Marriage as Covenant

by Mary Jo Pedersen

Scott and Tina were college sweethearts. They married right after graduation and had their first child before their first anniversary.

Two other children followed. Tina stayed home with the children while Scott moved ahead in his career in the computer industry.

But then things changed. Scott lost two jobs and settled for lower-paying, less-satisfying work. Then his intermittent problem with alcohol became a full-blown crisis. Scott was unemployed for several years. Tina returned to work, had a miscarriage, all the while encouraging Scott to seek help. Eventually he entered treatment and began recovery that has continued.

Life is much better today for Tina and Scott. They have been through hard times, terrible times. But they told me a beautiful thing: through their twenty-two years of marriage, neither doubted the love of the other. They always believed they were loved even when problems kept them from showing it. They didn’t always feel the other's love but they never lost sight of their promise and their desire to love each other until death.

In the nuptial blessing at the wedding Mass, the priest or deacon says that God “made the union of husband and wife an image of the covenant between you and your people.”

Covenant love is steadfast love — it is love that endures. Scott and Tina’s marriage vividly illustrates the depth and strength of covenant love. The lens of faith reveals the profound and intimate connection between human commitment and God’s steadfast love for humanity.

Your marriage covenant is rooted in your baptism. In order to contract a civil marriage you need a birth certificate, but for a Catholic marriage you need proof of Baptism and Confirmation.

In Baptism you were united with Christ and incorporated into his Church. When you join with your spouse in marriage, you make a covenant together that reflects the deep commitment of love and fidelity between Christ and the Church. Covenant is the third lens through which we will look at marriage. With vocation and sacrament, it further reveals the thread of God’s presence woven through the fabric of your life together.

In the eyes of the state, the promises you exchanged on your wedding day constitute a contract. Your marriage, like all marriages, is a legally binding agreement with rights and privileges that are spelled out in civil law. If one party to a contract violates its terms, the contract becomes null and void. A contract can also be ended by mutual agreement.

A covenant is different from a contract in that a covenant requires each partner to make a radical, permanent commitment to the other. The one making the covenant is bound by its terms even if the other party is unfaithful to them. Like most couples, Scott and Tina probably had no idea what their vows really meant until they faced the daily demands of fidelity.

Covenant is an ancient word that refers to Gods relationship with his people. God made the original covenant with the people of Israel; he took the initiative, saying, “I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). The people of Israel did not hold up their end of the covenant; they repeatedly violated God’s law, worshipped other gods, and ignored his direction. Nevertheless, God continued to love and care for his people.

Eventually, God made a new covenant through the coming of Jesus, and thereby extended covenant love to the entire human race.

The promises made on your wedding day are covenant promises. They are not easy to fulfill. Those promises are a way of participating in the promise God makes to us. Because God's grace abides in the sacrament of matrimony, grace makes covenant promising possible. God’s unconditional love is the source of marital love, the well from which you and your partner can draw throughout your married life, “for richer or poorer, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death.”

Excerpt from For Better, for Worse, for God: Exploring the Holy Mystery of Marriage  by Mary Jo Pedersen (Loyola Press 2008). Reprinted with permission of Loyola Press. To order copies of this book, call 1-800-621-1008 or visit