Marriage is a sacrament because it is a visible word of God, a word of grace and judgment. To see marriage as a word of grace is easy for us; it fits easily with what we want marriage to be – an experience of feeling loved and in love. It is harder to see marriage as a word of judgment.
When Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, he condemns the Corinthian church for divisions among them. When they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, these divisions are not challenged, and so the Lord’s Supper becomes not a word of grace but a word of judgment. The sign of God’s great act to restore creation, to reconcile humanity in Christ, becomes instead a sign of their refusal of this gift of reconciliation and continued division and hostility. The body and blood of Christ, a sign of life, leads to illness and death for those who partake in an unworthy manner.
In a similar way, marriage is a sign of Christ’s love for the church, but we can partake of this sign in an unworthy manner. In marriage, we are called to love our spouse as God loves us and to see our spouse as reflecting God’s own love for us, however imperfectly. We are called to enter into a relationship in which each is challenged to grow and each demonstrates faithfulness. Mutual faithfulness allows us to receive the challenge without feeling threatened, and the willingness to challenge each other keeps the faithfulness honest.
When we do not respect our spouse as another person of infinite worth, whose thoughts and experiences are worthy of attention and consideration even when they run against our own, we refuse this gift that reflects God’s love for us. Without receiving the challenges to grow from another person’s perspective, our worst tendencies become cemented. Without the trust to receive those challenges in good faith, affection deteriorates and we feel threatened. We consume the other person in our own ego’s self-protective strategies, or we allow ourselves to be consumed. Either way, the marriage is no longer a sacrament of Christ’s love for the church, but a sign of our own refusal of growth and life.