A Covenant and a Verb
Because the family is the basic unit of society through all time, it is imperative to delve deeper into the sacrament of matrimony, or the verb of marrying as I will explain. St. John Paul II said on December 7, 1986 during a visit to Australia, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the world in which we live.”1 So the question arises: what is the first sacrament in history? Baptism is the first sacrament in becoming a Catholic, but which sacrament appears first in the historical record? So if we do not protect marriage in its natural state and defend life, even at the cost of persecution, then the family unit and society become victims to the error of moral relativism. Then if one identifies oneself as a “Catholic” — even in the public square — that becomes a big question mark. Catholicism does not mean to have it your way, but God’s Way!
The first sacrament in the historical record is marriage, specifically the marriage of Adam and Eve. In Gen 2:24 God said, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Also in Gen 1:28, God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” Marriage is a holy vocation, as is singlehood, as is religious life. And let’s face it, I would not be a priest if it were not for the holy vocation of marriage. We cannot have priests, deacons, religious sisters, or religious brothers without having moms and dads being open to the gift of life. It is also important to remind ourselves from the start that marriage is a covenant, and only secondarily a contract by law.
The word “covenant” comes from the Latin word “convenire,” which means “to come together.” A covenant is an agreement between God and two or more people with specific obligations on both sides. It is a binding promise that can only be broken by man but not by God. We say this because in 2 Tim 2:13 St. Paul says, “If we are unfaithful He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” We are a covenant people! I have even designed a bumper sticker with the words, “We are a covenant people!”
Marriage is a covenant because marriage in the Church involves God, the bride, and the groom. And during the Marriage Ceremony, when the Consent begins for the couple, the priest or deacon says the following words, “Since it is your intention to enter the covenant of holy matrimony, join your right hands and declare your consent before God and His Church.”2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) §1601 teaches, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” In other words, marriage has a twofold purpose: bonding and babies.
During the Consent of the wedding ceremony the couple will say these words, “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” The reason why the word all is emphasized here is because marriage is for a lifetime — in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. In marriage the husband and the wife need to be proactive in guarding their love for each other.
Dr. James Healy, whose Ph.D. is in Counseling Psychology, is the director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He gives a presentation titled, “When The Cake is Gone: How To Be Married and Stay Engaged.” Engaged? Yes, engaged! Formal engagement happens before marriage, but he says that a couple needs to be constantly engaged in working on their relationship. Dr. Healy says, “We have a sacrament of marrying — A VERB, not just the sacrament of marriage — A NOUN. Couples need to say not just ‘I do,’ but ‘I will,’ and say it over and over. It is a process of Christian marrying.”3
Dr. Healy also quotes a family psychologist named Paul Tournier (1898 – 1986) who once said very shockingly, “I am on my sixth marriage!” What he meant by this is not six wives, but rather that marriage is a series of stages of dying and rising like Christ. So Mr. Tournier was saying that he was in his sixth stage of marriage. By this he meant, for example, there is the marriage stage of “Having Our First Baby.” Then there is the stage of “Moving to a New Town for a New Job.” Then there is the stage of “Getting Along With the In-Laws,” and so on. Marriage has milestones, and we need to recognize them.
Marriage is a sacrament of dying and rising. The couple needs to lift each other up — knowing what makes each other happy, and knowing what gets each other upset. Also we need to soothe our spouse’s hot buttons and not push their buttons, and so on. So a couple needs to lift each other up until they are both ultimately lifted up to Heaven. As the expression goes: love isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being perfect for each other. This is also why a couple needs to actually schedule a regular DATE NIGHT each month on their calendars.
The first time that the word “covenant” is used is in Gen 6:18, when God told Noah that He would establish a covenant with him and his sons and that they were going into Noah’s Ark. After the Great Flood, the sign of that covenant was the rainbow in the sky. Now although the word “covenant” is not used in the story of Adam & Eve, God made divine promises to Adam & Eve with obligations for Adam & Eve:
1) “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:22)
2) “I have given you every plant….and every tree with seed in its fruit for food.”
