We know through the wisdom of Scripture and tradition that Christian marriage, a lifelong, indissoluble covenant between two baptized persons, is a sacrament. In the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks about the self-giving love of husbands and wives and how this love reflects the love of Christ for his bride, the Church.
Through Jesus, marriage is elevated to something more profound, divine, and mysterious. At the end of Ephesians 5, Paul confirms this: “This (marital love) is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” This “great mystery” of marital love is something sacramental.
In fact, the origin of the word “sacrament” can be traced back to the Greek word mysterion meaning “mystery.” In return, the Latin word mysterium can be translated to mean “sacrament.” This is why, in the Byzantine Rite, the seven sacraments are referred to as the Holy Mysteries.
But these sacraments, despite being “mysterious” by their very nature, are something intended for us to enter into. The mysteries of the Church are not to remain shrouded in secret. God desires to reveal the divine beauty and reality of them to us through his grace. This element of mystery and the subsequent “unveiling” of it is especially true in marriage.
Soon-to-be-beatified Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a deep understanding of the divine mystery of sacramental marriage, despite his unmarried state in the priesthood. In his spiritual classic Three to Get Married, he writes, “great are the joys in marriage, as there is the lifting of progressive veils, until one is brought into the blazing lights of the Presence of God.”
He wrote about four main mysteries, or “veils,” progressively lifted in marriage as a couple journeyed deeper and deeper into the sacrament:
“In a true marriage, there is an ever-enchanting romance...First, there is the mystery of the other partner, which is body-mystery.”
Before marriage, a couple’s growing desire for intimacy manifests on multiple levels: emotional, spiritual, and physical. But until the sacrament is conferred, the ultimate expression of this desire for intimacy, for complete communion--for consummation--cannot yet be experienced. In the marriage vows, “both give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two; from now on they form one flesh” (CCC 2364). Now the beauty of marital intimacy can be fully expressed in the spouses’ one flesh union. The first “veil” is lifted, because the beloved becomes totally known emotionally, spiritually, and physically in the sexual act of complete self-gift.
“When that mystery is solved and the first child is born, there begins a new mystery. The husband sees something in the wife he never before knew existed, namely, the beautiful mystery of motherhood. She sees a new mystery in him she never before knew existed, namely, the mystery of fatherhood.”
The Church teaches that “conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment” (CCC 2366). The mystery of sacramental marriage does not end after the wedding night, but rather grows and deepens through the fruitfulness of that consummation.
Many times, that fruitfulness comes in the form of a child. And as a husband and wife welcome the birth of their child, an incredible transformation occurs in their hearts: the birth of their identities as mother and father. This reveals a facet of the beloved previously unknown. Spouses can delight in the unveiling of motherly and fatherly love they witness in each other with the onset of parenthood.
“As the children reach the age of reason, a third mystery unfolds, that of father-craft and mother-craft – the disciplining and training of young minds and hearts in the ways of God.”
Proverbs 22:6 admonishes parents to “train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.” And thus, another mystery unfolds in marriage: the mystery of the “domestic church.” Husbands and wives, now mothers and fathers, take on the responsibility of spiritually forming the souls of their children. They strive in family life to imitate the Holy Family where Christ himself was born and raised. To do this, the spouses must continue to lean on the endless graces of the marriage sacrament, which, in its fruitfulness, has only grown in life and love since their wedding day.
“As the children grow into maturity, the mystery continues to deepen, new areas of exploration open up, and the father and mother now see themselves as sculptors in the great quarry of humanity, carving living stones and fitting them together in the Temple of God, Whose Architect is Love.”
As parents watch their children grow in age and virtue, they witness the fruits of their prayers and spiritual formation. In time, patience, and trust in the Lord, spouses can hope to see their sons and daughters become saints who take their place in salvation history.
At this point the time before children, when the “body-mystery” of their one flesh union was yet to be unveiled, is many years past. But the mysteries of sacramental marriage continue, until, in the words of Fulton Sheen, husband and wife are “brought into the blazing lights of the Presence of God,” when Heaven itself is unveiled. “The body may grow older,” says Archbishop Sheen, “but the Spirit grows younger, and love often becomes more intense.”
If you are engaged, the excitement of these unknowns becoming known is something to joyfully anticipate as your wedding day approaches. If you and your beloved are newlyweds, perhaps you have already experienced the sacred beauty that awaits behind one or two of these “veils.” May you find joy in the unending mystery of the sacrament and strength in the graces God desires to lavish on you and your beloved.
Venerable Fulton Sheen, pray for us, for all engaged couples preparing for marriage, and for newlyweds just beginning to unveil the mysteries of the sacrament.