We have a family friend of long standing, John, who loves being married. I should say he loves the notion of marriage, and feels without a doubt that it is an important societal institution — even though his understanding is rather shallow. The only thing he doesn’t seem to like about the “Institution of Marriage,” as it has played out in his life, are the women to whom he has been married.
I have no idea how many times he has been married, but it is a lot. He starts off happy enough, then notices little imperfections in his partner, the things that they say or do, causing him minor irritations. Soon however, these little issues grow into major stumbling blocks over which the relationship cannot survive. After one of his marriages and the obligatory divorce that followed, John’s brother had a bumper sticker made as a birthday gag, it read : “Honk if you have NEVER been married to John.”
I have listened with interest to the conversation around the country having to do with marriage — what constitutes marriage and what does not — particularly by those who profess and call themselves Christians. While this article is not a commentary on sexuality and marriage, this “listening process” has opened my eyes and changed my perspective somewhat. I have not been convinced that when I have asked the question “what is marriage?” to Christians around me, regardless of which American denomination they belonged, that the answer I have heard is the same answer I see played out in people’s lives.
Most seem to define marriage, when it is boiled down, as who has sex with whom in a committed relationship — a relationship given standing by the law as defined by the state. While clergy may preside at weddings, along with judges, and other officials, it is the state that pronounces (through a duly appointed surrogate — the “officiant” at the “service”) that the couple are indeed married, and as such are entitled to whatever benefits are to be granted them for the honor.
I would suggest that marriage, for the Christian, is more than physicality, and beyond the definition of the state. It is the joining together of a couple spiritually as well. The material, the physical, coming together with the spiritual — of the human touching the divine. In a marriage those who were separate, and functioned as two, are joined together as one — Making up a lack in each other, to become whole. Sure enough there are the outward signs of marriage. A ceremony, a blessing, the couple consummating their love, but these outward signs represent a grace given by God that is effected between the couple. A sacrament performed by their actions, and God’s blessing, as ordained by God.
When a Marriage is defined starkly as a contract, or a civil set of benefits, then it loses its significance — as something that can be entered into lightly, and easily broken, becoming only an empty ceremony or license. Marriage has for the Christian eternal ramifications, representing our transcendent nature, not only the carnal. Just as Our Lord became one with the Church, we become one with another. It is no laughing matter, not fodder for bumper stickers, and certainly not left for the definition of the state.
“… and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh (Mark 10:8).
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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