Today is World Marriage Day! In honor of the day, I wanted to write a little bit about the purpose of marriage, especially since there seems to be so many different interpretations of what it is in our world today.
It is clear that purpose of marriage in today’s culture is confused. The rate of divorce is incredibly high and people are more often than not opting to forego marriage altogether, choosing instead to live in non-marital monogomous relationships, become serial daters, have casual sexual encounters, or to merely cohabitate. People often question if marriage is even worth it, and believe that a valued, committed relationship is just as good as a signed document declaring a marital union is in effect.
Even though there are many different interpretations of marriage out there today, the reality is that marriage is not merely a signed document, nor a human institution based on certain social structures or personal attitudes. It has embedded within it, particular spiritual and permanent characteristics built upon the well-being of the individual persons in the union, as well as society as a whole.
In order to understand the inherent meaning of marriage, it is important to begin with God, the author of authentic love. In his infinite Being, God is a Trinity of Three Divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These Three Persons partake of an indissoluble unity, marked by a deep fidelity to one another in mutual self-giving. Their gift of themselves is one of totality, unity, and faithfulness: for all eternity, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and their love pours out into a third person, The Holy Spirit. In the union of marriage, man and woman–who are created in the image and likeness of God–are called to most perfectly mirror the image of the Trinity and to love as God loves. Since the Holy Trinity is the highest and supreme example of familial relation, marriage should thus reflect some of these same characteristics.
Marriage is the means by which man and woman live out a familial relationship, mirroring the relation of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Man and woman come together and share in an intimate life marked by their indissolubility, fidelity, and mutual self-giving. It is through the permanent commitment of marriage that man and woman are most fully able to live out their deep and abiding union, and pour forth their love by procreating, and by sharing the fruits of their love with the world.
We also gain insight about the inherent meaning of marital love by examining it as Christ lived it. Christ fully exemplified for us what marriage is all about. He is the great Bridegroom, whose love for his Bride, the Church, is marked by four chief characteristics: that it is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
Though Christ was fully divine, he freely entered into human nature so as to reconcile God’s people to the Father. In his perfect obedience to the Father’s will, he offered himself totally on behalf of his Bride, withholding nothing from her, and choosing to endure injustice, mockery, chastisement, brutality, and ultimately death—all for her sake. He knew, despite suffering and pain, that his great love and sacrifice for her would ultimately unite her to God the Father and lift her up–sanctifying her–so that she may obtain eternal salvation. He was completely faithful to her until the moment he breathed his last breath, and through his faithfulness, he opened the gates of heaven allowing the flood of mercy and compassion to wash over his beloved. Lastly, he gave her the gift of The Advocate that so that his love and hers could flourish and bear great fruits, bringing forth the light of love to the world.
Through his life and love for his Bride, we gain insight into what true and authentic love in a marital union is to be like: it means always willing the good of the beloved. It is not merely contractual or based on personal interpretations, but rather, is covenantal. Marriage is an exchange of persons, who vow to love one another as Christ loves, with a love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. In the vocation of matrimony, we are called to love one other particular person, and be a living sign of Christ’s love for the Church and for the world.
The purpose of marriage, as designed by the Creator, was further raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a Sacrament through the merits of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. When two baptized children of God come together in marriage, he pours out special graces upon them so that they may live out their vocation to love one another in marriage, not merely in a natural way, but in a supernatural way. In this Sacramental reality, the bond of marriage becomes a sacred promise between the man and the woman, that by the gift of their free, total, faithful, and fruitful love, they may move each other towards sanctification and union with God in heaven for eternity.
While it is true that marriage can at times be difficult, it is important to remember that it is primarily because it is the coming together of two imperfect people. Successful marriages are not the result of finding the perfect person who makes you perfectly happy, but of loving the imperfect person you have married. Difficulties may arise, but in the end, when both partners seek to work them out with the sake of their spouse in mind, these obstacles prove overall to affirm their marital love. As Saint John Paul II said in Love and Responsibility, “One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love [when difficulty arises], but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcoming and faults, and without in the least approving of them.”
Marital love is a beautiful gift, and when lived out according to God’s plan is entirely worth it. The inherent meaning of marriage can not be reduced to merely personal interpretations, but it must be shaped according to God’s great plan for marriage as he designed it to be.