When I talk to my high school students about marriage, I lay out overlapping ideas which build upon each other. The first idea is that marriage is essential to civilization; this highlights the natural aspect of marriage. The second idea is that there is more to our reality than simple material things; there is a spiritual or transcendent reality. The final idea is the sacramentality of marriage. This final idea binds the first two together and perfects them by directing and sustaining the marriage in grace. Much of the time we only really recognize this significant sacramental aspect of marriage once we have considered it within the context of the other points.
It is true that the roots which answer the question concerning why marriage is important are at once as simple as “Jesus tells us so” (Mt 19:3-12) and as complex as man’s development over time through various cultures. If marriage can be seen clearly as a natural development, and if that natural development can be proven as more equitable through the mutual trust of the spouses, then suddenly marriage is a natural state for family development.
The natural state, then, must be one which recognizes men and women as equal in dignity. This means women cannot be collected or used for pleasure. It means a man and a woman bind themselves together exclusively so they are protected in their dignity. Let us take two ancient, cave-dwelling people as our examples: Able and Beth. We see clearly the wrongness in Able abandoning Beth. Our intuition tells us if they form a bond, then Able has a duty toward Beth and Beth toward Able. If this bond is not honored, the dignity of the people involved is violated and the bond itself is seen as a tool of mere convenience. In this scenario, neither of the people will trust each other. It follows from this that if they do not trust one another, they will likely have difficulty in trusting anyone — after all, if they are sharing the most intimate aspects of themselves and they do not trust, it is unlikely they will trust others with whom they share very little.
It follows from this that they will not commit to anything like a trusting relationship with other people. It would also seem their children will not learn or will have difficulty learning what it means to trust. Lastly, this lack of trust results in the deformation or non-formation of society. For society to begin, there must be some level of trust between people. If there is no trust, there is no trade, friendship, or guiding principle beyond the rules made by the mighty. But if trust does exist, it naturally proclaims the dignity of the other as worthy of trust — and not merely as a tool for getting what we want.
The second step which brings marriage from a natural, necessary institution and into a clearer focus is the admission that we are not simply material creatures. We are spiritual also. While it remains true that even if we were simple material creatures, marriage would still be a necessary foundation for society. But because we exist in the way we do, we admit there is something more profound about the way we exist and interact with others. This admission means when we form a relationship with someone, we are interacting at the level which allows us to say, “I love you” and mean it far more profoundly than simple chemical reactions can account for.
This spiritual element then opens the possibility that our interactions with others are deeply significant on a level which is beyond material explanation. After all, if love is a choice for the good of another person, it seems certain there are other material and non-material things which make that choice easier, more intentional, and more effective. It is for this reason that we can say marriage is important because “Jesus said so.” Christ’s words are not empty. Instead, he draws us into an understanding of spiritual and material reality through the Incarnation. Because of this, Jesus does not speak to us in ways that do not address our whole nature. This means that when he speaks, he draws the whole of reality into his intention; the natural social aspect of marriage, as well as the natural spiritual aspect of marriage.
Our marriages are natural extensions of our desire to love and be loved. Our marriages are the natural foundations to civilization and growth in virtue (as we see in the case of trust or faith). Matrimony witnesses the dignity of others through the exclusive bond of man and woman. The sacrament which Christ establishes is the realization of these truths in much the same manner that the Eucharist is the fullness of truth at the end of covenantal preparation. Christ can only give us the Eucharist because it is a natural progression of the Old Testament covenantal progression which prepares us for it. Now, we are the benefactors of that sacrament. In the same manner, we are the benefactors of the sacrament of marriage, which we only understand because of the relationship which Christ perfects from the Old Testament covenants and exemplifies in his gift of himself to us.
But Paul tells us that the only thing lacking in the sacrifice of Christ is our participation in it. (Col 1:24) We choose to receive the gift God gives us in the incarnate, second person of the Trinity. We can also choose whether the relationship of our marriage is one in which we wish to participate fully. The grace is available to us as a gift for our sanctification and our children’s sanctification. To love more fully is to love as God loves. And he invites us specifically into that sort of love when he makes marriage new in the hearts of men; hearts of stone transformed by his love into loving hearts. He invites us into a marriage so that we might love as he loves through the binding of ourselves to the source of all love. There is no emptiness in the work of Christ. He leaves us the means of uniting ourselves to him and, thus, the means to succeed in our relationship. Christ brings together the strands our hearts yearn to bind. The sacrament he gives us perfects the natural call to marriage so that we might be loved in the way that Christ loves.