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Marriage in the Scriptures
From the earliest texts of the Bible marriage is endowed with a special status. That God made them male and female means that this distinction at the very heart of creation is divinely willed. As man and woman joined together in wedlock so too Yahweh entered into a covenant with the people, but this was a relationship characterised by the people’s ingratitude and infidelity. And so the prophets, in speaking of Yahweh, use the image of the lover who incessantly follows the unfaithful beloved through wilderness and desert, mountain and plain, enslavement and captivity, until the beloved would rediscover her true identity.
A New Covenant
The covenant was the relationship that bound God and the people together. The early Christians began to speak of the new covenant that emerged from the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ poured out his blood on the cross and through this act of self-sacrifice he brought new life and hope to the world. Because of their faith in the resurrection the first believers saw God as accepting Jesus’ self-offering and they looked forward to his return in glory. In the meantime they had to face all sorts of interesting questions, not the least significant of which was – what does marriage mean in the light of our faith in the death and resurrection of Christ?
In order to understand their perception of marriage it is important to bear a couple of things in mind. Marriage existed for centuries before Christianity so there was nothing new about it. And the first believers thought that Christ’s return was imminent. What really mattered was the latter, not the former. It was important to ready oneself for the Lord’s return and so many believers abandoned all worldly concerns in the anticipation of an apocalyptic end to all material things. For some, this included marriage. Thus in some of the writings of St. Paul, marriage is looked upon as very definitely in second place behind a life of personal commitment to the Lord. Concerns about spouse and family do not compare with the task of proclaiming the good news. Down through history this line of thinking has dominated in the Church’s leadership, which has generally perceived marriage as an inferior form of discipleship as compared to freely chosen virginity and celibacy.
But early on, another strand of thought began to develop. As the first generation of believers themselves began to die, belief in the imminent return of the Lord declined. Christian communities were faced with how to cope with the world in the medium to longer term. It was during this period, towards the end of the first century and in the succeeding century, that the Church put in place its structures of leadership and a new theology of marriage.
An Extraordinary Claim
In a couple of short verses in the Letter to the Ephesians we find an extraordinary claim about the meaning of marriage for Christians. Having quoted the famous verse from the book of Genesis – “for this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body” – the author goes on to say: ‘‘this mystery has many implications; but I am saying that it applies to Christ and the Church” (see Eph 5:31-32). The word “mystery” is very significant in the Pauline corpus of writings. It refers to the whole mystery of what God reveals in Christ. In this passage marriage forms an integral part of that mystery. Far from being an insidious reality or a lesser form of discipleship marriage is understood to be part of the relationship of Christ to his Church. Christ’s self-giving is prefigured and mirrored in the self-sacrifice that marriage entails. Notice too that the text refers to marriage going right back to the beginning. In other words even before the coming of Christ marriage was already a symbol of the relationship of God to humanity. Given the times in which the text was written this is indeed a notable claim.
It is generally accepted that the Letter to the Ephesians was composed towards the end of the first century quite some time after the death of Paul. At that time, and throughout the next century, Christians were tempted to interpret their new faith through the lenses of various philosophies that were dominant in the world around them. The twin philosophies of Manichaeism and Dualism were hostile to anything material, including the human body and sexual intercourse. But the Pauline community, from which this letter emerged, rejected the idea that marriage and the human body were evil and that one would have to turn one’s back on them in order to gain true spiritual enlightenment. Yet throughout the succeeding centuries the debate over the Christian significance of marriage continued since monasticism and celibacy dominated the popular mind as the only true path of discipleship.
In the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, paragraphs 47-52) we find the most comprehensive statement that any Church Council ever made about marriage. The idea of a covenant is emphasised. Since medieval times the dominant theology of marriage had centred on contract and on the obligations, particularly concerning child bearing, that this placed on the spouses. But Vatican II sounded a return to an older theology, that marriage was based more on relationship than contract. This brings one back inevitably to reflection upon the covenant and the theology of the Letter to the Ephesians.
When one thinks of marriage as a covenant then one cannot but compare and contrast it with the relationship of God to the people. Only one word can describe the nature of the God of the old and new covenants – faithful, particularly in the midst of the faithlessness of the people. This is the God of love who, like a true lover, will ceaselessly seek out the beloved. Similarly those who enter the covenant relationship of marriage will be asked to remain faithful even in the midst of great difficulties. Like the people of God of old, they have to go on a journey that will reveal all their weaknesses and failings and yet even in the midst of these they will be asked to remain faithful, to trust in the God of the covenant when all else fails. This is the great story of human and divine love which ebbs and flows through human history. Undoubtedly Vatican II was right to contextualise marriage in this story but the council also reaffirmed traditional teaching concerning commitment and indissolubility. It made clear that marriage between Christians is indeed a sacrament.
The Necessity of Faith
All sacraments demand and nourish faith. Without it they are meaningless. But, as ever, there is great difficulty in determining what faith is required and whether it exists or not. As a result some pastors use a very strict criterion for admission to the sacraments, including marriage: one will only be admitted if one practices the faith frequently in the particular parish. With regard to the sacrament of marriage a few simple points should be made. The faith required is essentially expressed through the giving of consent to one’s partner rather than through weekly attendance at Sunday Mass. This amounts to a very significant act of faith in another person. If a baptized person is free to give such consent and desires to do so then, even if s/he does not practice the faith regularly, it is difficult to justify the refusal of some pastors to allow the ceremony to go ahead in their parish churches. It does, however, make a lot of sense to celebrate such a marriage outside of Mass. The normal context for a marriage between Catholics is the Eucharist but this need not be the case. When Catholics who have long since lapsed from attendance at Mass ask to get married in the Church then such marriages might not include a celebration of the Eucharist. The reason for this is clear. The faith required for meaningful participation in the Eucharist is of a different order from that necessitated by marriage. In the latter, one is asked to believe in the value of a human relationship based on trust and fidelity; in the former, one is invited to believe that Christ is really present and to partake in the very life of God.
In order to nurture the faith of those preparing for marriage, parishes and dioceses should provide relevant preparation. This should emphasise the importance of consent. It should raise significant questions in the minds of those intending to get married. Am I too young to make such a commitment? Am I and my partner mature enough to set out on this path? Have I revealed my true self to the one I intend to wed? The participants might be encouraged to reflect upon the actual formula of consent. “I take you as my husband/wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the days of my life.”
Marriage is often for the better, for richer and experienced in good health. But at times it is for worse, it can lead to impoverishment and it will have to endure sickness. Those who intend to set out on this journey should have some sense that their commitment will be tested by life.
Most importantly of all the actual ritual of marriage should be celebrated in such a way that its meaning and demands are clear whilst giving true affirmation to the couple as they set out on the unknown journey.