The Sacrament of Matrimony, as described by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 1962

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'Love exists on three different levels: the sex level, the friendship-love, and the sacramental.

Sex love alone is directed toward another for the sake of pleasure which the other person gives the ego. The partner is regarded as one of the opposite sex, instead of as a person. The infatuation associated with it is nothing but the boundless desire of self-centeredness to express itself at all costs. Because it cares only for its own rapture and its own fulfillment, such love quickly turns to hate when no longer satisfied.

Over and above sex love, there is personal love. Personal love includes sex in marriage, but in its essence, it is based on the objective value of another person. The other person may be loved for artistic or moral excellence, or because of a common, sympathetic interest. Personal love exists wherever there is reciprocity, duality, and understanding. This kind of love can exist with carnal love in marriage, or quite apart from carnal love, for there is no direct connection between the flesh and love. It is possible to be in love without there being physical attraction, as it is possible to have physical attraction without being in love. Personal love is in the will, not in the body.

In personal love, there is no substitution of persons possible; this person is loved, and not another. But in carnal or erotic love, since there is not of necessity a love for another person, but only a love of self, it is possible to find a substitute for the one who gives pleasure. Sex love substitutes one occasion of pleasure for the other, but real love knows no substitution. No one can take the place of a mother.

Beyond each of these two is Christian love, which loves everyone either as a potential or actual child of God, redeemed by Christ; it is a love which loves without even a hope of return. It loves the other, not because of attractiveness, or talents, or sympathy, but because of God. To the Christian, a person is one for whom I must sacrifice myself, not one who must exist for my sake. Sex love demands carnal reciprocity; personal love finds it difficult to survive without it; but Christian love requires no reciprocity. Its inspiration is Christ, Who loved us while we were sinners and, therefore, unlovable.

The sanctity of married life is not something which takes place along-side marriage, but by and through marriage. The vocation to marriage is a vocation to happiness which comes through holiness and sanctity. Unity of two in one flesh is not something that God tolerates, but something that He wills. Because He wills it, He sanctifies the couple through its use. Instead of diminishing in any way the union of their spirits with one another, it contributes to their ascension in love. The sacrament which sanctifies this kind of love is Matrimony.

Marriage: A Symbol of the Nuptials of Christ and the Church

Marriage as a sacrament belongs to an entirely different order than the mere union of man and woman through a civil contract. It basically regards a husband and wife as symbols of another marriage; namely, the nuptials of Christ and His Church.

The analogy of the heavenly nuptials goes back to the Old Testament, where God appears as the bridegroom, and Israel appears as the bride. When God becomes incarnate in Christ, He called Himself, and was called, the Bridegroom; it is the new Israel, or the Church, which becomes His bride or His spouse. It is often forgotten that our Blessed Lord called Himself a Bridegroom. When Our Lord was asked why the disciples of John fasted, but His own did not, He answered: “Can you expect the men of the bridegroom’s company to go fasting, while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot be expected to fast” (Mark 2:19). John the Baptist called himself “the friend of the bridegroom,” or what might be, in modern language, the “best man.” The title of Bridegroom, which belonged to Christ, was shared by no other, as John himself said: “The bride is for the bridegroom; but the bridegroom’s friend, who stands by and listens to him, rejoices too, rejoices at hearing the bridegroom’s voice” (John 3:29).

On the other hand, the wife’s relationship to the husband is the relationship of the Church to Christ. That is why when Saint Paul speaks of marriage he says, “Those words are a high mystery…applying…to Christ and His Church” (Eph. 5:32). The ultimate consummation of this espousal of Christ and His Church will be after the resurrection, when the Church “without spot or wrinkle” will appear as a bride adorned for her husband or as the “spouse of the Lamb” (Apoc 21:2, 9:1, 22:17).

The Sacrament of Matrimony is not a pious extra added to the marriage contract; it is rather the elevation of a natural marriage contract to the order of grace, in which the husband loves the wife, as Christ loves the Church, and the wife loves the husband as the Church loves Christ. The husband and wife are not just a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church; they enjoy a real participation in that union. As Christ lives in the Church and the Church in Christ, so the husband lives in the wife and the wife in the husband, and the two are in one flesh.

The role of the priest in the sacrament is to ratify, to witness, and to bestow the Church’s official blessing on those whom she now empowers to furnish new members to Christ’s Mystical Body. This is the one sacrament in which the contracting parties are the ministers of the sacrament to each other. In the words of one to the other and in the giving of the hand to each other, there is the mutual surrender of rights and the acceptance of duties. But to be a sacrament, a representative of the Church must be there to witness it.

