1. "I take you as my wife"; "I take you as my husband"—these words are at the center of the liturgy of marriage as a sacrament of the Church. These words spoken by the engaged couple are inserted in the following formula of consent: "I promise to be faithful to you always, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to love and honor you all the days of my life." With these words the engaged couple enter the marriage contract and at the same time receive the sacrament of which both are the ministers. Both of them, the man and the woman, administer the sacrament. They do it before witnesses. The priest is a qualified witness, and at the same time he blesses the marriage and presides over the whole sacramental liturgy. Moreover, all those participating in the marriage rite are in a certain sense witnesses, and some of them (usually two) are called specifically to act as witnesses in an official way. They must testify that the marriage was contracted before God and confirmed by the Church. In the ordinary course of events sacramental marriage is a public act by means of which two persons, a man and a woman, become husband and wife before the ecclesial society, that is, they become the actual subject of the marriage vocation and life.
2. Marriage is a sacrament which is contracted by means of the word which is a sacramental sign by reason of its content: "I take you as my wife—as my husband—and I promise to be always faithful to you, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to love you and honor you all the days of my life." However, this sacramental word is, per se, merely the sign of the coming into being of marriage. The coming into being of marriage is distinguished from its consummation, to the extent that without this consummation the marriage is not yet constituted in its full reality. The fact that a marriage is juridically contracted but not consummated (ratum—non consummatum) corresponds to the fact that it has not been fully constituted as a marriage. Indeed the very words "I take you as my wife—my husband" refer not only to a determinate reality, but they can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse. This reality (conjugal intercourse) has moreover been determined from the very beginning by institution of the Creator: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (cf. Gn 2:24).
3. Thus then, from the words whereby the man and the woman express their willingness to become "one flesh" according to the eternal truth established in the mystery of creation, we pass to the reality which corresponds to these words. Both the one and the other element are important in regard to the structure of the sacramental sign, to which it is fitting to devote the remainder of the present reflections. Granted that the sacrament is a sign which expresses and at the same time effects the saving reality of grace and of the covenant, one must now consider it under the aspect of sign, whereas the previous reflections were dedicated to the reality of grace and of the covenant.
Marriage, as a sacrament of the Church, is contracted by means of the words of the ministers, that is, of the newlyweds. These words signify and indicate, in the order of intention, that which (or rather, who) both have decided to be from now on, the one for the other and the one with the other. The words of the newlyweds form a part of the integral structure of the sacramental sign, not merely for what they signify but also, in a certain sense, with what they signify and determine. The sacramental sign is constituted in the order of intention insofar as it is simultaneously constituted in the real order.
4. Consequently, the sacramental sign of marriage is constituted by the words of the newlyweds inasmuch as the "reality" which they themselves constitute corresponds to those words. Both of them, as man and woman, being the ministers of the sacrament in the moment of contracting marriage, constitute at the same time the full and real visible sign of the sacrament itself. The words spoken by them would not per se constitute the sacramental sign of marriage unless there corresponded to them the human subjectivity of the engaged couple and at the same time the awareness of the body, linked to the masculinity and femininity of the husband and wife. Here it is necessary to recall to mind the whole series of our previous analyses in regard to Genesis (cf. Gn 1:2). The structure of the sacramental sign remains essentially the same as "in the beginning." In a certain sense, it is determined by the language of the body. This is inasmuch as the man and the woman, who through marriage should become one flesh, express in this sign the reciprocal gift of masculinity and femininity as the basis of the conjugal union of the persons.
5. The sacramental sign of marriage is constituted by the fact that the words spoken by the newlyweds use again the same language of the body as at the "beginning," and in any case they give a concrete and unique expression to it. They give it an intentional expression on the level of intellect and will, of consciousness and of the heart. The words "I take you as my wife—as my husband" imply precisely that perennial, unique and unrepeatable language of the body. At the same time they situate it in the context of the communion of the persons: "I promise to be always faithful to you, in joy and in sadness, in sickness and in health, and to love you and honor you all the days of my life." In this way the enduring and ever new language of the body is not only the "substratum." But in a certain sense, it is the constitutive element of the communion of the persons. The persons—man and woman—become for each other a mutual gift. They become that gift in their masculinity and femininity, discovering the spousal significance of the body and referring it reciprocally to themselves in an irreversible manner—in a life-long dimension.
6. Thus the sacrament of marriage as a sign enables us to understand the words of the newlyweds. These words confer a new aspect on their life in a dimension strictly personal (and interpersonal: communio personarum), on the basis of the language of the body. The administration of the sacrament consists in this: that in the moment of contracting marriage the man and the woman, by means of suitable words and recalling the perennial language of the body, form a sign, an unrepeatable sign, which has also a significance for the future: "all the days of my life," that is to say, until death. This is a visible and efficacious sign of the covenant with God in Christ, that is, of grace which in this sign should become a part of them as "their own special gift" (according to the expression of 1Cor 7:7).
7. Expressing this matter in socio-juridical terms, one can say that between the newlyweds there is a stipulated, well-defined conjugal pact. It can also be said that following upon this pact, they have become spouses in a manner socially recognized, and that in this way the family as the fundamental social cell is also constituted in germ. This manner of understanding it is obviously in agreement with the human reality of marriage. Indeed, it is also fundamental in the religious and religious-moral sense. However, from the point of view of the theology of the sacrament, the key for the understanding of marriage is always the reality of the sign whereby marriage is constituted on the basis of the covenant of man with God in Christ and in the Church. It is constituted in the supernatural order of the sacred bond requiring grace. In this order marriage is a visible and efficacious sign. Having its origin in the mystery of creation, it derives its new origin from the mystery of redemption at the service of the "union of the sons of God in truth and in love" (Gaudium et Spes 24). The liturgy of the sacrament of marriage gave a form to that sign: directly, during the sacramental rite, on the basis of the ensemble of its eloquent expressions; indirectly, throughout the whole of life. As spouses, the man and woman bear this sign throughout the whole of their lives and they remain as that sign until death.
Source: L'Osservatore Romano