The Church defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman by which they establish a partnership for “the whole of life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1601). Christ raised this covenant “to the dignity of a sacrament,” making it an efficacious sign, the sacrament of his covenant with his Bride, the Church (CCC 1601; 1617). The Church expresses the mystery and power of this—and every—sacrament preeminently in the liturgical language of the rite itself according to the ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays” (CCC 1124). Thus if we want to know what the Church believes about marriage, we need to look at the marriage rite. In this article, after a brief overview of the sacrament of Matrimony, we will explore its meaning and power by looking more closely at the sacramental epiclesis, the nuptial blessing, from the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal. But we begin by listening to our Lord’s teaching on marriage.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus about the legality of a man divorcing his wife “for any cause,” he replied, “From the beginning of Creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mk 10:3- 6). It is the teaching of Christ himself that marriage was part of the original design of Creation, specifically in the creation and union of man and woman, a truth reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council: “God himself is the author of marriage” (Gaudium et spes, 48).
The fact that Marriage is an inseparable aspect of Creation makes it unique among the sacraments, as St. John Paul II noted in his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (FC): “The sacrament of Matrimony has this specific element that distinguishes it from all the other sacraments: it is the sacrament of something that was part of the very economy of creation; it is the very conjugal covenant instituted by the Creator ‘in the beginning’” (FC 68). This elevation of nature by grace is affirmed in the Ritual Mass for Marriage (RM): “For you willed that the human race, created by the gift of your goodness, should be raised to such high dignity that in the union of husband and wife you might bestow a true image of your love” (Preface C, RM). Since it is part of Creation that God proclaimed “good,” marriage manifests and contributes to this inherent goodness. “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (GS 47.1).
The sacrament of Marriage is a covenant “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life” (CCC 1601). This partnership exists for the good of the spouses and the generation and education of children, what are traditionally known as the “ends” of marriage. It contributes to the good of the spouses by a distinctive sharing in the life of Christ: “The content of participation in Christ’s life is also specific: conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will” (FC 13). The generation and education of children is also a participation in the love of the Trinity, for it requires a wholehearted cooperation “with the love of the Creator and Savior” (GS 50 §1; CCC 1652) who enriches the spouses so that “their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice” (CCC 1654). The grace of the sacrament enables the spouses “to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church” (CCC 1661), for “in the wedding covenant you foreshadow the Sacrament of Christ and his Church” (Collect B, RM). This covenantal relationship enables the couple to grow in holiness and so “bear true witness to Christ before all” (Preface A, RM).
Christian marriage possesses four goods and requirements: unity, fidelity, indissolubility and openness to fertility (CCC 1643). These four are intrinsically related, for the unity of marriage is “a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility” (FC 13). They cannot be separated. They mirror in a specific way the mystery of the Trinity, which is an indissoluble unity of Persons whose reciprocal and fruitful love gives rise to the immense richness and beauty of the world. They are also intrinsic aspects of the two ends of marriage, for “the intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them” (GS 48.1). The goods and requirements of marriage, which are “the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love,” receive through the celebration of the sacrament “a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values” (FC 13).
As with all sacraments, the sacrament of matrimony “signifies and communicates grace” (CCC 1617), the divine life and power of God. This grace perfects the spouses’ human love, strengthens their unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (CCC 1662). The sacrament “gives the spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church” (CCC 1661). In addition, through the sacrament God establishes between the spouses an indissoluble bond that “is a reality…and gives rise to covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity” (CCC 1640). “Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church” (FC 13). This communion of man and woman “represents the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and the mystery of his covenant” (FC 13). Like the sacrament of holy orders, the sacrament of marriage “introduces one into an ecclesial order, and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children” (CCC 1631).
Marriage, a sign of Christ’s selfgiving love for his bride the Church, is intrinsically related to the Eucharist, and so the sacrament of marriage should normally be celebrated within the Mass. St. Paul affirmed the spousal character of both sacraments: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water and the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). St. John Paul II elaborated on the relationship between these two sacraments, calling the Eucharist “the very source of Christian marriage,” because it “represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with his blood on the Cross (Jn 19:34)” (FC 57). The Eucharist, the sacrament of charity, is a re-presentation “of Christ’s sacrifice of love for the Church,” his Paschal Mystery, and so becomes for the faithful “a fountain of charity” (FC 57). The spouses “seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and by receiving the Eucharist so that, communicating in the same Body and the same Blood of Christ, they may form but ‘one body’ in Christ” (CCC, 1621). Furthermore, as God blesses the couple with children, the Eucharist becomes for the Christian family “the foundation and soul of its ‘communion’ and its ‘mission’”, becoming one body and so revealing and sharing “in the wider unity of the Church” (FC 57). Christ’s Body given up for us and his Blood shed for us is “a never-ending source of missionary and apostolic dynamism for the Christian family” (FC 57).
