Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A couple of weeks ago when Pope Francis made his most recent comments about valid marriages, I was busy making preparations for my sister’s wedding. I read the commentary surrounding it, and discussed it with my husband, but mostly I thought about the upcoming wedding of my sister and her now husband.
They were married in a beautiful Catholic wedding at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, which was a long awaited event on both sides of the family as the bride and the groom had both been hoping and praying to find someone to marry for several years. And that made the event all the more joyful as they were surrounded by many nieces and nephews and family and friends who were so happy for them.
During the liturgy leading up to their vows, it struck me how Christ and the Church made the Sacrament of Marriage something that one could not enter into unknowingly if one paid attention to the words being spoken. One who has been to Catholic weddings may recall how the priest or deacon presiding over the vows asks the bride and the groom three things: (1) if they have come to be married freely and without reservation, (2) if they will love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of their lives, and (3) if they will accept children lovingly from God. Here before the vows can even be made the conditions are laid down for a valid marriage.
And then after the vows are exchanged, the rings blessed, and Mass has moved onto the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Mass of the Faithful, right after the praying of the Lord’s Prayer is the nuptial blessing for the sanctification of the married couple. Go ahead and read those blessings. It is so clear in the blessings that the marriage vows are just the beginning of the Sacrament of Matrimony and that it will take so much divine aid through grace for the couple to become holy.
Married couples are called to rely on those graces to live a faithful marriage, to draw from the Sacrament itself, especially in a society that devalues lifelong commitment. It is not easy, but a there are several passages from scripture that emphasized for me recently that God’s grace is enough to sanctify couples in marriage (once one has successfully entered into it).
One week before my sister’s wedding, when I was feeling particularly stressed about the material things I needed to do to get ready for it, I went to Holy Mass with my husband and children. The Gospel addressed my state of mind perfectly:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)
Life is more than these things, but these things are not to be neglected, and it is often these material things that put strain on a marriage. The priest preached on the Gospel suggesting that one way to overcome anxiety is to relate it to Jesus. The miracle at the Wedding at Cana came to my mind. In a stressful moment at a wedding, they had run out of wine, Our Lady noticed a material need and sought help for the bride and groom. She told her Son of the need and then told those responsible for the wine, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Our Lady and Jesus cared about the bride and the groom, and then when Jesus was asked to help with the wedding, the wine was better than ever. In our cares in marriage, we should always bring them to Our Lady and Jesus, and grace we receive will exceed what we thought we needed.
Jimmy Akin pointed out that when Jesus established the Christian law of indissoluble marriage, that the practice of divorce and remarriage was the norm. This ban on divorce was a new thing in the pagan and Jewish culture. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.
The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” (Matthew 19:10-11)
These responses are interesting, because even the disciples, who are faithful followers of Jesus, see this call to lifelong marriage as very difficult. We see this same hesitation of the disciples at many other points in the Gospels, but this is before the disciples have received the aid of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The call of the Gospel is the call to something higher than the norms of human culture. Just a few verses later when the disciples express even more surprise about Jesus’ teachings after the rich young man is sent away sad for being unwilling to part with his riches. The call to holiness seems to be more than one can possibly accomplish.
But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
If one thinks about what it takes to live a truly Christian marriage, to grow in holiness day to day, to make careful decisions about family life, and to be one in Christ, then one realizes that it really is grace that makes a marriage complete. It is the graces of a Sacrament that make the marriage indissoluble. The things asked of married people by the Church may seem impossible, but with God all things are possible. So, stand up in Christian marriage, ask for the grace be sanctified so that you and your spouse can have eternal happiness in Heaven. And please say a prayer for my sister and new brother-in-law as they begin their path to sanctification together.