Christian Marriage: Model, Mystery and Mission
By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
"This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church." St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5, verse 33
I was recently asked to give one of the talks in the Pre-Marital Program of my Diocese. It was to be entitled "The Sacrament of Marriage." I was happy to do so. I have lived the vocation of Marriage in Christ for thirty years. And, I know that it is just that-a vocation -a call to follow the Lord in a specific way and, in so doing, to grow in holiness, participate in the very life of God and in the continuing mission of Jesus Christ as He walks it out through His Body, the Church, of which the domestic Church of the Christian family is a cell.
Wow. That's a big sentence isn't it?
Well, that is because Christian marriage is a big vocation. I am also convinced that the witness of faithful Christian marriage and family is of profound and prophetic importance in this unfaithful age that is so desperately in need of seeing true love manifested.
The assembled couples had already heard other talks on a range of topics such as communications skills, finances, and other "practical" subjects; all intended to assist them as they live out the daily realities of married life. However, as I looked at the materials, I was not really sure that they had been introduced to the foundational vision for this call that they were responding to; this vocation to Marriage in Christ, this way of holiness and call to ecclesial mission. I also thought that the order of the talks was wrong. After all, it is hard to learn how to live in a house if you do not first know the floor plan or the architecture. There is an architecture, what philosophers call an "ontology" -an "essence" - an identity, to Marriage in Christ. After all, it is a Sacrament of the Church, a very participation in the life of God, a manifestation - in the real world- of His presence and purpose, a source of continual grace, a call to holiness, a model, a mystery and a mission.
Is it being taught that way?
Are Christian couples really being "prepared" for Marriage "in Christ", as a true spiritual vocation? In our contemporary neo-pagan world, are Christian couples aware of the evangelistic and prophetic witness of their life together and the ecclesial dimension of their vocation? If not, not only is it a shame, because they will really truly need such instruction to live in fidelity and love in an age that has little tolerance for such things, but it is also a true loss to the Church in this new missionary age into which she is called to continue the mission of Jesus Christ. After all, Christian families are the little platoons, the missionary units of the New Evangelization.
So, I tried to do my part. I gave my talk as a "vocations talk". Perhaps some of my readers are old enough to remember Father coming to the elementary parochial school for that "talk". Back then, the word "vocation" was often limited to vocations to the priesthood and religious life, which, of course, are wonderful vocations. How desperately we need more of them both in this Third Christian Millennium. However, Marriage in Christ is a vocation as well. At the root of the word vocation is the latin "vocatio", to follow a voice. It is the Lord Himself who calls people to Christian Marriage. It is also the model of the vocation of the entire Church. Jesus is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. This is sometimes called "the great analogy" in theological reflections on St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. However, these words present more than an analogy; they reveal a "mystery." The Greek word "mysterion", is the word that in the West has been rendered "Sacrament." In the Eastern Christian Churches, the Sacraments are called the "Mysteries". Why? Because their depth and meaning are beyond our mere words and our own limited human comprehension. They are not so much meant to be comprehended by us, rather they comprehend us.
We westerners, in our "Cartesian" approach to knowledge, tend to try to "mathematicize" everything, thinking this will help us come to know. But in the realm of the spiritual, in the realities of faith, such an approach to knowledge is inadequate. "Mystery" in the biblical, philosophical and theological sense of the Christian Tradition is not about a puzzle to be solved but rather an invitation to participation in the very life of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a communion of Three Divine Persons in Perfect Love and Perfect Unity. Marriage in Christ actually invites us into the very life of God. The letter to the Ephesians is one of the most mature and well-developed expression of a "theology of Christian Marriage" found in the entire New Testament. This letter helps us to understand what it means to be a Christian - whether we live the Christian vocation as a consecrated celibate or a married follower of Jesus Christ - because it unpacks the deeper meaning of the nuptial mystery.
The heart of the Christian vocation is broken open in this deep letter and summarized in chapter five. There is a nuptial meaning to all of our lives and our eternal destiny is modeled in Christian marriage. God fashioned us out of love and for love. We have been created, constituted - spiritually as well as physically - for the gift of ourselves to the other. Through that gift we give ourselves to God in Christ and in Christ for the world. God's eternal plan is to "marry" the Church. That plan unfolds now in Christ. That is why this letter to the Ephesians needs to become the Biblical ground for instruction on Christian marriage. Its singular intent is to communicate the profound "mystery" of Christian marriage - God thought first of the spousal union of Christ and His bride, the Church, and He then made husband and wife look like it!