Nuptial Blessing: The Epiclesis
The invocation of the Holy Spirit is one of the central elements of every sacrament. This invocation is called the epiclesis, from the Greek word meaning “to call upon.” Every sacra- ment includes an epiclesis, a “prayer asking for the sanctifying power of God’s Holy Spirit” (CCC glossary). It is accompanied by the biblical gesture of blessing: extending the hands over the persons or things (bread and wine; oil; water) to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. The epiclesis ensures that “there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present” (CCC 1104).
The epiclesis of the sacrament of marriage is the Nuptial Blessing, through which “the spouses receive the Holy Spirit as the communion of the love of Christ and the Church” (CCC 1624). The Nuptial Blessing, which follows the Lord’s Prayer, begins with the priest’s invitation to the assembly to pray. The invitation summarizes the meaning of the Nuptial Blessing. One form asks the Lord to “mercifully pour out the blessing of his grace and make of one heart in love those he has joined by a holy covenant” (Form A, RM). A second form asks that the spouses “may always be bound together by love for one another” (Form B, RM). A third form asks for God’s blessing, “that in his kindness he may favor with his help those on whom he has bestowed the Sacrament of Matrimony” (Form C, RM). The Holy Spirit is invoked to unite in love those “now married in Christ” (Form A, RM). The Holy Spirit now bestowed will be a constant source of help throughout the couple’s life together.
The priest then extends his hands over the bride and bridegroom in the epicletic gesture and proclaims the Nuptial Blessing. The present rite offers three forms of the Nuptial Blessing (referred to here as A, B and C, following the Roman Missal). This blessing consists of several distinct sections, which are summarized below. Structure of the Nuptial Blessing All three Nuptial Blessings begin by placing marriage in the plan of Creation. The fullest treatment is found in Form A: “O God, who by your mighty power created all things out of nothing, and, when you had set in place the beginnings of the universe, formed man and woman in your own image, making the woman an inseparable helpmate to the man, that they might no longer be two, but one flesh, and taught that what you were pleased to make one must never be divided.” This opening section teaches God’s creation of the world from nothing, the creation of man and woman in God’s image, and unity and indissolubility of their union.
The next section describes Marriage as an image of Christ’s covenant with the Church. “O God, who, to reveal the great design you formed in your love, willed that the love of the spouses for each other should foreshadow the covenant you graciously made with your people, so that, by the fulfillment of the sacramental sign, the mystical marriage of Christ with his Church might become manifest in the union of husband and wife among your faithful” (Form B). This section concisely weaves together several important covenant themes: God’s covenant with his people Israel, the covenant of marriage, and Christ’s covenant with his bride, the Church. The covenant of marriage was foreshadowed by God’s covenant with his people, and through the sacramental sign the spouses manifest “the mystical marriage of Christ with his Church.”
This is followed by the epiclesis proper—the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the couple. Each Nuptial Blessing reveals a different aspect of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Form A emphasizes the gift of the Spirit as the source of marital fidelity: “Send down upon them the grace of the Holy Spirit and pour your love into their hearts, that they may remain faithful in the Marriage covenant” (RM). Form B refers to the power of the Spirit: “Graciously stretch out your right hand over these your servants (N. and N.), we pray, and pour into their hearts the power of the Holy Spirit” (RM). It also makes explicit reference to the epicletic gesture, asking God to graciously stretch out his right hand over the couple. Form C asks for the gift of divine love: “May the power of your Holy Spirit set their hearts aflame from on high.” Fidelity, power and hearts aflame with the love of the Trinity are specific gifts bestowed on the couple by the Holy Spirit.
The next sections of the Nuptial Blessing invoke blessings on each spouse and on them as a couple. These will be discussed below, since they reveal important aspects of the meaning of the sacrament for the whole of the couple’s life together. The Nuptial Blessing concludes with petitions for the final salvation of the couple. Form A asks that “they may come to the life of the blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Form B asks that they “may one day have the joy of taking part in your great banquet in heaven.” The petition in Form C is the simplest: “May they come to the Kingdom of Heaven.” As the above summary makes evident, the nuptial blessing illustrates a fundamental sacramental principle: “The liturgical word and action are inseparable both insofar as they are signs and instruction and insofar as they accomplish what they signify” (CCC 1155). By listening carefully to the words of the nuptial blessing we can learn how, through “the power and working of the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer III), marriage completely permeates the lives of the spouses and brings them into an abiding covenantal relationship with the Blessed Trinity.
The nuptial blessings contain petitions for each of the spouses and for the couple together that reveal the meaning of the sacrament of matrimony for the whole of life. The petitions for the bride ask that she “follow the example of those holy women whose praises are sung in the Scriptures” (Form A, RM) and that she would “bring warmth to her home with a love that is pure and adorn it with welcome graciousness” (Form B). The petitions for bridegroom ask that he “may be a worthy, good and faithful husband” and, when appropriate, “a provident father” (Form B). There are also petitions for his relationship with his wife, that he may “entrust his heart to her,” “acknowledge her as his equal and his joint heir to the life of grace,” and cherish and honor her “with the love that Christ has for his Church” (Form A). These prayers look ahead to the home and family that the couple will establish.