Matrimony, in virtue of the mutual inherence of man and woman, is a little cameo reflecting the greater espousal of Christ and His Body, the Church. The word “body” is used throughout Scripture to signify not only the human body, but also the Eucharistic Body or the Real Presence of Christ, and also the Mystical Body which is the Church. All three are in some way united. In the marriage ceremony the bridegroom, though he does not say so expressly, is by implication saying to the bride: “This is my body; this is my blood.” The bride says the same to him. It is a kind of “consecration” on a lower level. When during the Mass they hear the words of Consecration, “This is My Body; This is My Blood,” they give themselves to Christ in the same action, they give themselves to one another. The epistle of their marriage Mass reminds them of this bond to the Church:

“Wives must obey their husbands as they would obey the Lord. The man is the head to which the woman’s body is united, just as Christ is the head of the Church, He, the Savior, on whom the safety of His body depends; and women must owe obedience at all points to their husbands, as the Church does to Christ.” (Eph. 5:22-24)

The man is the “head” of the wife, as Christ is the Head of the Church. What did Christ do for the Church as her Head? He died for it. Hence, husbands must show love to their wives. The “headship” is not overlordship, but love unto sacrifice. The wife, in her turn, will show to the husband the devotion and love the Church does to Christ.

As further evidence of how seriously the Church takes marriage as the symbol of Christ and the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas makes a distinction between a marriage that is merely ratified at the altar, and a marriage that is ratified and consummated, when husband and wife become two in one flesh. The Church has always made this distinction in her Canon Law concerning marriage. A marriage that is merely ratified at the altar, but not consummated, represents the union of Christ with the soul through grace. A marriage ratified at the altar and consummated in the marriage act symbolizes the union of Christ and the Church.

The marriage that is ratified only, is a symbol of a personal union of the soul with Christ through grace. This union can be broken by sin. If, therefore, a husband and wife separated immediately after the marriage at the church door, and never consummated their marriage, that marriage would be breakable under certain conditions, because it is only the symbol of the union of the soul and grace. But the marriage bond of a baptized husband and wife which has been consummated is absolutely unbreakable, as the union of Christ and the Church is unbreakable.

The Administration of the Sacrament

The sacrament when administered at a nuptial Mass takes place before the Mass commences, and begins with an exhortation to the couple. A sample exhortation often appears in liturgical books, though it is not part of the sacrament; a priest may and should prepare his own sermonette to the lovers.

After the young couple have been reminded of the nature of the sacrament and its obligations, the priest asks the groom: “[Name] will you take [Name] here present for your lawful wife, according to the rite of our Holy Mother Church?” The bridegroom answers: “I will.” Then the bride is asked: “[Name] will you take [Name] here present for your lawful husband, according to the rite of our Holy Mother the Church?” The bride answers: “I will.” The priest bids them join their right hands; then first the groom and then the bride says: “I take you [name] for my lawful wife [husband] to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Then follows the confirmation of the marriage bond in which the priest says: “Your marriage contract, I, by the authority of the Church, now seal and bless in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” When the ring is blessed the priest says: “Bless, O Lord, this ring, which we are blessing in Thy Name so that she who wears it keeping faith with her husband in unbroken loyalty may ever remain at peace with Thee, obedient to Thy Will, and may live with him always in mutual love through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

Because the sacrament represents the heavenly espousals, the Church practically asks the bride and groom what guarantee they will give that they love one another until death. If they say, “We pledge our word,” the Church will answer: “Words and pacts can be broken, as the history of the world too well proves.” If they say, “We give the pledge of a ring,” the Church will answer: “Rings can be broken and lost, and with them the memory of the promise.” It is only when the ring which is given becomes a symbol of the love of Christ and His Church, does the Church unite in marriage. Eternal salvation is involved in their reception of the Sacrament. Their lives become bonded at the altar, sealed with the seal of the cross, signed with the sign of the Eucharist which they both receive into their souls, as a pledge of their unity in the spirit, which is the foundation of their unity in the flesh.

The Bride in the Marriage Ceremony

In a nuptial Mass, the bride and bridegroom come to the altar immediately after the Pater Noster. The prayer that is said here is for the bride. There is no special prayer said for the bridegroom. Part of the prayer is as follows:

“Look in Thy mercy upon this Thy handmaid, who is to be joined in wedlock and entreats protection and strength from Thee. May the yoke of love and of peace be upon her. True and chaste may she wed in Christ; and may she ever follow the pattern of holy women; and may she be dear to her husband like Rachel; wise like Rebecca; long-lived and faithful like Sara. May the author of deceit work none of his evil deeds within her. May she ever be knit to the Faith and to the commandments. May she be true to one husband, and fly from forbidden approaches. May she fortify her weakness by strong discipline. May she be grave in demeanor and honored for her modesty. May she be well taught in heavenly lore. May she be fruitful in offspring. May her life be good and sinless. May she win the rest of the blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The bridegroom is now included in the prayer for the bride: “May they both see their children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, and may they reach the old age which they desire. Through the same Christ, Our Lord.”

The liturgy is very interesting in that it gives the emphasis to the bride. Even from a worldly point of view, the bride is the one who receives the attention in marriage. There are showers of gifts for the bride, but not always for the bridegroom. The marriage song is “Here Comes the Bride,” but there is no song: “Here Comes the Bridegroom.” Everyone, too, is interested in what the bride wears, not in what the bridegroom wears.

In Scripture, where there is the final marriage of the Church and Christ in heavenly glory after the end of the world, all the emphasis is upon the Bridegroom, Christ, and little upon the bride. It would seem as if time, human history, or the waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is the season of the bride; but eternal glory is for the Bridegroom. In the “Book of Ruth,” where the final glory is typified and symbolized, there is emphasis only upon Boaz. The bride is quietly at home awaiting the coming of the groom. She does not appear in the ceremony at the gate. Though in worldly weddings and even in the liturgy of the Church, the bride steals the show, it is not so at the wedding of the Lamb in Heaven. There He becomes the center of attention. All the bride possesses is in Him, and through Him and with Him. In the “Book of the Apocalypse,” a long description of how the Bridegroom would be dressed is given, but there is only a very simple description of the bride: “Hers it is to wear linen of shining white; the merits of the saints are her linen” (Apoc. 19:8). The “Apocalypse” calls the final union of Christ and the Church the wedding of the Lamb, not the wedding of the bride.

An Unbreakable Bond

Because Matrimony images forth in the order of flesh the union of Christ and the Church, it follows that it is unbreakable. In the Incarnation, Our Blessed Lord took human nature which was the beginning of His Mystical Body, not for three years, nor for thirty-three, but for all eternity. So man and woman, reflecting the eternal union of Christ and the Church, take one another until death do they part. The enduring character of marriage, “until death do us part,” is evident even in the natural order, where there are but two words in the vocabulary of love, “you” and “always.” “You” because love is unique; “always” because love is enduring. No one ever said: “I will love you for two years and six months.” That is why all love songs have the ring of eternity about them. No power on earth can fragment that which is one, and husband and wife are made one in marriage. To try and make of them two single and separate individuals, as they were before marriage, is actually to make them fragments of a joint personality, like unto Solomon taking his sword and threatening to divide the babe.

Other evidence of the unbreakable character of marriage is to be found in the way Scripture speaks of marriage – never interpreting it in terms of sex, but always in terms of “knowledge”: “And now Adam had knowledge of his wife, Eve, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). When the angel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Mother that she was to be the Mother of God, she asked: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?” (Luke 1:35). Saint Paul later on enjoins husbands to “possess your wives in knowledge.”

Why is marriage in the Bible related to knowledge? It is in order to reveal the close union of man and wife. There is nothing in the universe that reveals a deeper union than that of the mind and that which it knows. When the mind knows a flower or a tree, it possesses these objects within itself. They are not identified with intellect: they are distinct from it, and nothing can separate them.

Because marriage is knowledge, it follows that it demands fidelity. Suppose a student, until he entered college, never knew the soliloquy of Hamlet. Once he came to know it, he would always be dependent on the college which had given him that knowledge. That is why he calls his college his “beloved mother” or his alma mater; she caused something to happen in him which was unique. He could go on enjoying the soliloquy all the days of his life, but he could never reacquire it.

So too, when a husband and wife come to know one another in marriage they may enjoy the union many times, but they can never again reacquire that knowledge. As long as time endures, it is this man who has made her a woman; it is this woman who has made him a man. A deep bond of relationship is established between the two, though not in the same order as the bond between the mother and the child.

This suggests a union between man and woman that is much more personal than carnal. Both man and woman, in the moment of knowing, receive a gift which neither ever knew before, and which can never be known again, except by repetition. The resulting psychic changes are as great as the somatic. A woman can never again return to virginity; the man can never again return to ignorance. Something has happened to make them one, and from that oneness comes fidelity so long as either has a body. Sex is never just an “experience”; it is a bond registered through eternity.

The great advantage of the marriage vow which relates husband and wife to the union of Christ and the Church, is that it guards the couple against allowing the moods of a moment to override reason. There is no other way to control capricious solicitation except by a vow. Once its inviolable character is recognized, an impulse is subject to probing one’s own faults and the making of new efforts to deepen love and understanding.

The Begetting of Children

The union of husband and wife also imitates the Church in its fecundity. In the union of Christ and the Church, there is spiritual fecundity (increase in conversions); in the human marriage, there is corporal fecundity. As the Church begets children out of the womb of the baptismal font, fecundated by the Holy Spirit, so husband and wife beget children. Hence, in the prayer of the Church during the sacrament, God is asked: “May they both see their children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, and may they reach the old age which they desire. Through the same Christ, Our Lord.”

If the ultimate aim of the union of man and woman is not life, then there can be only one alternative, namely, death. The child is the physical expression of the fecundity of the Godhead, in which the Father is the source of the eternal generation of the Son. The gift of generation is not a push from below; it is a gift from above. It comes not from the animals of the field, but rather it descends from heaven as a reflection of the Father saying to His Son: “This day have I begotten Thee.”

This primary end of Matrimony brings the couple in relationship to the Divine Trinity, as the duality of husband and wife ends in the begetting of children, the third term in their love. This is in keeping with the very nature of love, which may be defined as a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. All love must be a giving, for without a giving there is not goodness; without self-outpouring there is no love. In marriage, love is first a mutual self-giving for love’s greatest joy is to gird its loins and serve.

But if love were only mutual self-giving, it would end in self-exhaustion, or else become a flame in which both would be consumed. Mutual self-giving also implies self-recovery. The mutual self-giving of husband and wife, like the love of earth and tree, becomes fruitful in new love. There is a mutual self-surrender as they overcome their individual impotence by filling up, at the store of the other, the lacking measure. There is self-recovery as they beget not the mere sum of themselves, but a new life which makes them an earthly trinity. Love that is ever seeking to give, and is ever defeated by receiving, is the shadow of the Trinity on earth; therefore, a foretaste of heaven.

Behind the urge to procreate is the hidden desire of every human to participate in the eternal. Since man cannot do this in himself, he compensates for it by continuing life in another. Our inability to externalize ourselves is overcome by giving, with God’s help, something immortal to the human race. Thus, the parents become co-creators with God, as the angel told Tobias:

“Then, when the third night is past, take the maid to thyself with the fear of the Lord upon thee, moved rather by the hope of begetting children than by any lust of thine. So, in the true line of Abraham, thus shalt have joy of thy fatherhood.” (Tob. 6:22)

Instead then of reflecting in any way upon sex, the sacrament sees generation as a reflection of the eternal generation of the Son in the bosom of the Father. As Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it: “If one is led to perform the marriage act either by virtue of justice, in order to render the debt to the partner, or by virtue of religion, that children may be procreated for the worship of God, the act is meritorious.”

As the sacrament sees in the father of the family the reflection of Divine paternity, so there is in motherhood a relation to the Eucharist. The mother says to her child, “As I live because of Christ, so you will live because of me.” As, under the species of bread, day by day Christ nourishes the Christian soul, so drop by drop the mother nourishes the child. As the Divine Eucharist gives immortality, so this human eucharist of motherhood is the guarantee of temporal life. The angel that once stood at the gate of paradise to prevent man from eating the tree of life now sheathes the sword. Life comes into its own. There is communion with human life at the breast and Communion with divine life at the altar.

When the Son of God espoused humanity and became a Child, there was a new emphasis on fecundity. It placed primacy at a point never before seen in history. Up until the Incarnation, the order had been father, mother, and child. Now it was turned backwards, and became child, mother, and father. For centuries humans looked up to the heavens and said: “God is away up there.” But when a Mother held a Child in her arms, it could truly be said that she looked down to Heaven. God was way down there in the dust of human lives. If it be objected that Mary had only one Child, it must be repeated that she had only one Child according to the flesh, but she had other children according to the spirit, for Our Blessed Lord said to her at the foot of the Cross: “Behold, thy son,” referring to John. And John, being unnamed, stood for all humanity. At that moment she became by divine decree the Mother of all whom Christ redeemed and the Patroness of all mothers.

For Better or for Worse

Because of human frailty there may be, despite love’s effort, a failure to achieve common union in mind and body; but this does not give the offended party the right to contract a new marriage. “What God, then, has joined, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).

