Christian Marriage Rituals

What is Marriage?

In the Christian religion, the institution of marriage is believed to have originated with the first humans, Adam and Eve, and it was later affirmed by Jesus Christ, and given further elaboration and instruction by the Apostle Paul. In recent years, especially in the Western world, marriage has become a controversial issue as the question of who can marry who has been asked, which is related to discussion of homosexuality in Christianity.

Roman Catholicism

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Christian marriage (i.e. marriage between baptized persons) is really a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word is for all Catholics an indubitable truth. According to the Council of Trent this dogma has always been taught by the Church, and is thus defined in canon i, Sess. XXIV: "If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema."


The occasion of this solemn declaration was the denial by the Reformers of the sacramental character of marriage. John Calvin in his "Institutions", IV, xix, 34, says: "Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God's ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments".

And Martin Luther speaks in terms equally vigorous. In his German work, published at Wittenberg in 1530 under the title "Von den Ehesachen", he writes (p. 1): "No one indeed can deny that marriage is an external worldly thing, like clothes and food, house and home, subject to worldly authority, as shown by so many imperial laws governing it." In an earlier work (the original edition of "De captivitate Babylonica") he writes: "Not only is the sacramental character of matrimony without foundation in Scripture; but the very traditions, which claim such sacredness for it, are a mere jest"; and two pages further on: "Marriage may therefore be a figure of Christ and the Church; it is, however, no Divinely instituted sacrament, but the invention of men in the Church, arising from ignorance of the subject." The Fathers of the Council of Trent evidently had the latter passage in mind.

But the decision of Trent was not the first given by the Church. The Council of Florence, in the Decree for the Armenians, had already declared: "The seventh sacrament is matrimony, which is a figure of the union of Christ, and the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church.'" And Innocent IV, in the profession of faith prescribed for the Waldensians (18 December, 1208), includes matrimony among the sacraments (Denziger-Bannwart, "Enchiridion", n. 424).

Marriage in the History of the Church

The acceptance of the sacraments administered in the Church had been prescribed in general in the following words: "And we by no means reject the sacraments which are administered in it (the Roman Catholic Church), with the co-operation of the inestimable and invisible power of the Holy Ghost, even though they be administered by a sinful priest, provided the Church recognizes him", the formula then takes up each sacrament in particular, touching especially on those points which the Waldensians had denied: "Therefore we approve of baptism of children . . . confirmation administered by the bishop . . . the sacrifice of the Eucharist. . . . We believe that pardon is granted by God to penitent sinners . . . we hold in honour the anointing of the sick with consecrated oil . . . we do not deny that carnal marriages are to be contracted, according to the words of the Apostle."

It is, therefore, historically certain that from the beginning of the thirteenth century the sacramental character of marriage was universally known and recognized as a dogma. Even the few theologians who minimized, or who seemed to minimize, the sacramental character of marriage, set down in the foremost place the proposition that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense of the word, and then sought to conform their further theses on the effect and nature of marriage to this fundamental truth, as will be evident from the quotations given below.

The reason why marriage was not expressly and formally included among the sacraments earlier and the denial of it branded as heresy, is to be found in the historical development of the doctrine regarding the sacraments; but the fact itself may be traced to Apostolic times. With regard to the several religious rites designated as "Sacraments of the New Law", there was always in the Church a profound conviction that they conferred interior Divine grace.

But the grouping of them into one and the same category was left for a later period, when the dogmas of faith in general began to be scientifically examined and systematically arranged. Furthermore, that the seven sacraments should be grouped in one category was by no means self-evident. For, though it was accepted that each of these rites conferred interior grace, yet, in contrast to their common invisible effect, the difference in external ceremony and even in the immediate purpose of the production of grace was so great that, for a long time, it hindered a uniform classification.

Thus, there is a radical difference between the external form under which baptism, confirmation, and orders, on the one hand are administered, and, on the other hand, those that characterize penance and marriage. For while marriage is in the nature of a contract, and penance in the nature of a judicial process, the three first-mentioned take the form of a religious consecration of the recipients.

The Character of Christian Marriage

In the proof of Apostolicity of the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law, it will suffice to show that the Church has in fact always taught concerning marriage what belongs to the essence of a sacrament. The name sacrament cannot be cited as satisfactory evidence, since it did not acquire until a late period the exclusively technical meaning it has to-day; both in pre-Christian times and in the first centuries of the Christian Era it had a much broader and more indefinite signification. In this sense is to be understood the statement of Leo XIII in his Encyclical "Arcanum" (10 February, 1880): "To the teaching of the Apostles, indeed, are to be referred the doctrines which our holy fathers, the councils, and the tradition of the Universal Church have always taught, namely that Christ Our Lord raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament."

The pope rightly emphasizes the importance of the tradition of the Universal Church. Without this it would be very difficult to get from the Scriptures and the Fathers clear and decisive proof for all, even the unlearned, that marriage is a sacrament in the strict sense of the word. The process of demonstration would be too long and would require a knowledge of theology which the ordinary faithful do not possess. In themselves, however, the direct testimonies of the Scriptures and of several of the Fathers are of sufficient weight to constitute a real proof, despite the denial of a few theologians past and present.

The classical Scriptural text is the declaration of the Apostle Paul (Eph., v, 22 sqq.), who emphatically declares that the relation between husband and wife should be as the relation between Christ and His Church:

"Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life; that He might present it to Himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." After this exhortation the Apostle alludes to the Divine institution of marriage in the prophetical words proclaimed by God through Adam: "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh." He then concludes with the significant words in which he characterizes Christian marriage: "This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the Church."

It would be rash, of course, to infer immediately from the expression, "This is a great sacrament", that marriage is a sacrament of the New Law in the strict sense, for the meaning of the word sacrament, as already remarked, is too indefinite. But considering the expression in its relation to the preceding words, we are led to the conclusion that it is to be taken in the strict sense of a sacrament of the New Law. The love of Christian spouses for each other should be modelled on the love between Christ and the Church, because Christian marriage, as a copy and token of the union of Christ with the Church, is a great mystery or sacrament.

It would not be a solemn, mysterious symbol of the union of Christ with the Church, which takes concrete form in the individual members of the Church, unless it efficaciously represented this union, i.e. not merely by signifying the supernatural life-union of Christ with the Church, but also by causing that union to be realized in the individual members; or, in other words, by conferring the supernatural life of grace. The first marriage between Adam and Eve in Paradise was a symbol of this union; in fact, merely as a symbol, it surpassed individual Christian marriages, inasmuch as it was an antecedent type, whereas individual Christian marriages are subsequent representations. There would be no reason, therefore, why the Apostle should refer with such emphasis to Christian marriage as so great a sacrament, if the greatness of Christian marriage did not lie in the fact, that it is not a mere sign, but an efficacious sign of the life of grace.

In fact, it would be entirely out of keeping with the economy of the New Testament if we possessed a sign of grace and salvation instituted by God which was only an empty sign, and not an efficacious one. Elsewhere (Gal., iv, 9), St. Paul emphasizes in a most significant fashion the difference between the Old and the New Testament, when he calls the religious rites of the former "weak and needy elements" which could not of themselves confer true sanctity, the effect of true justice and sanctity being reserved for the New Testament and its religious rites. If, therefore, he terms Christian marriage, as a religious act, a great sacrament, he means not to reduce it to the low plane of the Old Testament rites, to the plane of a "weak and needy element", but rather to show its importance as a sign of the life of grace, and, like the other sacraments, an efficacious sign.



The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "Marriage" with minor edits.