In the order of creation, something of this "plan hidden from the ages" (Ephesians 3:8-9) is revealed; however in Christian Marriage, through its participation in and with Jesus Christ, it is all elevated and transformed. The good of the very human relationship of marriage becomes a real, substantial participation in Trinitarian Love! It is here where the rich development of the writings of Pope John Paul II will be so helpful in opening up a deeper understanding of the nuptial language of the Body and the truth concerning baptized Christian marriage as both a vocation and call to holiness. His teachings need to be unpacked and ordered into a comprehensive catechesis for Christian marriage. My experience in this class reminded me of the utmost importance of that task.
The passage with which I began this reflection explains it is so vital. Christian Marriage is a model, a mystery and a mission in the Church, for the Church and for the world. It reveals the unfolding of Gods plan for the entire human race. This is why it is being so fiercely attacked in some quarters! Nature is for grace and the order of creation is transformed by the order of redemption. The married couple lives their vocation now "in Christ" and participates in His very life and action with His bride, the Church. This is the great "mysterion "Paul so profoundly alludes to in his text. Within this "hermeneutic", this lens, the entire teaching in this text opens up and reveals the splendor of the face of Christ.
The key to living Christian Marriage as a vocation is coming to understand Christian love as the self-emptying "kenotic" love of Jesus Christ being lived out vocationally. St. Paul writes: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2: 5-11)
The word translated "emptied Himself" in this text is "kenosis" in the Greek. It literally means to be poured out. My favorite Eastern Icon, the one before which I pray every day, is called "Divine Humility". It is this passage, written in the language of mystery. It depicts the Son of God, who is True God and True Man, condescending out of love to enter the tomb so that we can now enter into the eternal communion of Love. If God so loves us that He empties Himself, in Christ, so are we called to love one another now, and capacitated in Christ, by grace, to do so, in return. This participation in the vocation of loving "in Christ" is now possible because Christ's love has been concretized and made available through His death and resurrection. The same Spirit, which raised Him from the dead, is now at work in sacramental Christian marriage.
The vocation of Christian marriage is thus a means of grace and a sign of Christ's love for the Church. This way of loving can never be seen in a "power matrix"; a model where the spouses struggle against one another for dominance. Rather, it must be lived and demonstrated in a poured out love in the order of Christ on the Cross. It is there, on Golgotha's Hill, where He espouses His Bride, the Church, to Himself. It is there, in the kenosis of Christian marriage that those called to the vocation, join with Him.
As I shared this kind of "vocations" vision with the thirty couples who were assembled for this talk, I could tell that I was treading on new turf. I tried, though the subject makes it a bit difficult, to keep my presentation "rooted" in the real. After all, I have lived this vocation for thirty years with my wonderful partner in faith and ministry, my beloved bride. We have raised five children (though you never stop "parenting") and now we have begun now with grandchildren. It has been a very "real" way of love, one filled with struggle, mistakes, pain, failures and all the "real" stuff of human living. It has also been filled with joy, human flourishing and grace, ah, yes, most of all, grace; that beautiful unmerited experience of the gratuitous love of God in Christ. We have experienced the endless resources of the Sacrament, going back to the well, over and over again, through prayer, and receiving all that we needed.
I drew from the experiences of three decades, in order to put the "Mystery" of Christian Marriage inan "incarnational" framework for these wonderful couples. I gave the talk as a "Vocations" talk, presenting the truth of Christian Marriage as model, mystery and mission. I wanted them to come to know that in this faithful committed loving relationship, called Christian Marriage, there is a real participation in Trinitarian love. Husband and wife are invited to "become one", and in so doing to manfest the very life of God. Yet, in the gift of self to their spouse, they also discover their uniqueness and their "otherness".
I spoke freely of the gift, beauty and dignity of conjugal love and the conjugal act. I explained the reasons for the Church's teaching that the conjugal act must always be open to new life. I spoke of this insistence on the on both the unitive and the procreative dimension of the marital act as a part of a much deeper understanding of who we are, how our bodies were fashioned to speak the language of love and gift, and of who we are called to be in Jesus Christ. I explained why love must always to be open to new life. I spoke of the Church's teaching on that openness to life not as a "proscription" but as a prescription, a path to holiness, freedom and joy, the way to a full and rich experience of love, life and mission. Drawing on my own lived experience, I explained the asymmetry to all of this, as there is to so much of the Christian life. I told them that they will discover, in grace, that they can give themselves away in an ever-fresh way - actually "lose themselves" in Christ and for the other - yet still find themselves anew. This is the paradox presented by the Gospel; Love is self-donation in communion.
