Understanding the sacraments: ‘A great mystery’

A mystagogical catechesis of the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament’s effect on our lives

Marriage is intimately woven into the plan of salvation as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

“Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of ‘the wedding-feast of the Lamb’” (Catechism, 1602). “God who created man out of love also calls him to love, the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man” (Catechism, 1604). This is the “mystery” of marriage to which the Scriptures testify (cf., Ephesians 5:32).

As the Church deepened its theology of marriage, the early Church fathers explored three concepts. First, marriage is a symbol of Christ and his Church (St. John Chrysostom and St. Ambrose). Second, it confers grace (Tertullian and Origen). And third, marriage was elevated from the order of nature to the order of grace at the Marriage Feast of Cana in John 2 (St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Maximus of Turin).

This month I want to offer a mystagogical catechesis of the sacrament of marriage. As I have noted in previous columns, Pope Benedict XVI proposes a mystagogical catechesis that considers three aspects: it places the sacrament in the context of salvation history; it interprets the signs that make up the rite; and it explains how the sacrament impacts the whole of one’s life.

The first aspect of a mystagogical catechesis places the sacrament in the context of salvation history. Marriage has its origin in creation and in God’s covenant relationship with his people. The nuptial blessing, which is conferred on the bride and groom, has been part of the celebration of marriage since at least the fourth century and alludes to different Old Testament images. It recalls the creation of man and woman: “Holy Father, maker of the whole world, [you] created man and woman in your own image and willed that their union be crowned with your blessing” (Roman Missal, p. 1040). It also recalls God’s covenant with his people: “O God, who, to reveal the great design you formed in your love, willed that the love of spouses for each other should foreshadow the covenant you graciously made with your people” (Roman Missal, p. 1034). Creation and covenant are intrinsic aspects of the sacrament of marriage.

The second aspect of mystagogical catechesis looks at the meaning of the signs contained in the rite. When speaking of signs, it is good to remember the Church’s broad understanding of liturgical signs and symbols, which includes not only material objects such as oil and candles, but also actions, gestures words, music and song. The essential sign of the sacrament of marriage is the mutual exchange of consent: I, N., take you, N., to be my wife/husband. “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage’” (Catechism, 1626).

This sign is accompanied by two additional signs. The first is the presence of the Church’s minister and witnesses, which “visibly expresses the fact that marriage is an ecclesial reality” (Catechism, 1630). The second accompanying sign is the gesture of joining hands, which was employed from the earliest times.

The third aspect of mystagogical catechesis is the sacrament’s effect on the whole of one’s life. The prayers from the Ritual Mass for the Celebration of Marriage in the Roman Missal convey the meaning of the sacrament for the whole of the marriage. The sacrament of marriage, for example, binds the spouses together “in mutual affection, in likeness of mind, and in shared holiness.” It informs and transfigures every aspect of their common life: “In happiness may they praise you, O Lord, in sorrow may they seek you out; may they have the joy of your presence to assist them in their toil, and know that you are near to comfort them in their need” (Roman Missal, p. 1041). God, in his goodness, enables the spouses to “live out in deeds” “what they receive in faith” (Roman Missal, p. 1031).

As noted at the beginning of this article, “‘God himself is the author of marriage.’ The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism, 1603). It reveals the great design God formed in his love. A mystagogical catechesis enables us to better appreciate that “it is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes” (Catechism, 1604).


Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.