Love & the Mystery of Sacramental Marriage

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in Christ and in the Church. — St. Paul

We have seen that the primary meaning of marriage — which enables it to serve as an image of the relationship between the soul and God — consists of that closest communion of love whereby two persons become one: one heart, one soul, and one flesh. But what relation does this communion bear toward Jesus, toward the salvation of the soul, and toward the Kingdom of God?

Let us first consider the supernatural significance of sacramental marriage: the transformation of natural marriage that takes place, as well as that which is brought into the Sacrament from natural marriage. Let us also consider the sublime value of marriage and the incomparably high rank it holds above all other earthly communities.

He who was heard by St. John to say: “Behold, I make all things new,” elevated marriage, the noblest community of mankind, to unprecedented heights and invested it with sublime dignity.

Sacramental marriage transfigures natural marriage

This article is an excerpt from Dr. von Hildebrand’s Marriage: The Mystery of faithful Love. Click image to preview/order.

Great as is this permanent community of love in itself, marriage objectively (as well as subjectively) is even more sublime in Christ and in the Holy Church. Christian marriage — solemnly engaged in for Christ and in Christ, in the light of eternity, and carrying with it a sense of the deepest responsibility — differs radi­cally from even the noblest natural marriage in which one spouse sees the other only within the limits of the natural order.

A world of difference separates the two.

Conjugal love undergoes a deep, even a qualitative change in the living members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Wedded love does not lose the characteristics discussed above: mutual self-giving, the character of an I-thou communion, the living for each other, and the formation of a complete unity as a couple closed off from the rest of earthly things.

Indeed, Christian wedded love does not cease in any way to be conjugal love in the full sense of the word. The supernatural does not dissolve this finest earthly good, but rather transfigures it. “The greater the man, the deeper his love,” Leonardo da Vinci said. And Lacor-daire said: “There are not two loves — an earthly and a divine one. It is one and the same feeling, except that one is infinite.”

Conjugal love represents something so great, so ulti­mate, so vitally enveloping of the whole person, that its depth can be taken as a measure of the depth and greatness of the whole man. It offers the highest and noblest earthly happiness, one which fills the soul more than any other value on earth. It is the noblest of natural powers, moving the world beyond anything else.

Thus the Song of Solomon says, “If a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.”

Sacramental marriage is a source of grace

But Jesus has invested marriage with a dignity which represents something quite new in reference to all that we have considered until now. He raised it to the rank of a Sacrament. He made of this sacred bond a specific source of grace. He transformed marriage — already sa­cred in itself — into something sanctifying. In this re­spect marriage even surpasses the religious state, although the latter surpasses it by far in respect to intrinsic holiness, as we have just pointed out.

Sacramental marriage is the perfection of marriage

However, the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is not merely the result of a positive law of God which is essentially unconnected with the nature of marriage. One should rather say that in sacramental marriage, marriage finds the perfection of its sublime meaning.

The element of decision which the conclusion of marriage in itself implies, and which, as we saw above, is also included in the unique character of the physical union, finds its full development and reality in the bond which is concluded in Christ, confided in Christ, and which represents His union with the Church. For the Savior reestablished this strict indissolubility when He referred to the original state in Paradise with the sublime words, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

Mutual love is the proper motive for marriage

Once we fully realize the grandeur and mysterious sublimity of Christian marriage, the question of the proper motive for entering marriage assumes great im­portance. Only one motive can be admitted as com­pletely adequate for marriage: mutual love and the conviction that this union will lead to the eternal welfare of both spouses.

Just as faith in divine truth permeated by love is the sole ultimate and true motive for conversion, so, too, the conviction that this is the person whom God has destined for me, and that I am the person destined for her, and that God has joined us both in conjugal love, is the only motive which can make this community desirable and give it meaning.

Only the existence of such a love, the authenticity of which must first be well examined and proved, should form the decisive reason for marrying.

Although, as we have seen, the married couple have a motive for love in the fact that they are conjugally united (even the bare fact of their conjugal union demands this love), still the ultimate motive for their love should be found in the qualities of the other’s personality.

Conjugal love does not exist only to serve marriage (to make marriage easier or to make it possible, so that one might be prompted to love someone because one already wishes to marry him). No: marriage is there as a fulfillment of conjugal love. We should marry someone because we love this person destined for us by God.

Marriage is the highest of human communities

We have sketched briefly the transformation and transfiguration of natural marriage by the Sacrament of Matrimony. We must still briefly examine the specific value of sacramental marriage.

Every community of love has its specific value. A value is inherent not only in the love of the lovers, but also in the union of love in which both persons are united: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” The deeper and more central this union of love, the greater is the value of this community. Now, as we have seen, the most intimate community of love among persons is marriage. Thus, even as a merely natural community, it surpasses any other (such as the family, state, or nation). It glori­fies God more than these.

In its value, marriage ranks far above all other earthly communities. The higher the good which forms its in­trinsic principle, the higher a community ranks. Further, the deeper the point in the soul to which the union appeals, the greater and more essential the role which love plays in it finally, and the more closely the unifying principle is connected to our supernatural destiny, the higher the community is. A social club, for example, ranks below the nation. For the high cultural good which is the unifying principle of the nation ranks much higher than the promotion of superficial amusements which might form the purpose of a social club. The unifying principle in a nation is obviously rooted much more deeply in the person, and mutual love assumes a more prominent role in this community.