When human love and sex love break down, there is always Christian love, which steps in to suggest that the other person is to be regarded as a gift of God. Most of God’s gifts are sweet; a few of them, however, are bitter. But whether bitter or sweet, the partner is still a gift of God, for whom the other must sacrifice himself or herself. Selfish love would seek to get rid of the burden of the other person simply because he is a burden. Christian love takes on the burden in obedience to the command: “Bear the burden of one another’s failings; then you will be fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

What sickness is to an individual, an unhappy marriage may be to a couple; namely, a trial sent by God in order to perfect them spiritually. If a husband were suffering from pneumonia, the wife would not leave him. In like manner, if the husband is unfaithful or unkind, the wife will not leave him for another marriage. The acceptance of the trial of marriage is not a sentence to death. As a soldier is not sentenced to death because he takes an oath to his country, but admits that he is ready to face death rather than lose honor. Being wounded for the country we love is noble; being wounded for the God we love is nobler still.

Just as there is a communication of vital forces between husband and wife, so too, there can be a communication of spiritual forces: “The unbelieving husband has shared in his wife’s consecration, and the unbelieving wife has shared in the consecration of one who is a brother” (I Corinth. 7:14). What a blood transfusion is to the body, reparation for the sins of another is to the spirit. Instead of separating when there are trials, the Christian solution is to bear the cross for the sake of the sanctification of the other. A wife can redeem a husband, and a husband can redeem a wife, as Christ offered Himself for His spouse, the Church. As skin can be grafted from the back to the face, so merit can be applied from spouse to spouse. This spiritual communication may not have the romantic satisfaction in it of carnal communication, but its returns are eternal.

The great difference between a Christian and a pagan in such a trial is that the Christian receives suffering; he even speaks of it as coming from the hands of the Crucified; the unbeliever, however, finds no place for it in the universe because it negates his egotism; it cancels out his love of pleasure, and it begets an inferno within him. A cross to the Christian is outside him and therefore bearable; the double cross on the inside of the unbeliever is insoluble, unbearable.

Christian love not only can make such suffering bearable; it can even make it sweet. The Son of God voluntarily ended on a cross; but it did not conquer Him because it came from without: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The Christian, in like manner, sees that if Innocence did not spurn the cross, then somehow or other, it must fit into his life, which is far from innocent. Since marital love is the shadow cast on earth by the Love of Christ for His Church, then it must reflect Christ’s redemptive quality. As Christ delivered Himself up for His spouse, so there will be some wives and some husbands who will deliver themselves up to Golgotha for the sake of their spouse.

Just as in the spiritual life there is the “dark night of the soul,” so in marriage there is the dark night of the body. The ecstasy does not always endure. In the days of romance, the emphasis is on the ego’s durability in love. Later on, the Christian sees that marriage is not two persons directed toward one another, but rather two going out to a common purpose beyond themselves.

When the Incarnate Son of God burst the bonds of death and rose to glory, Scripture revealed that the physical universe is groaning in pain until it is destined to be transformed as a perfect instrument of the spirit; that is, until there is a new heaven and a new earth. In the meantime, the Church makes use of the material things of this creation and associates action and prayer with it. Water, bread, wine, oil and other things are made the effectual signs of the spiritual gifts which God bestows upon His people through the Church as His agency. As Cardinal Newman put it:

“We approach and in spite of the darkness our hands, our head, our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our forehead and it speaks of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads and surely it had the print of the nails upon it and resembled Him Who gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating or drinking, and it was not a dream surely that One fed us from His Wounded Side and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave us.”

It would be a false view to look on water, oil, bread, and the matter of sacraments as having any power of and by themselves. This was the mistake made by Naaman, the Syrian general, when Eliseus told him that he could be cured of his leprosy if he would bathe in the Jordan seven times. Naaman answered: “Has not Damascus its rivers, Abana and Pharphar, such water as is not to be found in Israel?” (IV Kings 5:12). Thinking that the cure would be wrought through water alone, Naaman argued that the dirty water of the Jordan could not compare with the purer waters of his own land. Finally, at the urging of a servant, Naaman was healed and immediately saw that it was due to the power of God, not to the power of the waters. So it is in the sacraments. God uses men and matter; the power is not in them, but in God.

– from These Are The Sacraments, by described by Venerable Fulton John Sheen, 1962; published by Hawthorn Books of New York; Nihil Obstat: William F. Hogan, S.T.D., Censor Librorum; Imprimatur: James A. Hughes, J.C.D., LL.D., P.A., Vicar General, Archdiocese of Newark, 22 October 1962; Scripture quotes are from the Knox translation of The Holy Bible