A while back I read an interesting quote about marriage. I’ve been saving it for a spare moment to reflect on it; now’s the time.
“A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into his presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross, joy entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.” – Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
Most of the time conservative Christians opine about the “sanctity of marriage” against those who would drag it down with serial remarriage, same-sex marriage, and so forth. So it was very interesting to see someone turn the paradigm around and call out an idolization of marriage as the chief culprit in our modern marriage crisis.
In this quote, Schmemann centers the discussion of Christian marriage on the premise of its sacramental nature – it’s a revelation of the love of Christ & Church, as St. Paul describes in Ephesians. Any vision of marriage that doesn’t keep this at the forefront, therefore, is moving towards the realm of idolatry. If marriage is about making us happy, or raising our kids in a healthy environment, or saving me from burning with desire, to the exclusion of portraying God’s love to the world, then we’re centering marriage on us and excluding God. I think Schmemann is spot on here – Christian marriage is more than “one man and one woman,” more than “2.4 children per household,” more than “mutual comfort and support.”
As I’ve written before, marriage in America has long been subjected to the doctrine of “free love,” and increasingly removed from the procreation & nuture of children and the fostering of godly love. But this issue, of centering a marriage around God as the third central spouse, is even more fundamental to Christian marriage. In a country where the “sanctity of marriage” is under attack (or, as I would assert, long dead) Christians need to recenter their vision of marriage around the cross.
Husbands, lay down your lives for your wife, as Christ did for the Church. That means you must die to yourself – put aside your personal hopes and dreams that exclude your wife, because you are living for her now. As you draw closer to Christ, he’ll draw you closer to her, and thus the personal goals of Christ, yourself, and your wife, can coalesce into one.
Wives, obey your husbands as the Church obeys Christ. You, too, must put aside those things that point you away from union with your husband. As you draw closer to Christ, he’ll draw you closer to your husband, and thus the personal goals of Christ, yourself, and your husband, can coalesce into one.
These “sexist” teachings of the New Testament are offensive and unequal without the centrality of the love of Christ and the Church. If you focus your marriage on anything else, then obedience becomes servitude and headship becomes oppression. When both husband and wife consider themselves first married to God and then to one another, the mutual self-denial makes room for mutual fulfillment. If you form a marriage around an ethic of flat all-out equality, how are you portraying Christ and the Church? If you form a marriage around an oppressive leader-follower mentality, how are you portraying Christ and the Church?
The paradoxical mystery of the Gospel tells us that by the cross, joy entered the whole world. Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage – not the husband’s will, not the wife’s liberation, the Cross.