Why is marriage a sacrament?

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That isn’t a question asked of other sacraments that clearly have a religious purpose. One might say marriage grew into sacramentality along the way of church history. Of course people married before Jesus showed up. The Bible treats the marriage arrangements of Israel’s patriarchs and kings with great interest, and the Books of Ruth, Tobit, and Song of Songs are essentially celebrations of matrimony—and progeny.

In the time of Jesus, Roman law pronounced people married by mutual consent, eventually integrating the northern European view that marriage was inaugurated by sexual intercourse. All agreed that children were the purpose and goal of the institution. The early church embraced Jewish and Roman philosophies of marriage and added its own rituals. By the 4th century marriage liturgies were celebrated; by the 5th century, these were held in the church, though marriages were still under state jurisdiction.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (4th cent.) first called marriage a sacrament with three “goods”: offspring, fidelity, and the sacrament itself. Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.) radically declared a marriage “in the Lord” as much a sacrament as Baptism and Eucharist. The church’s position was defined as it spread across cultures and local marriage practices came into conflict. By the Middle Ages marriage was considered one of seven sacraments and ecclesially defined by its purposes: a “contract” for the procreation and nurturing of children and the mutual help it provided spouses. These two ends were not equal but hierarchical in significance, in that order. A theology evolved as the church considered what makes marriage sacramental, who its rightful ministers are, and how grace might come from an institution centered on human sexuality.

The Reformation rejected this sacrament, not seeing any intent on the part of Jesus to institute marriage. The Council of Trent in the 16th century affirmed the sacramentality of marriage on the basis of God’s intent in the Garden of Eden, along with Jesus’ wholesale rejection of casual divorce. Theologians of the 20th century retreated from the juridical and moved toward an increasingly biblical understanding of marriage rooted in human sexual nature. The desire for union and the benefits of mutual self-giving took on the gravity of biblical covenant. That built on the prophet Hosea’s view of marriage as a metaphor for the divine-human relationship and the Letter to the Ephesians’ affirmation of its mystical significance. The Second Vatican Council outlined a spirituality of marriage including a community of love, a sharing of life, and a vocation. The sacramentality of marriage was no longer limited to the wedding ritual but seen as a lifelong journey into grace together.

Genesis 2:22-24Song of Songs; Hosea 2:21-22; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-11; 1 Corinthians 7:1-40; Ephesians 5:21-33

"The Vocation of Marriage," podcast by Mary Jo Pedersen of the Omaha Archdiocesan Family Life Office

Claiming Our Deepest Desires: The Power of an Intimate Marriage by M. Bridget Brennan and Jerome L. Shen (Liturgical Press, 2004)
Christian Marriage: The New Challenge
, 2nd ed., by David Thomas (Liturgical Press, 2007)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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