The first, last and most fundamental thing to remember about Holy Matrimony is that it is a Christian Sacrament. It is a sacred act, blessed by Christ and His Church. It signifies the conferral and indwelling of God’s grace on and in the man and woman thereby united. It is of divine making and it is forever. Its nature and sacramental character rest upon Christ’s words as reported in the Gospel according to Saint Luke (X,8-9), “And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”.
Marriage is certainly a joyous event -- joyous and holy at the same time. It is not, as it may so often seem, just a happy social occasion. It takes place (or should take place) at God’s altar, in the presence of God and his priest and his people. Like Baptism and Confirmation, it is a one time Sacrament not repeatable like Holy Communion or Penance. It must therefore be entered into with the most solemn sense of responsibility and dedication.
It is sometimes asserted canonically or otherwise that a man and woman desiring to be joined in Holy Matrimony should first sign a declaration confirming their understanding of the nature of marriage. However, such a declaration can add nothing to the sacramental and binding effect of the marriage vows themselves, made to and before God.
It is, of course, highly desirable that the marriage ceremony should be conducted by a priest. But the fact that a minister officiates is not what gives the act its sacramental character.
This character arises from the fact that the vows are taken before God and in the context of Christ’s description of the nature of marriage. The priest is, in fact, not really the minister in this case. Rather, the man and woman taking vows are the ministers. Holy Matrimony thus differs in this respect from all the other Sacraments except for Baptism under unusual circumstances (when any baptized layman may perform the act).
In spite of the sacramental character of the act, in spite of its being rooted in the very words of Jesus quoted above, in spite of solemn, holy and Christian context, marriage is under the most extreme and non-Christian attack in our society today. Its binding and permanent nature, the importance of one of its purposes as being the procreation of children to be brought into Christ’s family, the primary importance of a stable and solid family as the basis of a stable and solid society all these factors are flouted and ridiculed today by that very large sector of society which would turn marriage into a kind of sexual game of musical chairs. Christians above all must resist and fight against these attacks on one of God’s great Sacraments of grace.
(By way of footnotes, it should be remembered that both parties to a Christian marriage should have been previously baptized. Also, marriages should not be performed in Advent or in Lent, except by special dispensation of the bishop. These are traditional rules developed by the Church and they grew out of the Christian nature of the Sacrament and the penitential nature of Advent and Lent.)