Salvation and Marriage
Marriage plunges spouses right into the heart of the mystery of Christ.
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark 10.2-9
This past fall, late night talk show host David Letterman interviewed pop icon and sexual revolutionary Madonna. Last December Madonna divorced her most recent husband, so in his interview, Dave (who is having some relational issues of his own these days) asked Madonna if there were any aspects of marriage that she missed. He asked point blank, “Do you think you’ll ever be married again?” To which Madonna promptly replied, “I’d rather get run over by a train.” (Not much ambiguity there).
No doubt there are many others who would share Madonna’s sentiment. The destruction of the marriage ideal is just one part of the widespread collateral damage caused by our sinful nature.
In a culture which grows increasingly supportive of promiscuity, permissiveness, pleasure, and self-gratification, the institution of marriage and its inherent values of fidelity, monogamy, and life-long commitment seem to have faded into the mists of time. Nowadays, marriage is commonly viewed as passé, old-fashioned, irrelevant, and unnecessary.
But while our culture has pretty much completely lost the meaning of marriage, as the church we are bound to reclaim, restore, and preserve it. In fact, it’s not too much to say that our salvation depends on it.
As Christians — whether we are married or not — if we do not have a proper understanding of marriage, then we cannot have a proper understanding of the hope of our redemption. The two are inextricably linked. Contrary to Madonna’s sentiment, marriage was not to be for us an illustration of hell, but rather an icon of heaven, created by God, and manifested fully to us through the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now you may wonder, what does marriage really have to do with Jesus? He was never married, right? Wrong! Jesus IS a spouse; he is a husband; he is, in fact, the bridegroom. And we – the Church – are his bride. And it is in our marriage to Christ – union with Christ — that our salvation is made complete.
The story goes like this. We humans were created to be in perfect communion with God. And this vision of perfect communion was fulfilled through the Incarnation of Our Lord, who reconciled in himself the human and the divine; in him, the two have become one. Our hope of redemption, of reunion, of perfect and complete communion with the living God is fulfilled in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
And he invites us into that union.
The whole sacramental life can be related to marriage. In fact, “all the sacraments church have a ‘nuptial’ character since their purpose is to unite the Bride (the Church) with her Bridegroom (Christ).”(1) In this way, “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.” (2)
Earthly marriage, then, is a natural and intentional reflection of this heavenly marriage to which we are all called.
The union of husband and wife in holy matrimony is a living, breathing, incarnate icon of that perfect union of Christ and his Church which is our salvation, our redemption, our ultimate spiritual consummation and bliss.
Viewed through this lens of union with God, we begin to see just how sacred and profound marriage really is. It plunges spouses right into the heart of the mystery of Christ.
Alas, outside of the Christian purview – and even within it — the spiritual meaning of marriage continues to unravel.
In particular, the physical dimensions of this sacred union are falling to pieces. Our sexuality has long since been unleashed from what the culture perceives as the old-fashioned confines of marriage. But our sexuality was created for the express purpose of consecrating this most holy union, as Our Lord himself demonstrates for us. The heart of Christ’s physical love for his bride the Church is found in the action of his sacrifice of himself on the cross, when he says, “This is my body . . . given for you” (Luke 22.19).
Our bridegroom Jesus Christ actually demonstrates four particular qualities of love for his bride the Church, qualities of love that specifically involve his body. Like his Word these qualities they serve as a lamp unto our feet and light unto our own relational paths.
These four qualities come from Pope John Paul II’s magnificent work, The Theology of the Body.
“First, Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10.18).
Second, he gives his body totally – without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation (“He loved them to the last,” Jn 13.1).
Third, he gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always,” Mt 28.20).
And fourth, he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have life,” Jn 10.10).
If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, and live their vocation to its full, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ expresses.” (3)
This is precisely what a bride and groom commit to at the altar with the words spoken in their vows. Their physical union in the marital act when “the words of the wedding vows become flesh. It’s where men and women are meant to incarnate divine love,” and in fact every time a husband and wife engage in the marital act they are “renewing their wedding vows with the language of their bodies.” (4)
The physical union of husband and wife then, is literally the outward and visible sign of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
I know that all this can sound like some impossible ideal when we consider the complexities of our relationships and the brokenness of our own sinful natures. But if we do not understand this fundamental vision of marriage, than we have absolutely no hope of attaining that vision. The whole idea of progress is predicated on a common vision or ideal that a people, or a couple, or a culture can work towards. If there is no goal or vision to move toward, then we are not progressing but regressing. As progressive Christians, it is essential for us to understand these fundamentals of marriage.
Our Lord has profoundly and selflessly demonstrated that the heart of divine love is the complete self-offering of ourselves — our souls and bodies — to our beloved.
Love is not about what we get, it is about what we give.
Love is sacrifice.
May Our Lord have mercy on us all, married, single, divorced, widowed, lonely, young and old alike; and may he give us the grace in all our relationships to increasingly walk in love just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Amen.
1) Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II’s Sexual Revolution, (West Chester: Ascension Press, 2004), 86.
2) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1617.
3) Theology of the Body for Beginners, p. 91.
4) Ibid, p. 92.