3) “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18)
4) “. . .of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil you shall not eat..” (Gen 2:16,17)
5) The Protoevangelium: After Adam & Eve disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God made a promise to Adam & Eve by telling the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). So we know that the devil wants to destroy marriage and the family. So we need to pray, fast, and defend marriage between one man and one woman.
In the Old Testament a covenant was an agreement between God and Israel in which God promised protection to the Israelites in return for exclusive loyalty. In the New Testament Jesus becomes the New Covenant Himself in the Holy Eucharist.
As marriage is a covenant, it takes three to get married: God, the bride, and the groom. God has to be #1 in the marriage. Before a couple gets married, they need to be good friends at first. However, the very best friend of both the man and the woman needs to be God.
When I prepare couples for marriage, I tell them that at some point before their wedding, they need to say these words to each other: “Honey, I want to tell you something very special about you as a person, and that is . . . ‘You are the best Number 2 that I will ever have.’” The other person would say, “What?! You have another boyfriend/girlfriend?!” To which the other person would reply, “No! God is Number 1 in our relationship!”
In his book Three to Get Married, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen says: “It takes three to have love in Heaven — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It takes three for Heaven to send love to earth — God, man, and Mary, through whom God became man. It takes three to have love in the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph, and their Child Jesus. And it takes three to have love in the hearts — the lover, the beloved, and love.”4
Now we need to remember, too, that in the Wedding Ceremony the bride and the groom give each other the Sacrament of Marriage. The priest or deacon validates the sacrament through his blessing but the bride and the groom marry each other. The bride and the groom are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states (§1623).5 So the priest or the deacon does not marry the bride and the groom. The bride and the groom marry each other. The priest or deacon and the two witnesses simply witness the wedding! Isn’t this powerful? The sacrament of marriage is really the most important gift that the bride and the groom give to each other to start their marriage. So in giving presentations on marriage at marriage retreats it is good to have the couples repeat after the presenter these words: “When people ask us, ‘Who was the priest that married you?’ we will say, ‘Well, we actually gave each other the sacrament of marriage. Father So-and-So and our two witnesses witnessed our wedding. It is the first wedding gift that we gave to each other.’”
Let us now return to a point that I made earlier that Jesus becomes the New Covenant Himself in the Holy Eucharist. This is because the only time that Our Lord used the word “covenant” in Scripture was at the Last Supper when it says, in Lk 22:20, “And likewise taking the cup after they had eaten saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1621, the Church teaches:
The celebration of marriage between two Catholic faithful normally takes place during Holy Mass, because of the connection of all the sacraments with the Paschal Mystery of Christ. In the Eucharist the memorial of the New Covenant is realized, the New Covenant in which Christ has united Himself forever to the Church, His beloved Bride for whom He gave Himself up. It is therefore fitting that the spouses should seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives, by uniting it to the offering of Christ for His Church made present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and by receiving the Eucharist so that, communicating in the same Body and the same Blood of Christ, they may form but “one body” in Christ.
Speaking of “one body,” how wonderful it is that during the Consecration of the Mass when the priest says these words, “Take this, all of you, and eat it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you,” a married couple likewise give their bodies to each other. St. John Paul II in his teaching on the Theology of the Body said that the body and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible, spiritual, and divine.
In other words, just like the Holy Communion Host, when it is lifted up during the Mass, is a visible sign of the invisible Christ who IS the Holy Communion Host, a married couple when they give their bodies to each other in physical love – as visible signs of love – likewise reveal the invisible Christ who is love itself. In symbolic words the married couple say to each other, “This is my body which will be given up for you.” Here it is important to remember too that both Our Lord and St. Paul tell us that we are to pray always and unceasingly. So it is a powerful concept, then, that when a couple, who is sacramentally married, engages in physical love that it is a prayer as well!
Each spouse is now one with the body of the other and neither may prevent the other of this right except for a time and by consent, in order that they may give themselves more time to prayer and sacrifice just like Our Lord sacrificed His Body for us. Here is a true story that happened to me during one of my marriage preparations for a couple. The couple asked me for a suggestion for the wording of their wedding invitation card. I was quite surprised by their asking me. However, the Holy Spirit inspired me to give them the following words for their wedding invitation card:
You are cordially invited to attend the Wedding and Reception of So-and-So which begins with the Reception of the Holy Eucharist at Mass at Such-and-Such Church at 11 AM, and then continues at 5 PM at Such-and-Such Parish Hall. First we will receive Jesus, and then we will receive our family, relatives, and friends. Please R.S.V.P.
