Marriage in the Church – What is Marriage?: Part V

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.

“This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:32)

We are continuing our exploration of the U.S. bishops’ letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” In the first part we laid out some foundational definitions about what marriage is and what it entails, and in the last section we looked at some of the challenges that contemporary society poses to traditional marriage. Today we will look at marriage in the Church, as well as the meaning of marriage beyond its unitive and procreative ends.

One of the purposes for the Incarnation was to restore the Creator’s initial vision for marriage.  This vision had been compromised by human sin, which introduced disorder where originally there should have been harmony. Virtue or right acting is acting in accord with one’s nature, avoiding extremes. Where there had been cooperation and conjugal love before, too often power and lust became dominating characteristics in relations between men and women. Destroyed was the cooperative and complementary equality intended in this relationship.

Many disturbing developments occurred because of this disorder: divorce, contraception, homosexuality, polygamy, rape, and any number of sexual sins. Tellingly, all these are reported in the book of Genesis itself (in addition to the early records of all primitive civilizations). The fall was swift and man could not correct it himself.

All through the Old Testament, the sacred writers consistently maintained a positive view of marriage, in spite of all of the horrible things that often surrounded it. They repeatedly compared God as a faithful husband of a faithless spouse, the book of the prophet Hosea relates this in a most affecting way. Many books also testified to the beauty and possibilities of true married love.

The story of Tobit is an exquisite narrative of marital affection. The “Song of Solomon” is written in the form of an epithalamium, or a marriage poem, describing the love of beloved and lover. The Church has always understood this to be an apt allegory for the relation of Christ to the Church and of the faithful soul to God Himself. The most fitting form chosen by the sacred writer and the Holy Spirit was the experience of Married Love.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted the meeting of literal and allegorical in this text in his encyclical Deus caritas est, where eros and agape encounter one another, since true love is both giving and receiving. Neither can one forget the stunning description of the good wife at the conclusion of the book of Proverbs. At the same time the Old Testament is very realistic as regards the problems of fallen mankind. After offering clear legal commandments in the Pentateuch, the writers of the Old Testament frankly address bad marriages, violations of marriage contracts, and sexual sins. Clearly a serious disconnect was being experienced between ideal and reality.

“But from the beginning it was not so,” thundered Christ, humans were called to a higher way of life and holiness. It cannot be more significant that Christ, the eternal Son of God, through whom all things were created, chose to enter human history, to become Incarnate in the womb of a virgin, in the context of a true human marriage in a true human family. In doing this Christ hallowed both virginity and matrimony.

In Mary is united perfect virgin, perfect mother, perfect spouse. All these were united in her, the most perfect human person ever created. Christ’s first act on earth is literally the sanctification of virginity, marriage, and childbirth. There is yet a further nuptial meaning to this however.

In the Incarnation, Christ has married heaven and earth together. Humanity and divinity are joined in the closest of possible unions – a personal union. He then lives out thirty years of silence, in humility and obedience to His parents, in loving service to His family. He teaches the life of the family through example before He teaches through words.

There is a threefold development of Christ’s teaching on marriage. First, Christ preaches, teaches, and responds to questions during the period of His public ministry. In the second, Christ lives out the example of His teaching on conjugal love in His paschal mystery. Finally the infant Church, especially St. Paul and the book of Revelation, realize exactly what it was that Christ was saying. Like the faithful Spouse of the Old Testament, He had handed Himself over to death for the sake of His beloved, the holy Church of God.

It is not only Christ’s direct teaching on marriage that one finds in the Gospels. In a real sense His whole life was a mediation on spousal love. I have already alluded to the nuptial meaning of the Incarnation, but it is good to note that Christ began his public ministry in the context of a marriage, the wedding feast of Cana. It was there, for the sake of his mother and for the sake of the young couple, He performed His first miracle, turning water into wine. Christ’s life has ever been a condemnation of dualism, or the idea that the material world is evil.

It has always struck me when people say that the Christian Church has a negative view of the body, or the goods of the material world, or of sex. Indeed the Catholic Church has been the great defender of the goodness of creation from the very beginning, battling heresies like Gnosticism and Manichaeanism, Catharism and Jansenism.

Likewise rejecting hedonism, the Catholic Church has the most life-affirming and exalted view of the natural world possible. Not only was it created by an all-good God, the natural world was redeemed by Christ, and through the most humble of things divine life enters into us, from oil and water, from bread and wine, and from the reality of human conjugal love. Christ repeatedly uses marriage in his parables, likening the kingdom of God to a wedding feast – a theme He develops from the Old Testament. This theme finds its consummation in the book of Revelation, where heaven will be an endless nuptial liturgy – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Christ’s words on marriage shock his contemporaries, they are uncompromising as we have seen, they steer humanity back to the course that was intended from the beginning. Not only does Christ clarify the unity and indissolubility of marriage, purifying the natural institution of all of the accompanying dross of centuries, but He literally recreates it. He elevates it to the state of a sacrament of the New Law, a grace-bearing and communicating sign.

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Our Lord does this for two reasons: 1) to equip it with all the necessary graces to withstand temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to put those who partake of it on the road to sanctification and holiness; and 2) to provide a symbol and image to the world of the deep union between Christ and His Church. He calls the married couple to a participation in the life of the Church, enabling them in their fidelity and fecundity, to image the great mystery of Christ’s espousal to His beloved bride, the Catholic Church.

This relationship, then, is no longer merely natural, obeying the common law of nature for the good of persons and for the good of society. No, it becomes something much deeper. It is not only erotic love and the love of true friendship.

Spouses are called to love each other with “charity,” or the self-giving love of agape. Christ demonstrates the depth of His love in His painful suffering and death, that the Church might be cleansed and purified, a spotless bride for the perfect bridegroom.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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