the other two goods of marriage. Marriage is exclusively faithful, and marriage is a lifelong commitment.

These essential properties of marriage, therefore, flow from the meaning and purpose of marriage. Marriage is a God-given vocation by which a man and a woman unite their lives in order to cooperate in God’s design to share his life with us in the Incarnation. In this way marriage serves Christ.

Marriage reflects Christ

Marriage is a sacrament. The Church has always understood that Christ takes this natural bond between a man and a woman that exists in the created order and is ordered towards family life, and He raises it to a new dignity. Christ is present at the wedding feast of Cana where, at his mother’s request, he performs his first miracle. The Church has always understood Christ’s presence there as a sign of his approval of the goodness of marriage. In addition, marriage in the context in which he performs his first miracle is a sign that Christ blesses the reality of marriage. More than this, however, Christ talks of himself as the bridegroom. When asked by the Pharisees why his disciples do not fast he replies: “Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast” (Mk 2:18-20). Christ identifies himself as the bridegroom, the husband. He associates himself with marriage imagery. Then in his letter to the Ephesians when St. Paul is talking about marriage he writes “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Church” (Ep 5:32). This means that there is something similar between the love a husband has for his wife and the love Jesus has for his Church. So the reality of marriage is blessed by Christ and reflects Christ. Based on these premises, the Church has always taught that marriage is a sacrament. St. Thomas Aquinas defines a sacrament as: “The sign of a sacred thing in so far as it sanctifies people” – “Signum rei sacrae in quantum est sanctificans homines” (ST.III, q.60, a.2). It means that Jesus elevates the relationship between a man and a woman in the order of creation, making it into a flesh and blood living symbol of His love for His Church, “a sign of a sacred thing.” Because marriage is such an important symbol, Jesus gives special help to people who get married. He makes marriage a special reality through which He pours his love, that is, his grace, into the world, and so marriage “sanctifies people.”

“Christ is present at the wedding feast of Cana where, at his mother’s request, he performs his first miracle.”

We’ll first touch upon the graces that God communicates through marriage but only very briefly because this will be developed in a more personal way in some of the other talks. Essentially the graces boil down to the bond of marriage. One of the bishops who collaborated a great deal with Pope St. John Paul II helping him to develop his theology of marriage, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, put it this way. Marriage is “a gift from God who never reneges on his gifts. It is not by accident that Jesus founds his revolutionary response to the Pharisees on a divine act: ‘That which God has united,’ he says. It is God who unites, otherwise the definitively binding nature of the act would rest upon a desire that is yes, natural, but also impossible to achieve. God himself gives the completion of the act. […]Marriage, the sacramental sign of marriage, brings about immediately between the spouses a bond that no longer depends upon their wills because now it is a gift God has given to them.”

And the Catechism adds the “grace proper to […] Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they ‘help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children’” (CCC 1639).

If that is the grace of marriage, what about the symbolism of marriage? Before we start this point there are three things to bear in mind talking about the symbolism of marriage and specifically human sexuality. First, throughout Her history, the Church has always been a little diffident about this analogy, because it can be pressed too far and abused. Second, like any analogy, there are differences in the similarities. If you push it too far, it breaks down. Third, it is an analogy: So while it works in one direction – human sexuality is patterned upon and reflects God its creator – you have to be very cautious about using it in the opposite direction because, while there is a certain similarity, nonetheless God is who He is in a divine, and not human, way: God is not patterned on human sexuality, and neither does God copulate with anyone. Bearing that in mind, there remains, nevertheless, a certain analogical similarity between marriage and Christ. Let’s look at this analogy through the lens of the three goods of marriage.

First, children. There is an analogy between the physical relationship between a man and a woman and the relationship between Christ and the Church. At a biological level the male, the father, introduces something new into the context of female fertility. This new element from outside the mother prompts in her new life and, with her cooperation, this new element then brings her fertility to fruitful completion. In an analogous way, Christ as true God is a new reality introduced into creation, introduced into our lives even. He is something neither the world nor we ourselves by our own effort could make. God the Father has to take the initiative of sending his only Son into the world. This new reality brings new life to us. It means that holy mother Church is fruitful and bears new life in her children.

The second good of marriage it that of a life-long, permanent commitment. This is an image of God’s love. God doesn’t take back his love. That is one of the levels of meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. If you make a promise in life, you might later break that promise. If you give a gift, it is conceivable that you might take back that gift at a later stage. Dying is different. You do it once and then it cannot be undone. Dying is definitive. Christ’s death on the cross is an act of love. He himself describes it “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn 12: 32-33). It is a definitive act of love that can never, and will never, be taken back. The permanence of the sacrament of marriage is a sign of the permanence of Christ’s love for his Church.

