A priest once told me that his experience with marriage centers on the three rings: “Engagement Ring, Wedding Ring, and Suffer Ring”.
This is not the best way to introduce a reflection on Christian Marriage, but I thought I could at least gain your confidence by telling you that I will do my best to be realistic and practical when reflecting on the sacrament/mystery of marriage in the Church.
What marriage is in theory, and what it is in practice are often two very different things. What’s even worse is that a celibate priest is asked to give a reflection on marriage to a group of Christians who have already heard too much about how marriage should be, and not enough on how it really is. I’m doomed before I begin! But here it goes anyway.
The Book of Genesis gives a realistic view of marriage, but one must look at it before and after the Fall. Before the Fall we see that man and woman are pleased one with the other, woman is a helpmate, suitable to the man. She is every bit his equal, being created from his side, while he was sleeping (some women say that man is at his best when he is sleeping!).
“…So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs”…Genesis 2: 18-25
They are both naked but are unashamed. There is harmony.
What the “hell” happened? Man used his own free will that’s what happened! “Hell” can only exist if there is free will) and he used it the wrong way. All of a sudden, he was ashamed of himself and his wife. He hid from God, and from his wife. When asked by God why he did it, he blamed his wife (how lame). Some say he has been doing it ever since! There was no more harmony. Even the wife, when questioned by God, could not take full responsibility for her actions (even though she was just as guilty). She blamed it on the serpent (the devil made me do it!).
Everything was now backwards. Everyone was ashamed of themselves, hiding from God, and blaming others. What a mess! Now this is a more realistic view of marriage!!! Perhaps the theory and the practice of marriage and more harmonious than we originally thought. Oops…Oh well…
Well, believe it or not, the story of Genesis, and in fact, our human condition, does have a happier ending. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. That’s a happy ending? Well St. Ephrem says it was. He explains that the Genesis account of God banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden was not for the purpose of punishing them but for saving them, in fact, to save them from themselves.
St. Ephrem says that if God allowed them to go back into the Garden, they would have eaten from that other tree, the Tree of Life, and this means that they would have lived forever in this fallen state…being always ashamed, blaming others, and hiding from God. This is no state to be “stuck in” forever, says Ephrem, and so God had another plan.
His plan was to work with man’s free will, the source of the problem in the first place, and to inspire man to use his free will for his own good, and for the good of others. God’s plan included a “new” man, a new Adam who reveals for us the Father’s being. God’s plan also included a “new” Eve, the new Mother of all, who like the new Adam would use her free will to do God’s work. Thus, in the fullness of time the new Adam and the new Eve would use their ability to choose in a way which glorified God, not their own wills.
Jesus Christ is the new Adam, and Mary is the new Eve. When asked about the practice of his day to allow a man to casually divorce his wife, Jesus quoted the passage from Genesis and said,
“…For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one. They are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God Himself has joined.” Mark 10:2-9
Jesus, the full reflection of the Father’s glory, said that marriage is sacred, let no man tamper with it! This approach was very different from the prevailing opinion of his day, and we might add, of our day as well. Nothing has changed, or so it seems.
We now know that our free wills, our choices, are what can “make or break” us. Because of Christ and Mary, we now understand that true love isthe free and irrevocable gift of self for the other, such was Christ’s sacrificial life and death: “…there is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends…” John 15: 13
Thus, Christian marriage is not a contract between persons based on conditions, i.e. “if you do such and such, I will do so and so”. On the contrary, marriage is an eternal and timeless covenant, a mutual self-giving leading both partners closer to God.
Jesus teaches us how to love, to live happily in this world, and to use our own free will to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We also know that marriage is a great mystery, one that prefigures a diving covenant, and is a mirror of Christ’s sacrificial love on the Cross and the Church’s faithful clinging to Christ in love.
Marriage, like all the Mysteries (Sacraments) in the Eastern Traditions, is a window on the Divine life, a sharing in the very life of the Trinity. The Father sends His Son in an outpouring of love for the world. The Son lays down his life for his flock. The Holy Spirit brings the Father’s love to the world, and through the Son, enables a communion between the Trinity and creation, thus in repentance and in love we become His adopted children through the waters of baptism.
Love is a choice; an intended self-offering for the other, in the same way that God loves us.
+Gregory J. Mansour
(Reprinted with permission.)