Marriage existed long before Christianity, so we might ask ourselves: Did Christianity do anything to transform marriage, to make it distinct from what had come before?
And in our cultural context today, we might ask ourselves a similar question: Is Catholic marriage in any way distinct from the other marriages we see in our world?
St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians answers these two questions with a resounding YES. Paul begins his fifth chapter by discussing how Christians are called to live in love: “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:1-2).
Christ’s life, death and resurrection transformed everything about how to live. Thus it is no surprise that marriage, despite predating Christianity, also took on a new meaning, which Paul is eager to explain.
Marriage is a distinct way of “living in love.” It is a way of “making the most of the opportunity,” as Paul says in verse 16.
This perception of marriage is a far cry from the institution of convenience, usefulness or pleasure. Rather, it is a call to service of Christ in a particular context with its own specific demands of running a Christian household and raising children to serve the Lord.
As husband and wife share the common purpose of loving and serving God, they are united in a unique way, finding in each other a call to embody Christ’s sacrificial love as they pursue holiness in their marriage and thus their lives together.
Paul speaks of the great mystery of the unity of Christ and the church. Christ loved the church to the point of death on the cross, and in his death, all his followers became part of his body, such that the church is the body of Christ.
Quoting Genesis, Paul states, “a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31). This is an important instruction about the reality of marriage, which has greater significance given the relationship of Christ and the church.
The marriage relationship can be a source of great joy and comfort, but it also entails difficulty and sacrifice, just as does Christian life more generally.
When undertaken together in the Christian spirit of living in love, even these sacrifices and sufferings can be transformed and become a source and sign of unity.
In the Catholic sacrament of marriage, we find something different than the concept of marriage that preceded it. Paul’s description indicates something new and distinct, characterized by a common goal of Christian love and service and inspired by Christ’s own love and sacrifice for the church.
There is consolation in the knowledge of shared love for Christ, as well as challenge found in the struggle to love as Christ loved; both the Eucharist and confession provide strength for this journey, making unity possible.
Morrow is the mother of six and adjunct professor of Catholic studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.