[these are notes I wrote for a theology class I taught recently–excuse their ‘note-flavor’!]
Today you are young and very much in love and you think that your love can sustain your marriage. It can’t. But your marriage can sustain your love. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter to a young couple
In the Judeo-Christian vision, marriage is an irrevocable covenant bond that a man and woman freely enter into through solemn and binding promises, by which they receive marriage as both a life-giving gift and a grave responsibility. This bond makes them “one flesh,” creating a protected sanctuary within which stability and trust, love and life can flourish, and in which a family can safely grow like a Garden protected from innumerable predators by its grace-drenched hedges.
The marital bond, whether natural or sacramental, is a “theological” reality, meaning its inner logic is indelibly inscribed by God’s own irrevocable promise to “one” Himself with creation in a faithful and life-giving bond of eternal covenant love. In other words, what a man and woman become when they receive marriage by means of solemn promises is the reality of the unbreakable divine-human covenant bond that God Himself has joined. Marriage as a gift seals, structures, illumines and forges the couple’s natural love into a permanent bond that, strictly speaking, belongs to God.
This is what Jesus means when He says, “What God has joined, man must not divide” (Matt. 19:6).
When a couple in love choose and enter marriage, they accept to become a permanent sign of a reality that transcends their subjectivity. As a sign, they henceforth exist for one purpose: to manifest and mediate what they signify, i.e. the free, total, faithful and fruitful love of God. To break the covenant of marriage is to shatter the sign, to smash the image.
The bond of marriage is no abstraction, not reducible to a lifeless law, social convention or inhuman burden. Rather, it is a gift, designed in the Heart of God, entrusted into the entwined hands of a couple. And this bond they receive is fully alive and teeming with vitality, passion, fire, light, sacrifice, long-suffering love, tender kindness, selfless giving, and every other attribute of God-for-us. This bond is liberating and transforming, demanding and compelling, volatile and peaceful, allowing the infinite dynamism of the divine image we bear to unfold into a likeness of divine love.
Any spirituality of marriage is simply a way of surrendering to the exigencies of God’s covenant love, which is the meaning and final purpose of all existence:
Love is patient, love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
On a marriage retreat I led years ago, I used an image that came to me in prayer. I said,
Think of your love as a couple as two hands joined, with one from each of you crossed over the other — as one would hold them to receive Holy Communion. Now think of the covenant of marriage as a Consecrated Host, the Sacrament of Christ placed on your joined hands. With what care you would hold that Gift, ensuring your every step and move were in harmony to secure this Gift.
Your calling, once you both have consented to co-receive this Holy Communion, is to walk through life with your hands firmly joined, like Christophers tasked with carrying Christ across a raging river safely to the Other Side. Never allow your hands to separate, and beg Him whom you carry to hold you together in unity!
But remember, your Christ-carrying hands form a cross, and so know people and events, forces and tempters, burdens and trials, demons and distractions will do all they can to rip your hands apart, to introduce dissonance and divorce your crossed hands.
In the end, when death comes, together you must lift your hands on High and offer back to God the other whom He gave you and the Gift He gave you both to hold.
This song my wife sang at our wedding is a nuptial prayer that captures this mystery well: