A couple of weeks ago, the church celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, the celebration of the body and blood of Christ, present in the Eucharist. It is a feast where we venerate and give thanks to Jesus for offering himself to us in his saving sacrifice and then making himself present for us in bread and wine when we celebrate the Holy Mass.
As Catholics, we believe that once the words of consecration are spoken and the priest puts his hands over the gifts, calling on the Holy Spirit to come upon them “like the dew fall”, the bread and wine of the offering are no longer just bread and wine, but become the real presence of the body, blood, soul and divinity of our savior, Jesus Christ.
This belief, this transubstantiation, is considered a mystery in the Church. That doesn’t mean that we throw our hands up and say, “Oh, we’ll never understand it, it’s a mystery!” It means that we believe in the reality that the bread and wine are mystically transformed by the power of God so that He may be physically present. We believe that the power of the Holy Spirit actually alters the substance of the bread and wine in reality, even though in appearance, they have not changed.
The day before this Feast of Corpus Christi, my wife and I helped to facilitate a class for marriage preparation at a parish in a nearby town. We spent the day watching a series of talks from Christopher West on Saint John Paul II’s teaching, Theology of the Body. One brief quote in the nearly three to four hours of talks really stood out for me. After reading the catechism’s definition of the word sacrament ( an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace), Christopher West put it more simply and poetically by saying that a sacrament is “when Heaven kisses Earth”.
The two days really dove-tailed quite nicely with each other since the sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Marriage are so intertwined and so similar. In a sense, the celebrations are almost the same. After all, it’s the bible that tells us that Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is his bride, so it would only make sense that marriage would have the same characteristics as the sacrifice of the Mass. Let’s take a look,shall we?
When Jesus died for us, he did so willingly, handing himself over. God could have let us continue in sin with no path to forgiveness, but He came to us, as one of us, to die for our sins so that we could be forgiven. One of the first questions a couple is asked when they come to the altar for marriage is whether they came freely,and of their own will. As Jesus gave himself willingly to us, we are expected to make sacrifices in our marriages willingly as well. No one should be coerced or pressured into marrying. Only by taking those vows willingly, can they mean anything at all.
Jesus gave himself for us to the last, full measure.. He did not hold back anything. He gave of himself even unto death, all for us, and all while we were still sinners. So, like that, the husband and wife are asked to give of themselves totally, even, in a way, dying to ourselves for our spouse. From that moment on, a husband and wife are no longer supposed to put themselves first. I expect we all fail miserably at this from time to time. And what of Jesus giving himself up for us even knowing we were sinners and we would always be sinners? How many times do we expect our spouse to be perfect and feel like if they’re not it gives us an excuse to be selfish or snippy or even outright mean? This is not the model of love and mercy that Jesus, the bridegroom, taught us. He offers us love and mercy totally, regardless of whether we're having a bad day or lose our patience from time to time. To truly mirror Christ's relationship with the church, we need to cut our spouses some slack from time to time and not hold that moment of imperfection against them.
Jesus told the apostles that he would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. He would be with her “until the end of the age”. Once Jesus ransomed himself for our salvation, there was no way he was going to just leave us to fend for ourselves. He promised, like any good husband, to be with us forever. Husbands and wives are asked to pledge that same faithfulness during their wedding vows. “In sickness and in health”, “for richer or for poorer”, and “all the days of my life” are our promises to each other that we will not leave our spouse alone, we won’t run if the going gets tough and that only in death will we allow anything to come break us apart.
When Jesus allowed himself to hang on the cross and die for his bride, the church, his sacrifice gave all the members of His church, the gift of a new eternal life in union with Him. All we need to do is accept this gift of new life and it is ours. His sacrifice, celebrated in the Eucharist, is life-giving in the deepest sense of the word. By dying, he killed death, and life sprung forth; life in such abundance that it’s eternal. The couple getting married is also expected to welcome God’s gift of new life. Marriage is the celebration of God’s love so strong that it brings forth new life. Married couples are expected to mirror this by being open to the new life that their union might bring.
The marriage ceremony and the liturgy of the Eucharist are both great examples of that 'Heaven kissing Earth' principle in that they are both supposed to give us a foretaste of Heaven. In the Mass, we are elevated to celebrate the marriage feast of the lamb as written in Revelations. It is the celebration of all the saints and angels where the lamb (Jesus) marries his bride, the church. Likewise, the union we feel with our spouse is a small taste of the beauty we will experience in Heaven when we are all one in spiritual union with God. Both celebrations are literally supposed to be Heaven on Earth. Now, I know what you're thinking. “Not every moment of my marriage is Heaven on Earth. As a matter of fact, I sometimes feel like I was sent to the other place!” Even the beauty of the Eucharistic liturgy can be made less than ethereal by outside distractions. These distractions may be present in the congregation or may be in the form of lingering thoughts and concerns from our daily lives rattling around in our minds. Well, the key to both is that they are sacraments and if you let Christ transform them, he will make them more 'heavenly' (remember, sacraments are instituted by Christ to give grace, but we have to let Him in so he can give it to us). After all, if the people at the wedding feast at Cana hadn't allowed Jesus to transform their water into wine, what would the celebration of their marriage have turned into?
Now when I started this post, I started by talking about transubstantiation and how the sacraments (when Heaven kisses Earth) have the power to transform things. Here again we see the Christ’s sacrifice for the church, mirrored in the sacrament shared between man and wife. For as the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the sacrament of marriage transforms a man and a woman into husband and wife, joined together in a bond that did not exist before they approached the altar that day. It makes their two lives into one life to be lived for each other and the children that may be entrusted to them by God.. Like any of the sacraments, if we really want our marriage to be what it is meant to be, we NEED to let Christ in to transform us. Because God knows as human beings in a fallen world, if we try to go it alone... well, we all know what the statistics are, right?
As I was preparing this, I thought I had found one difference between the Eucharist and Marriage, and that was the ministers of the sacraments. You see, only a priest can minister the consecration of the bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist, but in a marriage, the bride and the groom minister the sacrament to each other. Essentially, the priest is there as a witness for the church. But even this is similar if you think about it. Obviously, the only one that can give a free, total, faithful and fruitful gift of yourself is you. So it makes sense that the bride and groom ‘minister’ the gift of themselves to each other in marriage. In the sacrifice of the Mass, it works the same way. Consider that during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest works in ‘persona Christi’, in ‘the person of Christ’, it then makes sense, that only in persona Christi could he offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Where the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, our savior, come present among us, His bride, the church, and we are all one in communion with Him.
We all need to try to let the bridegroom in when he arrives and knocks at the door. His power is truly miraculous in its ability to transform the regular (bread and wine, man and woman) into the sacred (body, blood, soul and divinity, husband and wife). Let Him in and he will turn the water of your daily life into the sweetest wine you've ever tasted and give you something truly worthy of celebration.