People called the couple and asked if the Reception really began at the Church? That is neat, yes? The couple also got calls from people who were impressed with the wording on their Invitation. And guess what else happened? It was one of the largest wedding Masses that I have celebrated so far during my priesthood.
Rev 19:5-9 also reveals to us that Christ, the Lamb of God, is the groom in the most intimate spiritual union with His Church which is His Bride. Christ is the groom, and the Church is the Bride. This is why, spiritually speaking, all of us in the Church are married. We are spiritually married to Christ the Groom. This is why we can say, like St. John Paul II says in his Theology of the Body, that at the heart of the new evangelization is marriage and the family. And at the heart of marriage and the family is the truth about the body and sexuality.
Here is another true story. There is a city in Bosnia-Hertzgovina named Siroki-Brijeg in which there has never been a Catholic divorce in its history, even as of 2019. The population of that city today is about 26,000. The city is almost 100% Catholic, and the people take the faith and traditions seriously. The people there trace this fact to a custom that they do during their wedding ceremony which goes back centuries. During the Consent, the priest blesses a crucifix presented by the bride and groom. He then places the bride’s right hand upon the crucifix, then the groom’s right hand upon hers, and then he covers them with his stole. The couple then make their vows holding onto to the crucifix. The priest then tells them that they have found their ideal spouse, and then says to the couple, “You have found your cross! It is a cross that you must love and take with you every day of your lives. Know how to appreciate it.”6 The couple then both kiss the crucifix and hold onto to it till the end of Mass.
Then, at home, the couple places that crucifix on a wall in a prominent place. During their marriage, when difficulties, misunderstandings, or big decisions have to be made about work, finances, and so on, they take that crucifix from the wall in their home and they either kneel or sit and face each other and hold onto it together until they resolve that difficulty or decision. If they cannot resolve it, they hang the crucifix back on the wall and wait for the next opportunity.
This custom is consistent with the couple’s belief that the cross will give them strength to overcome any difficulty if they base their marriage on the cross. The children who are then born of these marriages learn from an early age to honor the family crucifix and the importance of family prayer, especially the Rosary, and the gift of perseverance. In Jn 12:32 Jesus said, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
So, in closing, let us pray in thanksgiving for the sacrament of marrying which is both a covenant and a verb — not just a noun — and which a couple needs to continue to lift each other up until they are both ultimately lifted up to Heaven.
- Homily of St. John Paul II, “Apostolic Pilgrimage to Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Seychelles,” (Perth, Australia, November 30, 1986), n.4.
- “The Order of Celebrating Matrimony,” Renewed by Decree of The Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of The Vatican, Promulgated by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Revised at the Direction of St. John Paul II. (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2016), n. 61.
- Dr. James Healy, Ph.D., “When the Cake is Gone: How to Be Married and Stay Engaged,” Center for Family Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, IL, Rooted In Love, Joliet, IL, 2001.
- Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen,”Three to Get Married”, (New York: Scepter Publishers, 1996), p.3.
- “According to the Latin Tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” Catechism of The Catholic Church, n. 1623: Second Edition (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1977), 405.
- Plinio Maria Solimeo, “The Only Divorce-Free City in the World,” The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, March 28, 2019.
About Fr. Paul Grala
Father Paul Grāla, S.O.L.T. (Society of Our Lady of The Most Holy
Trinity) is from Grand Rapids, MI, and is a bilingual missionary priest
presently working in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, NM. He completed his
25th year of priesthood this past year on June 3. He was a social worker,
youth minister, and high school religion teacher before becoming a priest. Besides working in the U.S., he has worked in Mexico, Belize, and
Guatemala. He especially enjoys teaching R.C.I.A., consecrating homes to
the Sacred Heart of Jesus (he’s been to almost 1400 homes so far), and also preparing couples for marriage. His favorite acronym is: F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Father And Mother I Love You).