The Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Matrimony is one of the seven channels of divine grace, instituted by Christ, to sanctify and to support Christian family life. A Christian marriage is a vocation, that is a special invitation of God to two baptized persons to marital union, in order to devote themselves to the service of a new life in Christ.
That is why St. Paul considers Christian marriage as a “special gift of God.” (1 Cor. 7:7) The Council Fathers of Vatican II did not hesitate to underscore the great importance of married life, sanctified by a “special Sacrament.” (ct. Constitution on the Church, n. 35).
1. The very first pages of Holy Scriptures give witness to the great dignity of matrimony, indicating special reasons for its institution by Almighty God.
Created to the “image and likeness” of God (Gen. 1 :26), man was endowed by God with a spiritual soul. While the body is passed on from the parents to their children through the process of generation, the human soul, the “breath of life” (Gen. 2:7), must be instilled as if by breathing directly by God.
In other words, God must necessarily enter into marital union, so that the procreation of children and the propagation of the human race may be assured.
Having made man ” male and female,” God blessed them and said: “Be fertile and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1 :27-28), in cooperation with God’s design of procreation. Thus the spiritual nature of man and his vocation to cooperate with God in the propagation of the human race constitute the great dignity of matrimony, especially when it is sanctified by the Church, as ordered by Jesus.
While the first chapter of the Book of Genesis bears witness to the dignity of marriage, the second chapter presents matrimony as the institution of God. We are told by the sacred writer that Adam felt lonely, since there was “no suitable partner” for him. (Gen. 2:18) So, God formed a woman out of his rib in order to emphasize her equality with man as an image of God (St. Augustine). Adam, confronted with woman, exclaimed: “This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen . 2:23)
At this point of the primordial story, the sacred author adds an important reflection, which later Jesus made His own: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother, and clings to his wife; and the two of them become one body.” (Gen. 2:24 = Mt. 19 :5) By these words the sacred writer intended to point out that the marital union is honorable, since it was willed by God.
2. In the Old Testament, marriage had no specifically religious character and was considered rather as a private matter. Over the course of centuries however, under the influence of pagan customs and the tolerance of the Mosaic Law, the pristine institution of marriage became to a certain degree perverted. Hence our Lord, who came “to restore the law” (Mt. 5:17), among other things, had to restore also marriage to its pristine honor and dignity, as it was originally intended by God, proclaiming divorce unlawful.
The Pharisees, in order to discredit Jesus before the people, insisted that divorce was lawful, since it was permitted by Moses himself. (Deut. 24:1 -4) But Jesus retorted: ” Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives. But from the beginning it was not so!” (Mt. 19:8) Then, turning to the people, He explained : “From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So, they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, no human being must separate!” (Mr. 10 :5-8)
In other words, in order to restore the marriage to its pristine dignity as willed by God, the Mosaic permission of divorce had to be revoked and the indissolubility of marriage had to be renewed. Jesus, by the divine authority invested in Him, did just that by the following statements : “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Mt. 19 :9) ; and ” If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mr. 19:12).
3. The Fathers of the Church, especially St. Epiphanius ( + 403), St. Augustine ( + 430), and St. Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444), are unanimous in teaching that Jesus Christ sanctified and elevated Christian marriage to the dignity of mystery (sacrament) by His presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where He also performed His first miracle. This is the reason why the Gospel of St. John, describing the miracle at the wedding in· Cana, is read at the marriage ceremony. (In. 2:1-11)
The holiness and mystical character of Christian marriage are beautifully explained by St. Paul in his famous epistle to the Ephesians. St. Paul models conjugal love and fidelity on the mystical union of Jesus Christ with His Church, and points out that our Lord, out of love for the Church, “handed Himself over to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word (baptism), that He might present to himself the Church in splendor, … that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27)
Having proposed the mystical union of Christ with the Church to the spouses as a perfect model of their conjugal relationship, St. Paul exclaims:
” This is a great mystery!” (Eph. 5:32) In other words, the Apostle himself admits that such was a high ideal to strive for in married life, but still he expected Christian spouses to try to imitate the ideal as much as possible, of course with the help of God’s grace. Hence this passage of St. Paul’s epistle is also read at the wedding ceremony. (Eph. 5:20-33)
4. According to the teaching of Vatican II, Jesus Christ, the Divine Spouse of the Church, comes into the life of Christian spouses “through the Sacrament of Matrimony. And thereafter He abides with them so that, just as He loved the Church and handed himself over on her behalf (Eph. 5:25), so also the spouses may love each other with perpetual fidelity through mutual self-giving. Then true married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving action of the Church.”
