Thursday, October 30, 2008

Meditation on Marriage

The marriage rite, as handed down by the church ought to be the guiding canon in which the specifics of individual struggles and questions are answered. For marriage is God’s holy union and gift and not man’s invention or evolutionary arrangement. Earthly wisdom is no match for meeting the joys and sorrows of marriage and addressing it as a one flesh union, with all its adoring mystery and promise. God wishes us to honor marriage, “He has established it before all others as the first of all institutions, and created men and women differently (as is evident) not for indecency but to be true to each other, to be fruitful, to beget children, and to nurture them and bring them up to the glory of God.”[1]

I would teach the following. When man and woman declare their desire to be wed before the congregation of the church the pastor does say, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6). Jesus is not referring to long –winded aspects of Mosaic law thus addressing a post-fall world. Jesus speaks the words of creation. Even in paradise it was not good that man be alone without a helper. As Eve was created so every man in marriage and by faith must declare, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” A wife comes by way of a gift to men, a delightful wonder from God himself, for Adam was sleeping when God formed Eve. Unbeknownst to him a wife was formed from his very body, to be a love and help to him, a joyful companion in the garden. Furthermore, Adam did not choose her but she was graciously brought to him. Likewise, in the ceremony of the church, a wife is brought through the chancel of the church by a father or a family member dear to her. Through the greater corporate life of the church all blessings are announced and brought – not taken.

A couple who is awaiting marriage or considering it, ought to prayerfully consider with their pastor how God gives two into marriage, sustains and preserves the union. Man cleaves to his wife as God cleaves to his church. As man is bound to take care of his own flesh so he must love and honor a wife as he honors his own body. He does so joyfully because creation was not made to operate autonomously but rather dependently upon a greater economy of grace. As a wife is brought to man to become one flesh so a Christian is brought to Christ’s altar to join him.

God’s word should guide the catechization of couples who wished to be married. Paul writes to the Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord that church” (Eph. 5:25-29).

That a husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves his church is a mystery without parallel. Culture has us believe that “spouses” are to be chosen – selected for various attributes that we might reap maximum pleasure, minimum pain, for smooth ride into the setting sun with our loved one. Yet God’s holy gift of marriage is wrought with defection because we do not love indiscriminately and selflessly. Sin makes us think of a relationship as 50/50, an equal system of rewards, punishments, with a litany of grievances, and rectifications. Husbands however, are not called into a relationship to calculate that which they might reap but rather give. As Christ came not to be served so does a husband come to serve. And he serves not 50%, expecting a like-return but pours out all, emptying all.

The terrors of this world have not shaken marriage from its foundation but rather continually strengthens it. Husbands provide safety, security, comfort, and love without end – as does our Lord. In times of great trouble and distress husbands and fathers ought know that Christ went to a cross, to death for his bride. Likewise, the faithful husband finds that he also at times is stripped, sore-vexed, and twisted about in his own calling. More than once he will be tempted to doubt and despair, feeling himself forsaken. And in this careless flight he will be enticed to cast off his cross and the holy suffering in which God has so graciously wrapped him. The faithful husband nurtured in the true faith finds in his wife a temple in which to bring his sacrifices of toil and thanksgiving. He sees a place of worship in which faith finds its expression and a certain home until the final resting place in Christ.

The great trouble with marriage counseling of our day is that it has been uprooted and snatched from the sacraments in which God creates and gives marriage. God gave himself sacramentally with Adam and Eve through pleasing food, the tree of life, and living waters from the very beginning. Today, God daily and richly provides married Christians through his holy sacraments – that of baptism, the pleasing food of his eternal supper, and the Words in which he speaks. To define and explain marriage apart from whence it finds its very life is an impossible task. For this reason Saint Paul speaks of marriage as a “mystery,” later translated in Latin as sacramentum (Eph 5:32).

The mysterious center of the married life is that it revolves around an unceasing font of forgiveness. Married couples encounter one another in such a way that exposes secrets, sins, personal failures, and all the missed marks that are more easily concealed from the rest of the world. In the blessed union of marriage God puts himself into the one flesh of man and wife seeking that each ask “dearest love do you forgive me.” The answer is always the same and each never tires of hearing it and receiving it. Forgiveness is freely given and usually wholly undeserved.

The marriage counseling which seeks to be “practical,” seeks to set forth a philosophy on marriage which breaks it down into an economically compromising, graceless, give and take sort of movement in the union. In light of what Christ reveals about marriage in both a pre-sin and post-sin world, it is made clear that there is little about the union that can be interpreted with mere human or practical wisdom – for it is a mysterious gift. The church can be the only interpretive mechanism in which to deal with marriage – for it is birthed, consecrated, sustained, and prayed for in the church.

For those couples living together prior to marriage, a Pastor must not condemn the couple and raze them from the earth but rather pray for them and catechize them in God’s holy gift of marriage. He must shepherd them being wise as a serpent and harmless as doves. That men and women are naturally attracted to one another and wish to serve each other is itself a testament to God’s creation and unceasing love. In marriage, there is a wealth of treasure regarding God’s word which provides an inexhaustible study and meditation which reveals much about God’s economy of grace and Christ’s work. Pastors have an opportunity with eager couples not only to join two in holy marriage before God and the world, but to bring them back to holy baptism, back to the table, and under the cross. With gentle guidance, confessional teaching, and prayers, Pastors have the opportunity to return the couples to chastity and patience prior to their marriage day. For all are made virgins in Christ, being able to caste away all prior shameless acts and works of darkness.
[1] LC part I, paragraph 207, p. 414.

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