But a community infinitely higher than the nation is the family. That which unites the members of a family appeals to a much deeper point in the person than the national element. Its unifying principle surpasses by far the realm of culture and reaches into the metaphysical order. Mutual love here plays an intrinsic role. The fulfillment of this community involves this love to a much higher degree, and that which pertains to its perfection is much more closely connected with the supernatural than in the case of a nation or a state.

But the community of marriage is even superior to the community of the family itself. The unifying princi­ple here touches the deepest roots of personal life. Here, as we saw before, love is the essence of the relationship. Its principle embraces not only the most intimate hap­piness of each but also the mutual abandon of love, an ardent interest in the spiritual and moral growth of the beloved, an affirmation of the unique idea of God which is incarnated in the other person. This community in­volves the person in his whole nature as does no other community. It extends to all spheres of life, from the most central to the peripheral. That is why its nature is so exclusive.

In marriage as a community brought to fruition in Christ and, above all, in marriage as a Sacrament, the focus of the principle becomes the attempt to imitate the love of Christ for the Church. Burning interest in the eternal welfare of the beloved is the supreme intention of our love. Marriage thus has an infinitely more direct relation to Jesus and to our eternal destiny than does any other earthly community.

Marriage is greater than the nation or the state

It is characteristic of the pagan errors of our epoch to believe that the nation and state rank higher than the family and higher even than marriage, and, above all, to consider interest in the nation or in the state as some­thing more unselfish than the surrender of self to the family or to the marriage relationship. These communi­ties are believed superior only because they are numeri­cally vaster and have a longer life than marriage.

In reality they are much inferior. The most perfect state or nation cannot glorify God as much as a perfect marriage. Let us never forget the only decisive question which is always in all things: “What is for the greater glory of God?”

Marriage is also more free of egoism because it is primarily not a we community but an I-thou community. In marriage, the authentic antithesis of egoism results not from the consciousness of a whole of which I am a part, but from the love of neighbor, whom I face as a thou.

We cannot dwell any further on this important ques­tion beyond seeing the rank that marriage holds among communities and understanding that it represents in itself something far superior to all others, and that in itself it would glorify God as an image of the relation­ship of Christ and His Church even if no other commu­nities existed.

Sacramental marriage quickens love of Jesus

Let us add that Christian marriage also represents for both consorts a way to attain an ever-increasing union with Jesus. As the bond has been concluded in Jesus and toward Jesus, the increase of conjugal love also means a growth in the love of Jesus. The unique abandonment to the beloved, the life of love which one lives and should live, opens the heart and enables it to love more and more. In a conjugal love outside of Christ, spouses run the risk of erecting a wall between themselves and God; here, however, their conjugal love itself becomes a source for their progression in the love of Christ.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. von Hildebrand’s Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Lovewhich is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

Dietrich von Hildebrand

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Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977) was born in Florence. He converted to Catholicism in 1914. He taught philosophy at the University of Munich. Soon after the end of World War I, Dietrich denounced Nazism in articles and speeches throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. He left Germany for Austria and then fled Austria, just as it fell to the Nazis, when Hitler gave orders for his assassination. During this time he wrote Transformation in Christ. At last Dietrich arrived safe but penniless in New York, where he was hired as professor of philosophy at Fordham University. He died in 1977 in New Rochelle, New York.

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  • Lee

    I am awfully sad to read all this though I agree with every word.

  • pnyikos

    I believe it is fair to say that Jesus RE-established marriage as a sacrament, because his words all point to a profound divine ideal which was there “from the beginning”, but which had been corrupted “by reason of the hardness of your hearts.”

    This is important because a renegade Catholic, Garry Wills, did an article in the New York Times which may have been pivotal in the acceptance of same-sex marriage by many influential people, including Catholics. Wills wrote:

    Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose
    gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the
    sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage
    is no sacrament.
    http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/09/marriage-myth/

    In his specious arguments, Wills relies on a definition of “sacrament” as narrowly defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This uses as one
    of the criteria “instituted by Christ”, but that depends on how broadly or narrowly one interprets “instituted.” Jesus partially modified existing Jewish sacraments in the broad sense, not only marriage but also baptism. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:

    Taking the word “sacrament” in its broadest sense, as the sign of something
    sacred and hidden (the Greek word is “mystery”), we can say that the whole
    world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the
    signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity.”
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13295a.htm

    Of course, the sacramental nature of marriage is much more profound than that of the whole world, as everything Jesus said about it makes clear. Unfortunately, the Greeks of Jesus’s day evidently had only the word for “mystery” to do duty for the concept of “sacrament”. Hence St. Paul’s use of the word in his Letter to the Ephesians to describe marriage. Dietrich von Hildebrand uses the usual translation, calling it “a great mystery.”

    What disturbs me is that Wills’s benighted article may have influenced Kennedy, another Catholic of doubtful loyalty, to side with the liberals in the recent Supreme Court decree — and that the National Council of Catholic Bishops did not take sufficiently drastic steps to counter Wills’s widely disseminated article.

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