The Emmaus experience confirmed for the first Christians one of the central truths of our faith: the individual, concrete story of each believer is bound mysteriously to the story of Christ himself. As each believer travels on his or her particular life journey, Christ becomes our traveling companion and invites us to become a part of his journey.
“Stay with us,” prayed the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and Christ was pleased to grant their request, although not in the manner they imagined. The disappearance of Christ’s visible form from the disciples’ view was an indication that his presence had passed into the sacraments. Thus, the disciples came to know him “in the breaking of the bread,” that is, in the Eucharist, in the sacramental life of the church which Christ established.
Through the sacraments, our stories become one with and in Christ. Our paths merge and our common destination is made clear. For this reason, the sacraments appear at the most important times of our lives, bestowing the supernatural help we need to stay the course as disciples of Jesus.
One particularly pivotal moment involves the gift of hearts, bodies and lives exchanged between a man and a woman in marriage. The couple, recognizing in each other the difference that both complements and accentuates their own divinely ordained masculinity or femininity, bind their respective journeys so closely that only one path is taken.
A binding of lives so intense requires the constant companionship of Jesus who walks with the couple and through the Sacrament of Matrimony so elevates their love that it becomes a symbol of his own love for the church. Because marriage between believers then is a sign of Christ’s love, it takes its every direction from him. How, then, does Christ love?
First, when Christ loves, his love is exclusive. His heart is not divided. He loves his bride with everything that he has and everything that he is.
Second, Christ’s love is fruitful. It is meant to infuse the church with grace and cause new life to spring forth. Christ’s love is too powerful to be limited; it is always generative.
Third, Christ’s love is constant and enduring. He is faithful even unto death. There is no better foundation for his Bride than Christ himself, who has wedded himself so closely to her that the two can never be separated. No greater love could separate Christ from his Bride, for the very love that he shares with the Father is the love he shares with the church (see John 17:26).
Marriage, then, requires exclusivity, openness to new life, and permanence. Such an audacious form of love—that always puts the good of the other before the good of oneself—requires the help of grace. The grace of marriage perfects the couple’s love and strengthens their indissoluble unity, making their married state a path to perfection in holiness. The married couple, in the presence of the church’s minister and through their free exchange of consent, confer the sacrament on each other.
Throughout their remainder of their common life, if husband and wife need any reminder of the love that binds them together, they need look no further than the cross, which is the true paradigm of selfless love. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus had to live through Good Friday to find new hope in the Resurrection, so too the married couple must embrace the cross in all its forms to experience the triumph of their graced love.
And like all of the other important moments on their journey, Christ and his church will be with them when they are needed most. Thus, the church provides not only the grace of the sacraments, but also sacramentals, sacred signs which dispose us to grace and aid in rendering us holy. Sacramentals include blessings of people and objects for sacred use, special moments of prayer and petition, and ritual gestures and actions. Like the sacraments, these sacramentals provide moments of respite and refreshment throughout life’s journey and keep us fixed on our destination. They are important for all believers, whether married or not.
And just as every journey has a beginning, so too every journey has an end. The church is present at the end of every believer’s journey with her rites of burial, interceding for her children and presenting them to the loving mercy of Almighty God. The church’s funeral rites provide hope for believers and assure them that “indeed, for your faithful Lord, life is changed, not ended.”
The sacramental life of the church—in both her celebrations and her sacred reminders—constantly challenges us to find our story more deeply entwined with the story of Christ, which is the Good News for the salvation of the world.
Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.