What does it mean to call marriage a sacrament?

Question: My husband and I have been married more than 40 years, and I have forgotten what calling marriage a sacrament means. And where does the notion of sacrifice fit into the picture? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: To call marriage a sacrament is not to say anything peculiar or esoteric. A sacrament means a sign, a symbol, an ordinary reality that points to — and embodies — something extraordinary. Calling marriage a sacrament is to say that the love of husband and wife points to something greater: the love of God for the world, the love of Christ for his Church. 

The notion of marriage as a sacrament, a sign of God’s love, is set forth in one of the Eucharistic prefaces taken from the rite of marriage. It reads as follows: “Father ... you created man in love to share your divine life. We see his high destiny in the love of husband and wife, which bears the imprint of your own divine love. Love is man’s origin, love is his calling, love is his fulfillment in heaven. The love of man and woman is made holy in the sacrament of marriage and becomes the mirror of your everlasting love.” 

The human love of man and woman is “imprinted” with divine love; their love is a “mirror” of God’s love. That is why the highest thing we can say about marriage is: that it is a sacrament — a sign or symbol by which it participates in the very reality of God’s love. 

Sacrament and sacrifice are closely related. To call marriage a sacrifice means that the self-giving between a couple truly involves a dedication of hearts and lives. Marriage demands a great deal of a couple. Two become one — and anyone who is married knows what a challenge that is.

Marriage involves affection, friendship and romance. These happen spontaneously and represent the attractive aspects of marriage. But marriage involves sacrifice as well. And sacrifice involves a lot of hard work, a great deal of dedication, and is costly to the hearts and souls of the couple. 

Perhaps nothing expresses the sacrificial side of marriage more than one form of the vows given for the rite of matrimony: “I, N., take you, N., for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” The words “for better,” “for richer,” “in health” pose no great problem or challenge. But the words “for worse,” “for poorer,” “in sickness” — these are the parts of marriage that make it a sacrifice. They put a strain on a couple. They bring anxiety, stress and challenge. To have two people become one in heart and mind means that they are called to patience, dedication, cooperation, a willingness to remain one no matter what happens, great tolerance, and a willingness to place the other before oneself. 

This is why ideally the marriage ceremony takes place in the context of the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Christ gave himself on the cross, so the couple who are married give themselves to each other in the model of Christ’s own sacrifice. 

While we are on the subject, it is important to speak of marriage as a vocation as well. The married couple is called to take a way of life together — and in public — that is virtuous and holy. If, as I said earlier, marriage is a sacrament, then it is a sacrament of God’s love for the world. The couple is called to be good exemplars of all those qualities to which Christ calls his disciples. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.