A sacrament makes visible in a human way something that is invisible or spiritual. In other words, a sacrament images and reveals the mystery of God.
Every sacrament has two key aspects which make the sacrament visible: words and gesture. In marriage, the sacramental words are the wedding vows, in effect “I freely give myself to you in marriage, totally, faithfully and fruitfully”. These sentiments are reflected in the Statement of Intentions to which couples answer “Yes!” at their wedding:
- Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? (Our love is freely given and is to be a total, unreserved gift of self).
- Will you love and honour each other as husband and wife for the rest of your lives? (Our love is faithful and exclusive until death).
- Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church? (Our love is to be fruitful and life-giving).
The sacramental gesture is the couple’s sexual union, the act of love where they freely give themselves totally, faithfully and fruitfully to each other. Sexual union says with the body the vows spoken at the altar. Every act of love is thus a renewal of the wedding vows!
These four characteristics of married love (freely given, total, faithful and fruitful) are embedded in the Church’s understanding of the very meaning of marital love. Pope John Paul II called sexual union ‘a sacred body language’. It is the body saying or expressing in action, the total gift of self to which a couple commits in words at the altar. In this sense, sex is liturgical – it completes and fulfils the liturgy of their wedding. The matrimonial bed replaces the altar as the site of the sacred liturgy.
Sex is powerful body language. It expresses and makes visible what is happening within a couple and out of sight, that is, their desire to be one – freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. The desire for union and communion is in fact the meaning of the body language. It is a meaning that is built into the very structure of their bodies. In other words, the meaning is intrinsic. It is intrinsic because the act is not just a sign or image of a spiritual reality, it actually does physically what it symbolises spiritually.
The ‘one flesh’ union literally happens when husband and wife merge their bodies in sexual intercourse. The union which takes place with their bodies, also happens with their spirits. Even more profoundly, the one flesh union is permanently and irrevocably accomplished in procreative sex; in the creation of a new human being, the flesh of the two (that is the ovum and sperm) become one in the child.