The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “God himself is the author of marriage.” (CCC #1603) This means that the very idea of marriage has its origin in heaven, within the mind and will of our Father. It is from this divine source that marriage is given its dignity as an institution, confirmed by Jesus as a sacrament. Therefore the principles and foundations of marriage extend beyond just the earthly bonds between man and woman.
St. Paul hints at this in his letter to the Ephesians when he writes, “This [marriage] is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:32) This well read passage from Ephesians is among the liturgical options as a reading during a mass for the sacrament of marriage. Paul instructs husbands and wives to model their relationships on the relationship between Jesus and his church. Wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ, and husbands to lay down their lives for their brides as Christ offered himself on the cross. I particularly like The Message translation of this passage:
Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.
Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.
No one abuses his own body, does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh.” This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.
If Jesus and the church are to be our template for Christian marriage, what can we learn from that? How can we let this truth form us and strengthen our marriages? The application of this passage is found in examining what a relationship with Jesus looks like and then making sure our relationships with our spouse reflect that.
What does Jesus teach us about love? How are his disciples, the church, called to love him? ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27) In other words, we are called to love with our mind, body, heart/emotions, and spirit.
How do I love my spouse with my mind? Webster’s dictionary defines “mindful” as being aware. Do I practice mindfulness in regard to my spouse? Do I make an effort to be aware of what is going on in their life? I know that for myself it is so easy to come home from a day at work and immediately want to focus on downtime for me. Being mindful means really listening when I ask, “How was your day?” Being mindful means being aware of the little things and proactively serving my wife.
How do I love my spouse with my body? St. John Paul II’s theology of the body reminds us that nearly every act of love is made with and through our bodies. I use my body as the means to offer myself as a gift of love. The most obvious expression of this within marriage is through sexual intimacy. Am I focused only on my needs and desires, or am I thinking first of my spouse? Beyond sexual intimacy, do I use my body to show love and affection through non-sexual touch, or even by finishing off my “honey do” list without needing to be reminded?
How do I love my spouse with my heart/emotions? Am I emotionally vulnerable and honest with my spouse? It can be easy within marriage to allow resentment to creep in through unforgiveness. Likewise, one or the other can emotionally shut their spouse out, keeping them at a distance and not sharing how they feel. Being vulnerable and sharing our emotions can be a scary thing, but it can also bring about new, deeper levels of intimacy within a marriage.
How do I love my spouse with my spirit? Couples that pray together, stay together. Several studies and polls have shown that the divorce rate for married couples who pray together on a regular basis is less than one percent. In fact, praying together is one of the surest indicators of a healthy, lasting marriage. Praying with and for your spouse will greatly improve your ability to love them with your mind, body, and heart. Prayer is the door that opens your marriage to the presence of Christ and the means of receiving the grace given to you through the sacrament of marriage.
Loving our spouses with our mind, body, heart, and spirit reflects the love that the church is called to have towards her groom, Jesus. As for imitating the love of Jesus for his bride, it is by loving in the same manner as all of these in a self-emptying, self-sacrificing way. Jesus held nothing back in his love for us, and we are called to reflect that same love in the way we love our spouse. If following Christ is about dying to ourselves then marriage is one of the best spiritual disciplines to practice. Every day we are presented with untold opportunities to but our love for another before our own desires. May we learn to fully embrace this call to love God in and through our spouses.