The sanctifying power of marriage

The sanctifying power of marriage February 21, 2011

Icon of the wedding feast at Cana
Icon of the wedding feast at Cana (Wikimedia Commons).

When I think of marriage I think of grace, particularly the phrase “grace for the moment.” Marriage requires grace every moment if it’s going to be what God desires it to be. Thankfully, God extends his grace to us through marriage.

Historically speaking, the church has always recognized marriage as a sacrament. This is important to understand when speaking of the mystery of marriage, as Paul does in Ephesians. The words “mystery” and “sacrament” are synonymous. The first is Greek and the second Latin, but they both tell us that God’s sanctifying power is at work in marriage. That’s what we’re getting at when we talk about the mystery of marriage. God’s grace works through the union of married people to transform them into an image of Christ and his Church.

The Christian life is all about union with God—something that marriage helps us uniquely understand. We see the hint of it in the beginning of Scripture when Adam and Eve, two individuals, are said to become one flesh and again at the end in Revelation at the marriage feast of the lamb. The image is used throughout the prophets and again in the New Testament, most powerfully and pointedly by Paul.

Our union with God deepens and intensifies as we grow in the image and likeness of Christ. Marriage helps us both understand and accomplish this because marriage is not only uniting but also transformative.

This is the picture presented in the miracle at the wedding at Cana. We are meant to see that grace is given by God in marriage. The groom lacks wine, and Christ, of his goodness and mercy, provides it. But Christ does not send his disciples to the market. Christ extends his grace by miraculously transforming water to wine.

“People may or may not be good, may or may not be wise, but alone they are like ordinary water,” writes Meletios Webber in his book Bread and Water, Wine and Oil. “In marriage, they can, through the intervention of God, be transformed into ‘good wine’ in a process which can only take place at a miraculous, ‘mysterious’ level.”

The union and transformation of marriage is only possible by God’s grace—his “intervention” in Webber’s word. But it’s not instantaneous. Webber says it’s daily: “[A] marriage is created each day, not fashioned at the wedding ceremony. The wedding ceremony is the Church’s blessing on the work that starts there and then….”

That daily work requires the grace that God gives through marriage. He is not stingy. He does not withhold if we humbly pour ourselves into the life our spouse—sacrificing, giving, and serving like Christ. As we extend ourselves in love, God empowers us by his grace to do it all the more.

He pours out his transformative, sanctifying, saving power every moment of our lives together to enable our continual growth in the likeness of Christ and our more accurate reflection of the union of Christ and his Church.

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