Marriage is the Guardian of Love
When I was newly-married and newly-ordained, I often spent time trying to imagine my future. I envisioned book-lined studies, glorious liturgies and long evening walks hand-in-hand with my beloved. Needless to say, I never suspected I would one day find myself sitting before a giant, tottering Jenga tower, watching a dear friend and her new husband carefully remove block after block while my four excitable children crowded around and cajoled them, running back and forth to the couch with shrieks of delight. For our part, my wife and I could do little more than enjoy the chaos. We pulled our own blocks from the tower, snapped pictures on our phones, and secretly hoped that the gluten-free Udi’s lasagnas we had served for dinner hadn’t been a complete gustatory disaster. Even after the tower fell and the game ended, the happy pandemonium continued. My children brought the evening to a close by following our friends out the door and chasing their car down the street, shouting and waving goodbye from the sidewalk.
Earlier that evening, in rare moment of peace, my friend and I had shared wedding albums. We had both been married in hot, high church weddings in historic Episcopal chapels, and though our ceremonies were unique, each photo album held a nearly identical image of a new husband and a new wife preparing an altar for their nuptial Eucharist. Later that night, I found myself meditating on this point of spiritual connection. Man and Woman. Bread and Wine. Offering. Sacrifice. Love. “This is a great mystery,” I heard the Apostle say, “and I am applying it to Christ and the Church. ”
I was never taught a clear, compelling theology of Christian marriage in seminary. As a result, I found my own understanding of marriage fluctuating as I entered into both ordained ministry and married life. At times, I treated marriage as a sign of love, a communal profession of a prior and more original state of relationship. Christian love, I thought, gives life to Christian marriage. At other times, I treated marriage as a rather rigorous school for love—a covenantal commitment to the work of relationship, which is our Christian duty just as much as it is our joy.
As is often the case with young clergy, I was half-wrong and half-right on both accounts, neither of which is informed by the fullness of a Biblical and Sacramental imagination. If love alone gives life to marriage, then when romantic love begins to fade or even disappears, marriage will also lose its reason for being. If marriage alone is thought to confer love, then husband and wife will be tempted to forfeit the personal, participatory nature of the sacrament. Marriage vows, after all, are not magic. Love submits to no simple formula, and the tension between love and marriage is somewhat akin to the tension between letter and spirit. Love is not simply marriage. Marriage is not simply love. Yet, love and marriage are made for one another.
To my mind, this is where a Christian theology of marriage must begin. It is not enough to defend Christian marriage as traditional or practical or protective of certain rights and dignities. Our support for married life must flow from the theological confidence that Christian marriage is the proper place for love, the unique sacrament through which the transforming power of Divine love is rightly shared and shown to the world. Just as God humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant, so too human love must become humble, submitting its passion and vitality to the intimacy and transforming discipline of marriage.
When we do so, we learn that marriage is neither the vassal of love nor its guarantor. Marriage is the guardian of love. Marriage is the walled garden within which the seeds of love can root and grow over and over again. Even when the fruits of human love appear unripe and bitter, and the arbors of fidelity and affection are withered, a married couple may trust that they remain married. Nothing can change this eternal truth. Nothing can render this reality meaningless. Marriage is always an invitation for husband and wife to remember, to engage in true anamnesis. “What God has joined together,” declares the Book of Common Prayer, “let no one put asunder.”
These are strong words, and when stripped of their proper sacramental context they can give rise to justifiable pastoral concerns. But in the light of the Kingdom, these words also give life. They offer a strength and a peace which the world cannot give. This is why the popular practice of writing “personal” wedding vows has no place within the Church. Too often, these so-called vows amount to little more than frivolous statements of private affection. I have actually heard a bride and groom “vow” to make coffee, provide back rubs and laugh at bad jokes. These words might charm the congregation, but they won’t support the marriage. In all likelihood, they won’t even support the honeymoon. Married life demands far, far more.
This is where the traditional vows of Christian marriage shine. When husband and wife vow to have and to hold one another “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” they speak words which do not lose their meaning in the face of suffering. Rather, moments of adversity and marital anguish make the meaning of these vows all the more clear. These are true vows made in the presence of the true God, and in their light, the meaning of human love is transfigured. The love that brings husband and wife to the altar is a love willing to be bound to Jesus Christ, to be tested by him, and to be made perfect through him. It is a love willing to embrace both delight and self-denial. This is why husband and wife must enter the Church in order to make their vows and set bread and wine upon the altar for their nuptial Eucharist. Christian marriage, because it is essentially sacramental, participates in the high priestly offering of Christ himself. The union of husband and wife points towards the final union and consummation of Divine love in the Kingdom of God. This is why the Lord instituted marriage to be the guardian of human love.
There is, of course, no simple method to secure this mysterious reality. It must be lived. My own marriage is a beautiful tangle of triumphs and failures, and the grace of my marriage has unfolded in its own ineluctable way. But I can say this: Christian marriage relies on the trust that the Kingdom of God is near. It relies on the assurance that Jesus Christ is in our very midst. In my experience, husband and wife are always leaning upon the Paschal Mystery, for if the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has redeemed the world, then human love is part of this mystery and is invited to reflect the fullness of this mystery.
And so, in Christ, I have found that married love can rise to the challenge of living in our beautiful, broken world. It can adapt and flourish in unexpected yet life-giving ways as husband and wife learn what it means to love and cherish one another as a sign of the Kingdom. Like the Word of God, Christian marriage is living and active. It calls couples to wonder with Christ in his birth, work with Christ in his ministry, suffer with Christ in his agony, and exalt with Christ in his victory. It can even endure grieving for Christ as he lies in the darkness of his tomb. In each of these moments, the vows of husband and wife prove trustworthy and true. For the sacrament of holy matrimony is one of Christ’s great gateways into the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Marriage is the holy guardian he has set over love.