My son, John, marries his beloved Sarah tomorrow at Christ Church Savannah, so marriage is on my heart and mind this day (as well as the last minute details of hosting 50 people for a rehearsal dinner in our backyard!). Marriage, of course, has been much debated in the headlines over the last few years. Our Supreme Court even weighed in on it last summer. However important that debate may be, I’m more drawn today to what marriage is because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know if John and Sarah will ever read this, but if they do, then this is what I hope they take to heart.
First, marriage is a covenant between two people who equally submit themselves to God and to each another. The couple isn’t “married” by a priest. It always amused me when a couple said to me years later: “You married us, remember?” Apart from my faulty memory (getting faultier all the time), I was tempted to say: “No I didn’t, plural marriage is against the law, besides I was already married at the time!” A priest of the Church doesn’t “marry” a couple. They marry each other and the Church (represented by those gathered on that day) witnesses their marriage and the priest declares God’s blessing over the vows made by the couple. That being said, the Church, again represented by those gathered, also makes a vow when responding positively to the question: “Will you do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” So, while marriage is a covenant between two people that the Church witnesses and a priest blesses, the Church has a stake and role in every marriage. No Christian marriage can be faithful or fruitful without the prayers and support of the Church.
Second, marriage is a missionary vocation and partnership, otherwise it becomes little more than an exercise in mutual gratification and familial selfishness. To echo The Blues Brothers, a married couple is “on a mission from God.” One of the prayers said over the couple after they’ve taken their vows is this: “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” Christ’s love poured out graciously on the cross declares that being in communion with each other is more godly than being estranged from one another; that forgiveness is God’s natural response to the guilt of our sins; and, that joy is God’s final word to us bringing our despair to an end. When marriage is understood through the lens of Christ’s work on the cross, it’ll then be seen in a context beyond what it does for the couple alone. Thus, marriage isn’t meant to be lived selfishly to benefit the couple alone. It’s intended by God as a vocation, though imperfectly lived, to the world that points us toward the very nature of God in Christ.
Lastly, the love shared by a married couple is never pure and complete. It is, after all, shared by two sinful human beings who’ll at times behave in petty and vindictive ways. Still, in marriage we’re blessed to get a glimpse in the other of the grace of Jesus. As we are on the receiving end of such grace, we experience conversion of life. In other, more personal words, I’m a better, more faithful person because Kelly has shown me grace. While marriage isn’t necessary for such grace to be imputed, it’s one way God uses our humanity to offer his reconciling love to sinful and broken human beings like us.