I officiated at a wedding in the first week of October, and my heart was filled with joy and sorrow at the same time. I watched the beautiful couple in their nicely made wedding gown and designer suit. I admired that they decided to start their union as husband and wife within the most holy sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist. The couple seemed convinced about the marriage covenant they were going into. They looked poised to bear witness to God’s love in the world. I was touched while presiding at their wedding with all the enthusiasm and passion present in the church. My emotional reaction was evident for the new couple as I watched them say, “ I do.” I looked at the family of both the bride and the groom. I pondered at the excitement in the entire church and marveled at the eminently joyful faces radiating hope. Over two hundred people were in attendance, beautifully dressed for this singular occasion which took more than two years of planning. Everyone was waiting for the young couple to utter those final words, “… till death do us part,” and they did. So, why did I have mixed feelings? It is because, recently, I have come to see so much conflict, pain, and disappointment in so many marriages. As a priest and a marriage and family therapist in training, accompanying couples in those challenging moments can be both emotionally draining and spiritually daunting. I was beginning to fear for this couple on the very day of their wedding (which I shouldn’t). This fear is because of the influence of secularized faith in today’s world. To counter my concern, I prayed harder: that this joy and excitement would remain for the new couple. I prayed that they would discover in themselves something special, not just the ritual of giving rings to each other, but the grace of being mutual gifts for the rest of their lives.
The dictionary meaning of gift is that it is a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present. The key words here are “willingly” and “without payment.” To give a present to someone implies a recognition of the bond or relationship between the giver and the gift. In some cases, a gift is something offered to a family member, a friend, or someone cherished for certain attributes. The intention for giving a gift is to add to the person’s joy. A gift explains what the receiver represents to the giver. It is a sign of appreciation, value, and love. We can look at couples as gifts in three ways -- spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
In marriage, the giver is the gift. Sacramentally, the Church teaches that every sacrament consists of matter and form. Matter is the physical material used to administer the sacrament. For instance, in baptism, you have water poured on the head of the individual and the oil used to anoint the head and the chest. Then, there is the spoken word which pronounces the action performed with the matter. The priest/minister says, “I baptize you…” That is the form. Every sacrament has the external ingredient (matter) and the spoken words (form) which come together to provide efficacy of the sacramental act. In the sacrament of marriage, the couple exchange rings (don’t be tricked because that’s not the matter) as they utter the words, “Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity.” The ring is only a sign of their love. Recognize that the priest cannot take the ring and give it to either the bride or the groom in marriage. Assuming that the ring is available whereas one of the couples fail to show up, no one else has the power to put the ring on the finger of the bride/groom present. It is only the couple that perform this act to each other. For that reason, we call them the ministers of their sacrament (of marriage). Here is the deal; the body of the bride and the body of the groom form the matter for the sacrament. They are gifts to each other expressed in the conjugal act. The couple become bonded together. They produce further gifts, the children who become blessings of their union. The married life has capacity for procreative love. Saint Paul once wrote, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is your true and proper worship.” (Rom. 12:1)
This would make more sense if we relate the concept of gifts to the famous marriage passage of Paul in Ephesians Chapter 5. Paul says to women, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22) To submit means to give in to or to yield to an authority. To submit here does not imply coercion. It does not connote the idea of a servant who submits to a higher or superior power. The husband as an authority figure represents Christ. Submission implies giving oneself willingly for the other. Saint Paul goes further to explain the corresponding demand for this submission on the part of the men this way, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5:25) Christ loved the Church and became a gift to her. He offered himself as a living sacrifice for the Church. Paul continues, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.” (5:28) Loving one’s wife as one’s own body means loving the gift in the giver now bonded by union of the sacrament. That is the spiritual bond, the meaning of the contract engagement where the couples say, “In sickness and in health, in richness and in poverty. I will love you and honor you for the rest of my life.”
Emotionally, couples make a huge investment in their marriage. Imagine presenting a gift to someone without any appreciation from the person, a gift you took time to search for. You spent time and energy getting this gift ready. You are filled with excitement and enthusiasm with the hope to elicit joy and happiness in the recipient. Then, she/he dashes your excitement. That could be painful. Couples prepare to be gifts to each other for years. They search for a long time. They prepare themselves in all possible ways. They expect their partner to receive them with the greatest joy.
When we speak about emotions in marriage, caution must be taken not to imagine that marriage is all about emotions. Rather, emotions play an integral part in the manner in which couples accept themselves and become present. Pope Francis once gave a classic description of emotional control thus, “”emotional control” doesn’t mean stuffing your feelings, denying your feelings, or refusing to recognize your feelings. It means being aware of your feelings and being able to choose to make the healthiest response in the presence of those feelings.” The husband and wife bring emotional gifts into their marriage by making their feelings present to each other- joy, affection, compassion, hope, trust. They hope to feel safe, secure and appreciated. They hope to provide strength and support for each other. They hope to actualize their self-worth, form an alliance, and are able to take risks of love together. They desire each other as a guarantee to satisfy their basic attachment longing. Most times, the internal groaning is, “I need you to be there for me. I love to feel your presence.” Recognizing these needs enables couples to express their emotions freely even when they are negative- anger, sadness, pain, disappointment, fear, and disgust. Couples who cannot express these feelings experience frustration. It is as if their gifts are missing and they feel rejected.
Physical presence confirms the spiritual and emotional gift. Being physically present is a guarantee of the commitment of living and moving together in the marriage journey. Every spouse wants to see her/his partner. The woman wants to do things with her husband. She wants others to see them together shopping, going to church, driving, vacationing. This enhances bonding and creates mutual balance. To be physically present is to reinforce the commitment made on the wedding day. Have you ever imagined why a spouse panics when their partner leaves the home from time to time for a long period. You hear such complaints, “She/he is not available.” That means, “I’m not seeing him/her.” Such physical absence can erode the spiritual and emotional balance which marriage requires. Remember the case of Adam and Eve! Adam’s absence exposed Eve’s vulnerability. That’s the danger, an absent partner exposes the weakness of the marriage relationship.
It is important to reconcile the spiritual, emotional, and physical gifts in marriage. The mind, the body, and the feelings are necessary ingredients for building a home. If a partner is mentally present but emotionally absent, it becomes like an empty gong merely producing sound. If a partner is emotionally invested in the relationship without being physically present, the marriage cord becomes unreasonably stretched in one direction. If one partner is physically present but mentally missing, the marriage flavor runs dry and leads to frustration. Think about a young mom who takes her nine-month-old baby to church. As soon as she tries to settle down, the baby begins to cry from hunger. This mom is divided between taking care of her baby and listening to the priest. Either she leaves and takes care of her needs or she stays and doesn’t hear what the priest says. The child just needs her attention. In a similar way, that child is the image of your spouse or partner. When your spouse cries for attention, there is a seeking of your presence, the gift. Your partner is searching for appreciation and the mutual interest which you share ...till death do us part.
Fr. Vincent is a priest from Nigeria, currently serving as associate pastor at Christ the King Church in Maryland. Founder of the Family Apostolate Inc and Magazine, he holds a master’s degree in Communication and is presently a doctoral student of Marriage and Family Therapy at Eastern University in Pennsylvania