There is a new trend on the horizon among the so-called Millennials: Couples planning their wedding seek to have ‘signature vows’ in addition to their ‘signature cocktail’. Here’s a sampling: “I promise to make you smile.” “I promise to make you laugh.” “I promise not to get mad when your dog jumps on me.” “I promise to share everything including my college loans with you. LOL“ followed by a hearty laugh.
Contrary to popular thinking, traditional marriage vows are ‘signature’. They transform a couple into a unique human ‘connectivity’ called a communion of persons.
Let’s start with language. There is ‘marriage’ and then there is ‘Holy Matrimony’.
Marriage derives from the French word for ‘mother’ (mère).
Holy Matrimony: Holy means set apart as a specific calling for a specific purpose – to Love. The word Matrimony in Latin also means ‘from the mother.’ Both terms refer to a woman becoming a mother. A man and a woman become something beyond their gender such that a new title is bestowed upon them… that of ‘husband’ and that of ‘wife’. When a child is conceived, then yet another term describes a man/husband as a ‘father’ and a woman/wife as a ‘mother’. Hence a whole new specific language develops to describe the unique status, role, and function of a man and woman who enter into Holy Matrimony.
Inscribed in both words is the life-bearing potential of the male-female conjugal union.
Marriage then is not just a legal contract authorizing hospital visitation and co-habitation, but a distinctive new relationship between a man and a woman. Marriage existed long before governments did. The family is the first ‘government’ – the first cell of society.
Being married is both a challenge and a privilege. Couples are called to a lifestyle of total self-giving to each other; a lifestyle that goes against many of the expectations of our current society which glorifies personal fulfillment and enshrines individuality frequently at the cost of marital fidelity. Yet the Church holds out a magnificent vision for marital happiness that far exceeds anything we could expect. It calls couples to a sacred body language – a language in which husband and wife express their total self-giving in every aspect of their personhood: physical, psychological and spiritual. This totality is called a Communion of Persons – the one-flesh union that Christ refers to and that Christ Himself lived.
How God loves us becomes the standard of love for all humanity. Throughout Sacred Scripture God’s relationship with His people is often expressed in marital terms: fidelity, infidelity, forgiveness….bride, bridegroom, weddings, and banquets, father, son, etc. Song of Songs is an allegory of God’s spousal love. In the final moments of Christ’s Crucifixion, Jesus proclaims, “Consummatum est!” His union as the Bridegroom with his Bride, the Church, is complete. Where else do we hear this expression except in reference to a couple’s wedding night when they consummate their marriage?
St. Paul tells the Ephesians ‘husbands love your wives' – how? – as Christ loves His Church, giving Himself up for Her… 'Wives be submissive to your husbands' -- how? – as the Church is to Christ…’” He is saying that Christian marriage between a man and a woman reflects the supernatural love between Christ and the Church and the point is to sanctify one’s spouse. When St. Paul states that “love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous, love does not put on airs….” he’s also saying love isn’t easy!
This is another reason why marriage is a divine institution. We need divine assistance to overcome our human frailty. Substitute the word ‘love’ for your own name: “Brian is patient, Linda is kind, Ann is not jealous, Jack does not put on airs…”
The human struggle in general and in particular within Holy Matrimony is to live this union through our bodies in total self-giving love. This teaching encompasses the four marks of Marriage: Free, Total, Faithful, and Fruitful. They are embedded in the vows couples take at their marriage ceremony. These four marks of Holy Matrimony provide the framework of all Christian marriage. The traditional vows have remained the same for centuries, but how they are lived are personal and unique! Each couple faces different circumstances sharing challenges, successes, joys, and sorrows, which bear their ‘signature’ and all the while they persevere to joyfully live out these vows as a ‘communion of persons’.
Vow, Oath, Sacrament
Although often used interchangeably, the words ‘vow’ and ‘oath’ are very different. An oath is a pledge or promise to another person that invokes the help of God, a revered person or object. An oath of allegiance, for example; or an oath made in a court of law to tell the truth “so help me God.” On the other hand, a vow is a solemn promise to God to perform some act or behave in a specified manner. Marriage vows are promises made to God to love another person in the very way Christ has loved us in a free, total, faithful, fruitful expression of sacrificial love.
Why then is Holy Matrimony a sacrament?
A sacrament is an outward visible sign of grace given to us by Jesus Christ. The word ‘sacrament’ derives from the Latin word which means ‘oath’. So here we have it: with each sacrament we receive, it is God Himself who makes a promise to us invoking His own name. Specifically in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony God Himself makes a promise to us in His own name to give us the grace we need to live out our vows which are our promises to Him to love our spouse sacrificially. A win-win!
St. John Chrysostom offers serious counsel to husbands:
“Pay attention to love’s high standard. If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you as the Church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the Church. Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still not done as much as Christ has for the Church. For you are already married when you act this way, whereas Christ is acting for one who has rejected and hated him. So just as he, when she was rejecting hating spurning and nagging him, brought her to trust him by his great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything like that, so you must also act toward your wife. Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her.“ (Homily on Ephesians, 20:5:25)
Promises are great for roomies, but the greater more fulfilling adventure is vowing life-giving love in a Communion of Persons. Do you want your spouse to make a promise to God to love you in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer until death do you part… or to promise to make you smile and share your college loans? Which is truly more ‘signature’?
Spero columnist Diane Thunder Schlosser is a writer based in Wisconsin. Married for 35 years, she and her husband have eight children.