These individual petitions are enriched with several petitions for the couple. The Spirit is implored to help them persevere in the faith so that they will “hold fast to the faith and keep your commandments” and so “be blameless in all they do” (Form A). The gift and blessing of children is found in all three Nuptial Blessings. Nuptial Blessing A asks that they would “be blessed with children, and prove themselves virtuous parents, who live to see their children’s children” (Form A). Nuptial Blessing B asks the Lord to “sustain…by their deeds, the home they are forming (and prepare their children to become members of your heavenly household by raising them in the way of the Gospel)” (Form B). The third Nuptial Blessing asks that “living out together the gift of Matrimony, they may (adorn their family with children and) enrich the Church” (Form C). Nuptial Blessing C looks ahead to the blessings and challenges of a long life together, asking that “in happiness may they praise you, O Lord, in sorrow may they seek you out, may they have the joy of your presence to assist them in their toil and know that you are near to comfort them in their need… and after a happy old age, together with the circle of friends that surrounds them, may they come to the Kingdom of Heaven” (Form C). Finally, through all these experiences, may they “share with one another the gifts of your love and, by being for each other a sign of your presence, become one heart and one mind” (Form C).
The Nuptial Blessing also illuminates the meaning and power of the marital bond. God himself establishes the marital bond “in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity” (CCC 1640). Rooted in the covenantal love Nuptial Blessing Form A Nuptial Blessing Form B Nuptial Blessing Form C Summary of Creation Summary of Creation Summary of Creation Sign of Covenant of Christ Sign of Christ’s Covenant with Church Petition for each spouse Invocation of Holy Spirit Invocation of Holy Spirit Invocation of Holy Spirit Petitions for each spouse Petitions for couple Petitions for couple Petitions for couple Petitions for each spouse Petition for final salvation Petition for final salvation Petition for final salvation of God, it is perpetual and exclusive. This means that the marital bond is not some sacred “thing” – rather, it brings the spouses into a new and perpetual relationship with the Blessed Trinity, which springs from Christ’s covenant with his bride, the Church.
St. Paul explains the relationship between the married couple on the one hand, and Christ and the Church on the other, in his letter to the Ephesians. After exhorting husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5:25–30), he writes, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31– 32). It is of great significance that in this explanation, the mystery of Christ and the Church precedes the mystery of Christian marriage. “What the sacrament adds is…the love of Christ and his Church in which the husband and wife will share. The mystery comes first; it both reveals the divine meaning of the union of the spouses and makes that meaning a reality in them.”2 What takes place through the sacrament is a mysterious identity between sacramental sign and spiritual reality: “In a sacramental marriage there is a personal covenant uniting bridegroom and bride, but ‘bridegroom and bride’ here refer inseparably to Christ and the Church and to this man and this woman.” 3
This new, covenantal relationship with the Blessed Trinity is effected by the Holy Spirit, bestowed through the Nuptial Blessing. “The covenant… is the Holy Spirit himself. He is the source of the unity of this undivided love; he is its divine bond, which human sin cannot break.”4 This work of the Holy Spirit is expressed in the Nuptial Blessing. The epiclesis asks the Lord to send down upon the couple “the grace of the Holy Spirit and pour your love into their hearts, that they may remain faithful in the Marriage covenant” (Form A). Another form implores God, “Graciously stretch out your right hand over these your servants (N. and N.), we pray, and pour into their hearts the power of the Holy Spirit” (Form B). The third form asks, “May the power of your Holy Spirit set their hearts aflame from on high” (Form B). In the sacrament of marriage, as in every liturgical celebration, “the Holy Spirit is sent in order to bring us into communion with Christ and so to form his Body. The Holy Spirit is like the sap of the Father’s vine which bears fruit on its branches” (CCC 1108). This new relationship with the Blessed Trinity, guaranteed by God’s own fidelity, endures for the whole of married life. Upon approval of the Rite of Marriage, Second Edition, in English, Father Stice will explain further the various aspects of the Rite and how they express and foster the Church’s belief about this sacrament.
Fr. Randy Stice is the Director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy for the Diocese of Knoxville (TN) and the pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens, TN. He holds an STL in Systematic Theology from Mundelein Seminary and an MA in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary. He is the author of Understanding the Sacraments of Healing: A Rite-based Approach (LTP, 2015). His articles have appeared in The Heythrop Journal and Sacred Architecture.
1Preface B, “Ritual Mass for the Celebration of Marriage,” Roman Missal. 2 Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 2nd ed., trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 173. 3 Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 173. 4 Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 173