Let me start with the caveat that “I get it.” I know why Christians explain marriage the way they do. Yes, marriage is hard. Having a good marriage takes a commitment beyond mere emotional attachment or physical attraction. The lived experience of Christian marriage is often less a fairy tale come true and more the practical arrangements of sinful, broken man and woman carrying a great deal of baggage who have desperate need of a Savior to meld them together and make of their very frail, limited love a sacrament, an Holy Estate, a divine miracle contained in very earthen jars. Husbands and wives may seldom be Christlike enough to deserve to fill the roles given us, but, hey, marriage is a spiritual discipline, right? There are even political battles at stake in both the Church and the wider world. I get it.
But when Christian teaching about marriage focuses primarily on the brokenness and hard work of marriage, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To hear some sermons, you might think Christ will wed the Church on the last day out of an excessive sense of duty, like Frederic in Pirates of Penzance. Or perhaps St. Paul intends us to understand, by using earthly marriage as an analogy, with what longsuffering and painstaking labor Christ must make his celestial bride worthy of marriage? Might our Lord hold his shining nose and take the plunge of divine consummation with us because, hey, marriage is a spiritual discipline, right?
Sure, marriage is not always about having fun. But is there no fun? Certainly marital relations were designed by God for the continuance of the species (repeat the slogan ad nauseam), but that is like saying a new BMW was designed merely for transportation from point A to point B, when the company’s slogan proudly proclaims “We make one thing: the ultimate driving machine.” Dare I admit that a powerful, agile, immaculately designed BMW is also fun to drive? Dare we stammer, with all the temerity we can muster, that marital relations are designed by God to be (Saints preserve us!) enjoyable? May we be allowed, when all the ideological and political rhetoric is exhausted and I sit with my wife before a roaring fire on a snowy evening, that there’s a great deal of (shall I whisper it?) L-O-V-E between us?
In fact, there is a truth in the fairy tale. No one wants to be loved merely as a spiritual discipline. We want to believe, even if it requires a suspension of our own disbelief, that we are objectively lovable and that our spouse is also objectively lovable. This is the source of the proverb that “love is blind.” One great insight of the Romantic era in Western culture was, in fact, marital romance: marrying for love. Christ weds the church for no other reason than that God loves. If love consists only of desiring the good of the other and consists to no degree whatsoever in personal enjoyment, then I am afraid the Almighty could take a lesson from BMW in disciplined design, since love, as it stands, looks like an awful lot of enjoyment for the lover, though the lover must sometimes sacrifice himself. Even pagan societies throughout history have intuited this. Even teenagers intuit this, quite correctly.
“For the joy that was set before him” our Lord endured the cross. Does this reciprocity make him selfish? Defining love as pure selflessness is a little naïve; we do better to stick closer to the biblical metaphor at the expense of our catechism and see that marital love has a way of rebounding back upon the lover. Yes, as fallen humans we can mistake this self-gratification for the entire package; yes, we can mistakenly sacrifice ourselves and those we love to the idol of self-gratification. But this does not mean that self-gratification does not belong in love, only that it is being misplaced or misused. The mystery of pure love is that something so completely selfless can cause the lover so much joy. Love given away becomes love received, all the stronger and more pure if we give, expecting nothing in return. Marital love is reciprocal, by definition. Why should not we posit reciprocity in God’s love? Why should God not enjoy loving us, if we consider that he puts so much of himself into making us objectively loveable? Indeed, our Beloved has shed his blood for nothing but this, and there is no greater love.
The featured image is “Jumping for Joy B&W” (2008) by Gary Dumas. It is licensed under Creative Commons.