In biblical times, a covenant was a solemn pact which created a family bond between parties. Unlike a contract, a covenant was not simply an exchange of goods or services, but rather a gift of oneself to the other. Throughout salvation history, God repeatedly made covenants with his chosen people. He pledged to give himself to them, and they were to love him with all of their hearts. These covenants were fulfilled by Jesus — God truly entered the world and gave himself fully to us, and by the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, humanity was able to make a perfect offering of love back to God.
God created marriage to be a covenant. By their exchange of marriage vows, husband and wife pledge to give themselves completely to one another. They are not merely exchanging goods and services, but making a gift of themselves. In so doing, they create a family where before there were two individuals. Since marriage is a complete gift of self, it is a gift without conditions or limits.
God created the gift of sexual intercourse as the physical sign of this covenant. It perfectly expresses the total gift of self established by marriage. It is the only expression of intimacy that unites husband and wife as one flesh and also brings forth new human life. Their bodies are operating as one on a biological level, and since we are body-spirits, there is a true union of not only bodies but of persons, body and soul. What was promised at the altar becomes a reality — a total, mutual gift of self.
From all of this we can start to understand the catechism’s description of marriage: “The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children.” (Catechism #1660)
As a total gift of self, marriage has two purposes in God’s plan. First, it is meant for “the good of the couple,” building each other up and helping each other to learn to love as God loves. Second, it is meant for the “generation and education of children.” The total, unconditional love between husband and wife is meant to be the usual way that new children are welcomed into the world and taught to love as God loves.
Some thoughts for prayer and discussion:
- Our culture still holds on to the idea of marriage as a total gift of oneself, in a romantic sense. But are there ways that you see limits or conditions placed on marriage, in your own mind or in our culture?
- Have you ever thought of the marital embrace as connected to your wedding vows? (Renewing and making flesh what you promised at the altar?)
- If you are married, is your top priority to help your spouse become a saint? If you have children, is your top priority in their lives to help them be saints?