The third good of marriage is exclusive fidelity. Sometimes we can misunderstand that as a purely negative prohibition: “No, you can’t look at other men or women!” In truth the exclusivity of marriage is about the quality of self-giving. Any vocation is a vocation to love, and real love involves total self-gift. In marriage, however, that self-gift takes on a particular hue. One must give one’s self so totally in a married way that there is nothing else left to give in that married way to another. Therefore, exclusive sexual fidelity is, it seems to me anyway, simply the outward expression of that total self-gift spouses make to each other. This again is modeled on and reflective of Christ’s love. On the Cross when our Lord’s heart is pierced by the soldier’s spear the Gospel tells us “there flowed forth blood and water” (Jn 19:34). These traditionally have been interpreted as symbols of the Eucharist and Baptism. But in terms of the historical, if you like forensic, reality of the Crucifixion blood and water have a further significance. There is a medical condition called hypovolemic shock. When somebody loses a great deal of blood, as our Lord would have done in his scourging, one of the symptoms of this traumatic blood loss is a build-up of watery fluid around the heart. So when our Lord’s heart is pierced and blood and water flow from his side, from a medical point of view, this occurs because our Lord has been bleeding out for hours. This diagnosis of chronic blood loss is also consistent with our Jesus’ falls as he is led to Calvary. Water flows from our Lord’s pierced side because the Good Lord simply has no more blood left to shed for us. Our Lord’s love for us on the Cross is a total self-gift, and married love is patterned upon that total self-giving. When spouses give themselves totally in marriage to each other it follows there is nothing left to give in a married way to another. The exclusive fidelity of marriage, at its deepest, is an image of Christ’s total self-gift in love.

This, therefore, is the sacrament of marriage a flesh and blood image of Christ’s love, enabled and supported by the grace of Christ because it is for Christ and it serves Christ.


That’s me covered everything that I am supposed to cover in this talk, but if you will indulge me I’d like to finish by talking about marriage at a less theoretical and a more practical level. So this is my rousing conclusion. Whenever you give a talk at one of these conferences you want to give a rousing conclusion and this, I think, is one of the best and most beautiful rousing conclusions ever. I’ve edited it slightly but I didn’t write a word of it. It is pure Father Holloway:

“When a young couple come to the foot of the altar, often there comes to the mind of this priest the words spoken long ago by the bishop, in the former service for the ordination of Sub-deacons: ‘dearly beloved son, again and yet again I do adjure you, consider how great a burden of responsibility you take upon yourself this day’. Because, before him he sees fifty years of life ahead, and all the drama and achievement, and all the sorrow and pain of human life, from springtime to the grave. He sees the hot and bothered years of young married life, and the forming of the mind and heart of children in the love of God, through the atmosphere of their parents’ personality. In the next age of marriage, he sees the young teenager, brimful of life, jealous of independence, responsive alike to high ideals and fierce squalls of temptation.[…] He reminds the couple in his sermon that their greatest achievement will be the nurturing of children like themselves; their greatest reward will be that which their own parents have here and now, when they stand in the benches behind their own children at their weddings; children who will thank God above all other things for the gift of a good and truly Christian mother and father. He will tell them too, that the love that knows not divorce, knows no end to its vocation down the years of life. Faithful to each other, forgiving in love, reverential of each other in body and in soul, they will know how to teach their children as young wives or husbands, the laws of Christian goodness, prudence, tolerance, and chastity in holy wedlock. They will not be rich when they die, for their hands, even in middle-age, will be going again and again deep in their pockets for money, mortgages, and many a help. As their summer lengthens into autumn, they will still be teaching both children and grandchildren the ways of God, for those ways shine in their faces and their works. Even in old age the priest will tell them that their work continues, their vocation undimmed. They will still be wanted by children’s children as babyminders and sitters. And so, when frail and more than a little tired, and wracked with rheumatic pain, they will be forming the minds of their children’s children in their first prayers, and in the simple love of God. They will rejoice with Jesus that, when others are out in the company of the wise, brilliant, socially delightful, to them is given the better part: to stay in the company of the Master, and to reveal Him to these little ones. And in that sunset of life they will know that all achievement is in persons only, not in houses, lawns, and investments; only in the love that is undying: the gift of the mind and heart of those who love. The only reward of life is that men and women think they have reason to love you, that through all your faults, the seed of God’s image yet lives in you, and you are, God help you, lovable, worthy to be loved. Life has no other reward, you take nothing else beyond the grave. For this is the reward of faithful love, a love which shares with Christ all the burden of creation, from conception to salvation, from the cradle to the grave. This then is Christian married love, and so we should teach it.”

Father Kevin Douglas is a priest of the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh.

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