“For this reason, Christian spouses have at their disposition a special sacrament by which they become fortified and receive a kind of consecration for the duties and dignity of their marital state. By virtue of this sacrament, as the spouses faithfully fulfill their conjugal and family obligations, they become penetrated w ith the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their entire life with faith, hope, and charity.” (ct. Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 48)
The Church Fathers, from early times, insisted that Christian marriage be celebrated in the church, being solemnized with the religious rites.
Already St. Ignatius of Antioch (+ 110) ordained: “It is proper for those who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop (presbyter), so that the marriage may be according to the Lord and not according to lust.” (cf. his Epistle to Polycarp, 5) And St. John Chrysostom: ” Do you want Christ to come and sanctify your marriage? Then invite the priest.
Through His servant Christ will come and sanctify your marriage, just as He did it at Cana.” (ct. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. XLI, col. 210) To make Jesus really and truly present at the Christian wedding, the Church Fathers ordained that the marriage be celebrated with the Holy Liturgy, in order that the spouses could receive the living Christ in Holy Communion and thus permit Him to sanctify their wedlock. (ct. Eastern Canon Law, can. 783, 2)
5. Over the centuries, the ritual of marriage was subject to various changes and additions . It received its present form only in the middle of the seventeenth century, when two originally separated rites, that of Betrothal and of Crowning, were combined into one Ritual of Marriage (ct. P. Mohyla, Trebnyk/Ritual / , Kiev 1646).
Originally, a Christian wedding was preceded by a Rite of Betrothal, which consisted of a ring ceremony and a priestly blessing. The use of rings at the betrothal is already mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (+ about 215). To avoid all canonical implications that later were imposed on church betrothal by the Council of Trullo (691), the majority of engagements were celebrated privately, without the presence of a priest. For this reason, the Rite of Betrothal, often referred to by the Fathers as the Ring Ceremony, was then celebrated immediately before the marriage, but still as a separate service.
It was Metropolitan Peter Mohyla of Kiev who finally inserted the Ring Ceremony into the Marriage Ritual in his r itual book, called Trebnyk, printed in 1646. The Byzantine Church, nevertheless, preserved also the old Rite of Betrothal as a venerable “ancient tradition,” but all its canonical implications were revoked (cf. Eastern Canon Law, can. 782). The wedding rings symbolize the pledge of fidelity between the spouses.
Since Christian marriage is indissoluable and its validity depends on the free consent of spouses, Metropolitan Mohyla also inserted an explicit and public exchange of the marital vows before the crowning ceremony. While exchanging their vows, the spouses join their right hands and place them on the Gospel Book, and the celebrating priest covers their hands with the epitracheliion. The ceremony of joining the hands is very old and is already mentioned by St. Gregory of Nazianz (+ 389). It symbolizes the presence of Christ who, through his servant-priest, confirms the marital union, saying: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mt. 19:6)
The exchange of vows is followed by a moving ceremony of crowning, mentioned already by St. John Chrysostom ( + 407), by which the marriage becomes officially recognized by the Church . The crowning of spouses was adapted from the Old Testament (Is. 61 :10). It symbolizes the “glory and honor” of Christian marriage, since it was insti tuted by God and elevated by Christ to the dignity of the holy mystery (sacrament).
The crowns should remind the spouses that in their marital union they must assist and help each other to attain ” unfading crown of glory” in heaven (1 Pet. 5:4), as suggested by the concluding prayer, recited by the celebrant : ” 0 God, our God, … accept their crowns into your kingdom, keeping them pure, blameless and above all reproach.”
Behold the beauty and deep spiritual meaning of Christian marriage, sanctified and blessed by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who through His holy mysteries (sacraments) continues to live and act in union with His mystical Spouse, the Catholic Church.