Alan Rabjohns on the rationale of Christian Marriage
On a desk calendar I had as a 'freebie' the January motto reads: 'When a man and woman marry they become one. The problems start when they try to decide which one', confirming marriage as a serious subject that we like to joke about.
In all the debate about what to do about marriage discipline we sometimes seem to lose sight of the 'causes for which matrimony was ordained' and the very nature of the institution we are so keen to defend.
So we need to ask the question, 'Why marry?' on all sorts of levels. 'Why marry this man or this woman?' 'Why marry rather than just live together?'
I think there are two approaches which will help us to answer the various ways of asking the question.
First, we need to rediscover the vision of marriage as a vocation. Because statistically most people marry there is a tendency to think that vocations are only to something that is a departure from the norm. So we may have vocations to priesthood, to celibacy, to the religious life, to a hermit life. The rest get married.
This default setting approach to marriage is not the Christian vision. God calls men and women to the married state. God calls: he calls this man to marry this woman; to create the Church in their home, to be those who continue his work of creation.
For the Christian, marriage is neither an accident nor an automatic assumption but a positive calling and vocation: men and women are called into marriage in order that they might take part in God's great work, may participate in bringing about the form and purpose of the archetypal community, the heavenly Jerusalem which is the mother of us all.
For the purpose of marriage is to create a family, an icon of the community that is in God. We may say that God created the natural family as the prototypal community to be a sacrament, manifestation or image of the form of the heavenly Jerusalem, the perfected Church. I would want to argue that there are two basic communities or families in the Church, this 'natural' one and the 'artificial' one of the monastic community. This is not to ignore the parish or wider eucharistic community but to recognize that it is through these prototypes that eucharistic communities are able to be formed and move into that union with the archetypal community, the goal of all creation, the union between Christ and his bride, the Church.
This leads us on to the second approach we need to take to marriage and that is to remember that it is a sacrament, one of the guaranteed actions of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians St Paul speaks of the love of man and woman in marriage and relates it to the love of Christ to his Bride, the Church.
'Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church because we are members of his body. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound and I am saying it refers to Christ and the Church.' (Ephesians 5.22–32)
A vision of splendour
It is clear from this crucial passage of St Paul's writing that the mystery of Christian marriage and the family is intimately related to the whole mystery of the life of God himself. It is rooted in the interpersonal life of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and the unity of the Son of God with his people which effects their unity with the same Trinity. As John Meyendorff writes, 'The husband becomes one single being, one "flesh" with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only himself, i.e. God, and became also man so that the community of his people might also become his body."’1
So we begin to glimpse something of the splendid vision of marriage. It isn't just a convenient bond that helps create a stable society and a safe place for children to grow up. Cohabitation can do that just as well; a ceremony and a certificate are not needed if that is all we are looking for.
The destiny of all of us is to be united with that perfect love which is the life of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. For this we need to have both the vision of where we are going and the means of getting there and marriage, as a vocation and as a sacrament, provides just those things.
The martyrdom of love
A man is called by God to love a woman. Their coming together might have all the ingredients of romantic love but underpinning that is the call from God, the clear knowledge that they are truly meant for one another. They marry; they start on the great work of becoming one, not as in my calendar's motto by one taking precedence over the other but by entering into a new life. This cannot just be a continuation of their previous lives though in a different setting, but has to be a new beginning in the Lord and therefore needs that total application of repentance and faith which characterizes the whole of the Christian life.
Why marry? To enter into a martyrdom for Christ. There has always been the red martyrdom in blood of the saints in every age. There has also been at the beating heart of the Church the white martyrdom of the monk or nun. To that we must add the green martyrdom of marriage. For martyrdom means a death to self and a witness to God and any true Christian marriage must be both of those. And the martyrs are the seedbed of the kingdom. So, if God calls us to the married state, it is not just for us but for all our brothers and sisters and to bring in the kingdom of God.
Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, John Meyendorff, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975, page 21.
Alan Rabjohns is Vicar of Splott in the Diocese of Cardiff.
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