Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reflection: On Marriage

Christian marriage is a sacrament and thus a great mystery, as St. Paul recognizes:

In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body.* 31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church (Eph 5:28-32, NRSV).

I have been married nearly thirty-three years and this relationship is no less mysterious to me now than on that early September evening when two foolish kids, having little clue what they were getting themselves into, said “I do,” and “I will,” to each other before God and a host of witnesses. Only grace has kept us together I am certain: God’s grace and the graciousness we have learned to show one another. I am grateful beyond measure.

Why do some marriages “make it” and others do not? Why, after forty years of marriage, do a couple like Al and Tipper Gore announce their separation, simply having grown apart? What counsel might the church offer – and I can speak only of Christian marriages – to a couple contemplating marriage or to a couple struggling to sustain one?

Wedding vows are secondary to and ultimately dependent upon baptismal vows. How fitting it would be for each wedding ceremony to include a renewal of baptismal vows prior to the making of marriage vows, for the primary human relationship is with God.

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel
against God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and the creatures of
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do.

And then, following the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the bride and groom would join with the entire assembly in these commitments:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread,
and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent
and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of
every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

Only a firm commitment to these primary vows, empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will enable bride and groom to keep the secondary vows they make to one another. For better, yes, but for worse? For richer, certainly, but for poorer also? In health (and beauty and vitality), obviously, but in sickness (and wrinkles and disability)? Yes to all: because you have renounced Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God (and the love of neighbor and spouse). Yes: because you have turned to Jesus, accepted him as Savior, placed your trust in his grace and love, and promised to follow and obey him. Yes: because you have taken your place in the Church, pledged to resist evil and to repent having failed. Yes: because you have made solemn and holy covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons (even your spouse), to love your neighbor as yourself (and, by extension, your spouse as your own body), to strive for justice and peace among all people (even your spouse), and to respect the dignity of every human being (even your spouse). Wedding vows are simply one means by which and through which a man and woman live out their baptismal vows. Fail to take the baptismal vows seriously and the marriage is at risk. A failed marriage is first and foremost a failure to live in the light of baptism.

Related to this is a powerful truth I first heard expressed by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his work Life Together (HarperCollins Publishers, 1954): we must never relate to one another directly, but only through the mediation of Christ. Christ must always stand between me and you, even – and perhaps especially – between husband and wife.

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.

Though written about life in the Christian community – life among brothers and sisters – Bonhoeffer’s insight applies equally well to husbands and wives.

Accordingly, I must never speak of my husband or my wife in the possessive sense as if the other is defined primarily in relation to me. My spouse is defined by his or her relationship with God, who has then placed my spouse in relationship with me for our mutual good, which is to say for our salvation. Attempts at direct human relationships unmediated by Christ are always distorted and often coercive and abusive, dominated by human selfishness and passion. My relationship with Christ, and my recognition of my spouse’s relationship with Christ, must always take priority over our relationship with one another; indeed, the relationship with Christ determines the nature of the relationship with one another. The other is Christ’s, and only in Christ, mine.

I am saddened, but not surprised, when a marriage of forty years dissolves. Christian marriage is a sacrament and thus a great mystery; we often think we can negotiate it on our own terms. We are often wrong.

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