Sacramental grace: The transforming power of God’s love in our marriages
When St. John sat down to write his Gospel, he had a few choices to make. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who had written before him, he wanted to tell people about who Jesus was and what he did. And to do that, he knew he had to talk about Jesus’ miracles. But which ones? There were so many!
Given all the choices he had, why did John decide to write about the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-12)? None of the others included it. And it wasn’t all that dramatic. All Jesus did was help a friend in a tight spot. Nobody was healed. No demons were cast out. No sins were forgiven. He just rescued a wedding celebration by changing water into wine.
Inviting Jesus into Our Marriages. We may never know why John included this story, but it’s a good thing he did. For centuries, people have turned to it for encouragement and inspiration, especially when it comes to the Sacrament of Marriage. For this miracle tells us that when we invite Jesus into our marriage, just as Jesus was invited to the wedding at Cana, he takes what is already good—the “water” of our love for each other and our desire to treat each other well—and transforms it into the choice “wine” of his own divine grace and power.
In every sacrament, God takes something commonplace and turns it into an instrument of his grace. In baptism, it is water. In the Eucharist, it is bread and wine. And in marriage, it is the couple themselves. They are transformed as they commit to loving each other faithfully and unconditionally by the power of the Holy Spirit. The “water” of their commitment to each other is turned into the “wine” of God’s commitment to them and to their marriage.
How can we invite Jesus more into our marriages? We want to see how he has the power to bless every marriage far beyond our own dreams and expectations. God’s written Word is meant to activate and make present the Trinitarian love of God in our Christian marriages …a love which has the power to change and transform for good beyond our human capacity. Let’s look at a few passages from Scripture that talk about how husbands and wives can love each other.
How Does Jesus Love Us? Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her. (Ephesians 5:25).
In this one verse, St. Paul establishes a high ideal that we should all aim for in our marriages. He tells us that the relationship between a man and a woman is like the relationship between Christ and the church. He also tells us that we should love each other as deeply as Jesus loves the church.
And how deep is that? Think about the way Jesus loves you, and you can get some idea of the way he loves the whole church. He loves us not because we are perfect and sinless. We all know that we commit sins and do things at times that are unkind and downright mean. But Jesus loves us anyway. He doesn’t love us just because of who we are but also because of who we can become. He loves us so much that he wants to make us lovely. He wants to free us from the stains of our sins so that we become as pure as a virginal bride on her wedding day.
Paul also tells us that Jesus “handed himself over” for our sake (Ephesians 5:25). Jesus gave up his own life so that we could be redeemed and brought together as one. Similarly, we too are called to self-sacrificial love, the kind of love that is more intent on giving than receiving, on looking out for our beloved more than looking out for ourselves.
From the moment we are joined in marriage, God invites us to help make each other more pure, more like the image of the church. He asks us to love each other not only for who we are at that moment but also for who we will become as we give ourselves to each other. What’s more, he wants to help us lay down our lives for each other so that the “good” that we see in each other can be transformed over time into “choice wine”—into Spirit-filled lives of grace and mercy.
Empty Yourself. This approach to marriage runs contrary to the philosophy of the world. The world tends to see marriage as a private relationship focused on achieving personal satisfaction. It tells us that a husband should value his wife for what she can do for him, and a wife should value her husband for what he can give to her.
But listen to the beautiful hymn that St. Paul quotes in his Letter to the Philippians:
Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
This is the kind of love that Jesus wants every marriage to display. He knows that the more we empty ourselves for our spouse, the more deeply we will end up loving each other. But we should be careful. “Emptying” doesn’t imply weakness. Becoming a “slave” here doesn’t mean losing our dignity and simply taking orders. Jesus wasn’t weak, and he certainly didn’t get pushed around. No, slavery for Jesus—and for every married couple—simply means putting God’s will ahead of our will. Emptying oneself means giving all that we are to our husband or wife. It means thinking and acting only in the best interests of the marriage and the entire family, never putting our own interests above the whole and never forgetting the supreme place that God holds in the marriage.
Two Become One. For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Ephesians 5:31)
St. Paul used this passage from Genesis to explain why a husband and wife should love each other in this way. Paul appealed to the unity that comes about in a marriage—the fact that the two become “one flesh.” But he didn’t leave it there. He went on to say: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).
Genesis describes the first couple as sharing the same flesh: “The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man” (Genesis 2:22). In a similar way, and following Paul’s words, many church fathers have said that the church was formed from the pierced side of Christ (John 19:33-34). Just as Adam was incomplete without Eve, there is a way that Jesus is incomplete without us. Of course, he is always perfect and never needs anyone or anything. But at the same time, his love is so strong that he longs for a people—a bride—whom he can love and with whom he can share his life.
In this verse, Paul talks about how the Sacrament of Marriage fuses husband and wife together. But for what reason? So that they can become a holy family, building each other up, praying with and for each other, and reaching out in concern for those who have less.
The reason married couples become one flesh and give themselves up for each other is so that each spouse can become holy and blameless in God’s eyes. This is the mystery at the heart of the sacrament: Two flawed, sinful people can actually learn to love each other as fully as Jesus loves the church.
Amazing Potential. Like all the other sacraments, the Sacrament of Marriage has power only to the degree that married couples embrace and try to live out the grace available to them through the sacrament. It’s a grace that is released as the couple welcomes Jesus into their marriage in ways both big and small, in their overall philosophy of marriage and in the specific ways they make Jesus a part of their relationship.
Every marriage will eventually face some kind of tension that may push the couple to fight, to isolate themselves from each other, or to fall into selfishness or resentment. When these situations arise, those couples who have been taking hold of the grace of the sacrament stand a much better chance of weathering the storm together. Their love for each other will supersede the tension. They will be more able to forgive. They will hold each other in respect and honor, and their marriage will even be strengthened.
A Sacramental Seal. Just as Jesus came to the wedding at Cana, he comes to every wedding where he is invited. And he remains for the whole marriage when a couple continues to welcome him into their home. He takes their natural human love, which is good, and transforms it into supernatural, divinely graced love. He makes sure that their love, which on its own has the potential to run dry, remains vibrant and life-giving. Through the sacrament, he offers his seal on their marriage so that they can learn how to love each other with the same love that he has for his church. And that love, like the choice wine at Cana, is the best there is!
Article used with permission from The Word Among Us Magazine, June 2010 Issue.