I remember being given a flyer by my youth minister which began by saying “everyone longs to give themselves completely to someone…” – on this side of Heaven, one of the most profound ways in which we do that is marriage. Marriage is a diversely understood term depending on your cultural or religious context, the word ‘marriage’ can bring with it a lot of different (and often strong) beliefs and sentiments. From a Christian perspective, our belief about marriage is something tied very clearly to the heart of our faith – a key theme found throughout scripture. Marriage teaches us about the very nature of God as well as the way in which God has chosen to relate to us (Isaiah 62:5, Ephesians 5, & Revelation 19). From our perspective, when two people get married, it’s not just a question of having their love sanctioned for the duration of the relationship… it’s something far more sacred. This is intended to be a relationship that is intimate, that is life-giving, that is indissoluble, and that is built upon trust.
Wait a second, you’ll say. It’s fine and dandy to say that marriage is supposed to be intimate, life-giving, indissoluble, and built upon trust… but that’s not our lived experience! Lots of marriages are built upon the wrong thing (a passing emotion, momentary passion, convenience, fear, unexpected pregnancy) – and many of these marriages don’t last. And I can’t really argue with you on that one. Author Melinda Selmys states it well:
If you wish to know how a vacuum cleaner is supposed to work, you would be best to look at the factory model: what did it look like when it was first made and was function precisely to the engineers specifications?”
On this side of the fall and original sin we don’t function precisely to our Engineers’ specifications. To see how we’re supposed to work, we need to go back to the beginning – to the very beginning – to see how God created humanity: in the image and likeness of God – male AND female (Genesis 1:26-27), distinct and complementary to one another ( Genesis 2:18-24), and naked and without shame (Genesis 2:25). From these passages, which Christ cites while arguing with the Pharisees about marriage (Matthew 19:4-6), we can glean a great deal – and St. John Paul II did so at the heart of his Theology of the Body. For the sake of this article (which cannot possibly do justice to JPII’s legendary work), let me focus on three key themes he (and others) have drawn from that passage to a deeper understanding of marriage:
1. The image of God is male and female. More specifically, it’s what a male and female are capable of doing together. One of the fundamental things we believe about God is that God is in fact a communion of persons – the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And while many have tried to explain how God can be three yet one in images like St. Patrick’s shamrock (3 leaves, one plant), every image falls short. But there are key qualities found within the Trinity that we also find within the sexual embrace: intimacy/unity and fruitfulness. As Trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit are completely one. But they are not selfish and closed in on themselves… they are, by their love, life-generating. The universe, and each individual life within it finds its source in the love of the Trinity. And as the image of the Trinity, human beings are capable of entering into a one-flesh love (sexual intimacy draws you as close to another person as possible) – which is also the way by which life (children) is created. It’s for this reason that the Catechism speaks of a dual purpose for marriage and sexuality – the unity of the spouses and the procreation of children. [This is key to understanding nearly everything the Catholic Church will ever say about sexuality… if it isn’t aimed at imitating the Trinity whose image we are, it’s missing the point and therefore a sin. This goes for casual hook-ups (no unity), pornography/masturbation (isolated), contraception (not life-giving) – and anything else the Church might refer to as sexually sinful.]
2. There is a complementarity between the sexes. This is seen not only in the physical reality: a man and woman’s body make sense in relation to one another, but on many other levels. Melinda Selmys again expresses this beautifully:
“(The Covenant of marriage) is the union of opposites, the bringing together of unlike things, the making of unity out of disparity, that is the essence of the family. The family is the school of that radical love for all men which is so essential to Christianity…. it is a kind of love that confronts the ‘other,’ – an other so extreme that the sexes have, on occasion, been likened to alien species – and that makes it a part of oneself, so much so that the two become one flesh and are forged into a single family.”
There are times when every married person feels the frustration of these differences – but as is the case in every Christian vocation, the idea is to smooth one another out (and as is the case with stones, this requires friction). Christian vocations are designed not to bring us comfort or pleasure: but to make us saints. If God calls us to be single, married, ordained, religious, he does so not to make us comfortable or even happy… He does so to make us holy. Joy usually accompanies this, because when we’re doing what God made us to do, we’re discovering our potential (as my brother-in-law informed me at the birth of our first child: discover just how little sleep the human body can function on!) There’s a sacramental quality to the human body at play here: the way we fit together represents so much more than just mechanics.
3. Man and woman are meant to stand naked and unashamed. Perhaps the most obvious sign that we’re not dealing with the brand-new vacuum cleaner but the old, broken down version is the fact that we cannot now stand naked and unashamed. To stand naked and unashamed is to be vulnerable, to be able to trust the most intimate part of oneself – even physically – to one who deserves it, one you trust not to use or abuse it. It’s no coincidence that after sin entered the world, the man and the woman hid themselves (and then clothed themselves) – because the first sign that things had stopped working properly was the need to cover up.
Wit all that in mind, we take a look at what Christian marriage actually is. Christian marriage begins when a man and a woman stand before God (and witnesses) to make a covenant in which they offer to give the entirety of themselves to the other – holding nothing back. It embraces all that the other is – complementary, different, and capable of creating life both within that relationship and beyon. This vision of marriage is expressed in the three questions the deacon or priest asks the couple immediately before they declare their vows to one another:
- Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?
- Will you love and honor each other as husband and wife for the rest of your lives?
- Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?
It’s a free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift. And it’s a beautiful reality.
“God disposed man and woman for each other so that they might be ‘no longer two but one’ (Mt 19:6). In this way they are to live in love, be fruitful, and thus be a sign of God himself, who is nothing but overflowing love.” -YouCat 260