In the supernatural order, the Church, after the manner of our blessed Lord, takes hold of this permanent character of love in the order of nature and elevates the promise “I do” to the dignity of a sacrament.
The love that is always expressing itself in terms of the eternal, and articulating itself in such phrases as “till the sands of the desert grow cold,” the Church seizes and refines by finding a symbol of love more abiding still than even the sands of the desert. She goes to the most personal, permanent, and unbreakable union of love the world has ever known — namely, the love of Christ for human nature — and during the solemnity of the nuptial Mass reminds the young couple that they are to love one another with the same indissoluble love with which our blessed Lord loved the human nature that He took from the womb of the Blessed Mother.
That love which desires to express itself in terms of the permanent, the Church models on the great prototype of the marriage of God and man in the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When God veiled the awful terror of His glory, descended into the flesh-girt paradise of Mary, and assumed human nature, He assumed it, not for an earthly life stretching from crib to Cross, but permanently and eternally through the risen life of Easter Sunday and the glorious Ascension to the right hand of the Father.
Now, since Christian marriage of flesh and flesh is modeled upon the permanent marriage of God and man, the Church says that it, too, must take on for life the character of permanence and indissolubility. As the womb of the Blessed Mother was the anvil of flesh upon which the divine and human natures of Christ were united under the Pentecostal flame of the Holy Spirit in the unity of the Person, so, too, the nuptial altar becomes the new anvil whereon two loving hearts are fused and joined by a flame of the sacramental Spirit in the unity of the flesh.
Certainly this ideal of permanence is alone enough to transmute mere physical desire into something nobler than a Freudian urge, to elevate the permanence that natural love demands into an indissoluble bond that divine Love solicits, and to thrill young hearts to speak the words of Tobias: “For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.”
Having reminded the young couple that their unity is modeled upon the inseparable union of God and man, the Church goes on to inquire what guarantees they will give that their love will be as permanent as their model, Jesus Christ. They may answer, “We will give our word.” But the Church responds, “Nations have broken their word; human lovers have broken their vows before. Can you not give a better bond than this, that your love for one another will endure until death?”
Then there comes from them the answer that the Church demands from every loving pair at her altar: “We will give the bond of our eternal salvation. We will seal it with our belief that the promise we make to one another is a promise made to God Himself, and if we are disloyal one to another, we shall forfeit the most precious thing in all the world — namely, our immortal souls.”
When this bail of eternal salvation has been given, the Church seals it, not with a paper seal, but with the red seal of the precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior in the Communion of the Nuptial Mass. With their love thus bonded at the foot of the Cross, and the bail of their eternal salvation given in guarantee that in sickness and in health, in riches and poverty, they will love until death, the Church pronounces them man and wife.
As the priest sees them turn from the altar, united soul with soul and sealed with the blood of Christ, ere yet they are united body with body, he cannot help but think that such human love at such a peak is God on a pilgrimage to earth. They, too, realize as they go into their common life that it is not love which makes them marry, but consent. Love makes them want to marry, but it is their vow one to another, sealed with a seal of their eternal salvation, that makes them man and wife.
The Church upholds the permanence of marriage
In the eyes of the Church, therefore, marriage is a permanent union patterned upon the abiding love of Christ for His Church, and not a terminable pact of selfish passion that endures only as long as the passion endures. By upholding such an ideal, by asking such a guarantee, and by teaching the sacredness of a vow, the Church makes marriage serious. She practically tells the young couple the same thing the sign over the cashier’s desk tells the customer: “Count your change. No mistakes rectified after leaving the window.”
No one in all the world loves lovers as much as the Church does — but only the lovers who mean what they say. Hence, the Church refuses to permit anyone to loosen the bond that has kept millions happy and stable, and therefore will not allow any man or woman, who gets himself or herself into a hole, to burrow like a mole and undermine the whole mountain of society. She believes that if people cannot mind their own business, which is the business of loyalty, then she will not free them to mind someone else’s business, or someone else’s babies.
There is a word that means little to nations that repudiate their bonds; there is a word that means nothing to men and women who repudiate their vows; but that same word means everything to those who unite themselves in a bond under our blessed Lord, who came to be the truth of the world, and that is the word honor. To those who still believe in it, each day brings, not the burden of a forced union, but the accord of heart and heart, and soul and soul.
Just as two pieces of iron are fused into one by flame and fire, so, too, are the minds and hearts of husband and wife fused into one by the purging of mutual sacrifice and tribulation that brings them unto God. Succeeding years find them, not as two hearts with tangled and toneless strings, but an instrument so delicately attuned that love’s skillful fingers need but brush over them to bring out their hidden beauties. The new vision of the flame of love comes to them, because they were faithful to its spark, and they see that: Not in marriage is the fulfillment of love, though its earthly and temporal fulfillment may be therein; for how can love, which is the desire of soul for soul, attain satisfaction in the conjunction of body with body? Poor indeed, if this were all the promise which love unfolded to us — the encountering light of two flames from within their close-shut lanterns.
Therefore, sings Dante, and sing all noble poets after him, that love in this world is a pilgrim and a wanderer, journeying to the New Jerusalem; not here is the consummation of its yearnings, in that mere knocking at the gates of union which we christen marriage, but beyond the pillars of death and the corridors of the grave, in the union of spirit to spirit within the containing Spirit of God.
This article is from a chapter in Fulton Sheen’s God’s World and Our Place in It. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.
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