Lots of discussion, debate, even dismay, about marriage these days, especially in church circles. Those whose worldview has blended Christianity with the thought that America is a Christian nation, or at least a Christian or “Judeo-Christian” culture are struggling with evidence that strongly suggests Christendom is no more. For their comfort, sort of, Christendom never really arrived in America, so nothing has been lost, except some illusions. But marriage policy seems to be a particularly tough spot for many American Christians.
It centers mostly, though, on the beginning and end of marriages. Who can be married to whom, and under what authority they have the ceremony is a big one. Then, at the other end, under what circumstances can people divorce from each other and marry someone else is a hot ecclesiastical topic.
In between the beginning and the end, much less attention is paid to the marriage relationship, although this is where those joined together spend our wedded time. Unfortunately, many Christians seem more interested in the legalities, both of church and state, than the “honourable estate, instituted by God” that the Prayerbook talks about. It is not that courtships and weddings are unimportant, because a bad choice in selecting a partner might sour a marriage, sometimes for a long, long time. But that is not about the legalities. Rather it is more about good judgement, honest encounter, shared values, acceptance, repentance and forgiveness, family support, passion and, just possibly, luck.
If you follow these discussions, you may note that the legal, civic and institutional concerns significantly outweigh the sacramental and relational ones in terms of where the focus is placed. This is unfortunate, because it is the relational aspects that need the most help and the sacramental concept which can most give that help. To put it another way, following the example of Jesus to be a good shepherd is best implemented, not by developing a list of rules for the sheep to obey, but by directly and personally caring for the sheep.
In this regard, the Sacrament of Marriage is experiencing the same distortion as other sacraments. All the sacraments are often seen as the Church’s bag of tricks, or more kindly, the Church’s healing agents for our spiritual ills. This view sees the Church as an institution of authority, leaders, members, buildings, finances and self-interest in being a significant aspect of civilized society. The sacraments are tools for achieving the Church’s goals and the well-being and status of its members.
But this is not a Biblical view. The New Testament in particular denotes the Church as the Body of Christ, a community within the larger community of the Trinity. That Body exudes sacramental grace in all its being and parts. Both Jesus and Paul apply that to the marriage relationship. In the Gospel of Mark (10:6-9), Jesus expresses the sacramental union within marriage, a type within the larger theosis wherein the two become one in the enveloping love of Christ. As is often the case, Jesus expresses this mystical and sacramental concept in response to the Pharisees who are focused instead on the rules. Paul refers directly to the analogy of Christ and the Church in discussing the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5:21-33 (since this is often taken out of context, it is important to read the entire passage.) Just as we submit to Christ, so it is important to submit to one another in the community, and Paul applies this to the micro-community of marriage immediately. The submission is with the understanding that our partner is an extension of our own being, to be loved as we love ourselves, submitting our needs to those of the other who is no longer other, in the context of sacramental love.
Marriage is, of course, universal. The natural organization of creation as a complementary co-existence of male and female appears to have caused a marriage structure everywhere among humans to resolve the chaos which would otherwise result. Every culture in all history appears to have had some form of marriage, albeit with many variations.
The Church was clear for the entire first millennium of her existence that Christian marriage was qualitatively different from these other variations because of its sacramental expression within the Body. Legal requirements regarding the entrance into and exit from marriage were left to civil authorities to worry about, undifferentiated between Christian and non-Christian, even in majority-Christian areas with Christian civil authorities. The latter could provide decent order for relationships and families but were unable to effect the sacramental oneness and mutual love of Christian marriage. Only the Body of Christ was, and is, capable of that.
Alas, the next millennium badly co-mingled and muddled the sacramental and civil aspects in many places, including among us. As a result, we have many Christians among us who would even deny that marriage is sacramental at all. They define it by civic standards, observing its beginning with pronouncements rather than celebrating it with Eucharist. They also fail to understand that divorce among Christians does not happen with a piece of legal paper from a court, but rather when the two cease to be one and become two again, a breach not only of their particular relationship but of the Body of Christ as well. If the unfortunate couple are not related to an intentional loving community of Christians, they are left with only the institutional church, with its rules, pronouncements and canons. It is little wonder that Christians caught in this dilemma are in dismay when things go wrong. The couple dealing with the erosion of sin on their relationship will find little help from the institutional authorities and their rules. Even among those who count marriage as an official Sacrament, there can be a legalistic misreading of what this means that essentially drains all the comfort and support out of the Body, leaving the couple spiritually and emotionally stranded.
Some church leaders decry the perceived degeneration of our society, including family life. In so doing, they ensure that no one in any difficulty related to any form of sin (a very wide spectrum) would seek to go anywhere near them. Since we are all sinners, it is predictable that the next cry of dismay from church leaders is the decline in church participation. Most people, after all, are not masochists.
Instead, a reorientation is in order, and it begins with the marriage relationship. In the Old Testament, the analogy of the marriage covenant is applied to God’s bond with his people Israel. He is faithful when Israel strays like a wayward wife, offering forgiveness and a return because of his love and commitment. In the New Testament, marriage is an analogy for the relationship of Christ, the Bridegroom to his Bride the Church. The key for both Christian marriage and for the larger analogy of Christ-Bridegroom to Church-Bride is the sacramental love expressed, the bonds cemented in that love, the grace which flows outward from the relationship.
Amid the cultural changes of our time, this has not changed. Christ has died in sacrificial love for our generation of Americans, too. The Body of Christ has not gone away, but remains to welcome and absorb us, to offer forgiveness and not condemnation, to baptize us into the family, to welcome us to the Table, and to share the sacramental love of Christ. It challenges us to rise beyond sin and selfishness in our most intimate relationship, breaking the barriers between us. God knows we flub the opportunity, a lot. But the steady love of God refuses to leave when that happens, and even through the veil of another sinful human reaches out to touch and heal our brokenness, seven times seventy and beyond. That is what a sacrament is, every day of life together, and beyond.