I told them that in Christian Marriage the world is meant to glimpse the inner life of the Trinity - absolute equality but infinite difference - held together in perfect unity by Love. The early Church Fathers called the dynamic inner life of the Trinity, "perichoresis", a Greek word literally meaning the "dance" of love. Every Christian married couple is invited into this dance, in the real day to day living out of their vocation in Christ. In this dance they can prophetically show forth the destiny of the entire Church. The model of Divine Love witnessed in Christian Marriage is a manifestation of what theologians call nuptiality.
I explained that this nuptial mystery also lies at the heart of the Christian vocation to consecrated celibacy. But whereas the participation in this mystery called Christian Marriage is mediated through a spouse, in the life to come it will be unmediated! The Scriptures make it clear; there will be no specific marriages in heaven. Rather, we will be "like the angels." (St. Matthew 22:30) Yet, marriage is the eschatological destiny of all Christians, because we will be married to Christ. It is within this deeper understanding that consecrated celibacy is to be seen. It is a prophetic and eschatological participation in that eternal union. It is the "immediate" or "unmediated" spousal love of God, in Christ, made possible in the "here and now" by call and election. This gift of consecrated Christian celibacy "for the kingdom", like Christian marriage, is understandable only by virtue of the "new" made present in Jesus Christ.
I told them that in the life to come, we who have been baptized into Christ will live the "Communio Personarum" of the eschaton , married to God in Christ. There will be no giving or taking in specific marriage as Jesus said. Not because we will not be physical, for we will be resurrected "body - persons", but because we will be "espoused" forever as Church in Christ. To begin to truly understand the mystery of Christian Marriage is to begin to understand the beauty of Christian celibacy for the Kingdom. In the "end" (which is the beginning), God's power will transform the Cosmos, the entire created order. God will give Himself in Love to the whole universe, which will be reconstituted in Christ.
We will receive transformed bodies. Then Christ will be "all in all". Resurrection will be the perfect participation of what is physical with what is spiritual; a new spiritualization of the entire psychosomatic subjectivity of the person. Consecrated celibacy is participation - even now - in that forever. It shows forth the final Spousal Union, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Oh, I know, all of this is very deep stuff. But, that is what really makes it so very important. Christian marriage is meant to be, well, Christian. That is why I am even more convinced then ever, after this experience, that it is so important that couples preparing for Christian marriage be evangelized, catechized and then commissioned. At the very least, they should be given a vocations talk. Christian Marriage can only be lived, in its fullness, in Christ.
In his letter to the Ephesians, particularly in its fifth chapter, St. Paul gives us the Magnus Opus of Christian Marriage. The profundity of its insights cannot be overstated. It is no surprise that this letter is increasingly controversial in this narcissistic age. However, it is not just the theologians (who are unfortunately "missing the mark" more often than not) who need to explain the depth of its meaning and message. This task will require the stalwart and prophetic witness of Christian married couples who are genuinely converted and living out this vision of Christian marriage and family.
When this occurs, the Church will have a great resource in her work of the New Evangelization. The "domestic church" in the home can become a frontline in the missionary work of the Third Millennium. What the Catholic Church teaches about Christian marriage is the liberating message for this age, as it is for every age, precisely because it presents the mystery of eternity made manifest in the here and now.
Marriage in Christ is a "Mystery", meant to be lived, a model, meant to be imitated, and a mission, that needs to find its fullness. That will require a new catechesis. Nothing less will suffice.
By the way, after giving this talk, I wasn't sure what the group, of for that matter, the sponsor, thought. It was not a "light" presentation. To my delight, I have been invited back to give it to another group of couples preparing to live the mystery.
Deacon Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia serving at St. Benedict's Catholic Church, a dynamically orthodox Roman Catholic Parish, dedicated to fidelity to the Magisterium and faithfulness to the Church's mission of sanctification, evangelization and transformation. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and is currently a PHD student at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".
Third Millennium, LLC
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
Marriage in Christ
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