Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber ….
He came to the marriage-bed of the Cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage. And when he perceived the sighs of the creature, he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and joined himself to her forever. — St. Augustine, Sermo Suppositus 120
One of my leitmotifs in preaching and teaching is how the Cross is the archetype of marriage. One of the consistent teachings of the Fathers, and of the apostles themselves, is that all of salvation history in the Old Testament, beginning with the narrative of creation in Genesis, is illuminated by and in the person of Jesus. In him we are able to see, at last, what it was all about from the very beginning. We see in him the final purpose of creation, of the election of Abraham, of God’s deliverance of his people from bondage in Egypt, the giving of the Law, the building of the temple, the consecration of David as king, etc. etc. etc. All of it — the whole narrative arc of human history, and in fact the whole narrative arc of the history of the world, from the Big Bang onward — has its origin and purpose disclosed in him. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Of everything.
In the Incarnation we see that the whole thing is oriented toward human flourishing. In a word: it is oriented toward life, and life abundant. We are pro-life, in the most fundamental and far-reaching way. Abundant life is the point on the horizon, the point beyond the horizon, toward which Christ orients us in every facet of our wayfaring. The point of our submission to him within the context of the Church’s hierarchy is to make progress on the road toward abundant life.
But the way to abundant life that Jesus illuminates is a counterintuitive way. In his words, it is a “narrow” and a “difficult” way, and, walking it, we find ourselves tempted, in virtue of its narrowness and difficulty, to begin to think that the world’s relatively easy and broad alternatives might be better. Resisting that temptation is the purpose of Christian asceticism: keeping our eyes resolutely fixed on the Cross, with all of its implications. It is the Cross, in all its terrible sublimity, that keeps every aspect of our lives — including our sexuality — “oriented” correctly, toward the spiritual East, “whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”
The Cross is the nuptial bed on which is consummated the union of divine nature and human nature in the “one flesh” of Jesus. Nothing connotes this more powerfully than our Lord’s final “word” from the Cross: “It is finished;” consummatum est in Latin: it is consummated. And the difference and complementarity between men and women — which is even and perhaps primarily a physiological difference and complementarity — has been written by God into the fabric of the material world. It is impossible to read Genesis and come to any other conclusion, not least in light of the interpretive patrimony of the Fathers, the apostles, and our Lord himself.
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The difference and complementarity between men and women, running down to the bedrock of our chromosomes, does not just float out there as an arbitrary datum. The normative text of our confession precludes this. It is rather an icon, a sacrament if you will, of the difference and complementarity of divine nature and human nature. In other words, the fact that men and women are naturally different, but that they fit together precisely in virtue of their differences, intimates a mystery fully disclosed in the person of Christ-crucified: the radical difference between God and man, man’s estrangement from God because of sin, and the overcoming of that estrangement in the person of Jesus, where God and man, at last, “are no longer two, but one flesh.”
Sexual relationships, contractual or otherwise, that obtain in the context of a lack of sexual difference are not wrong because they are weird or gross. They are wrong because they are incapable of signifying in this way — in the same way that we cannot make Eucharist with fish instead of bread. That does not mean there is something wrong with fish. It simply means that it lacks the in-built capacity of wheat bread to signify what is meant to be signified in the Eucharist. As an ancient Eucharistic prayer (from the Didache) put it,
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so may your Church be gathered from all lands into your kingdom by your Son.
Fish cannot reveal this mystery in virtue of what it is. Bread can.
The Cross as archetype of marriage should also chasten the relatively recent idea that marriage is primarily about mutual fulfillment or romantic love, or that it is an avenue toward the maximization of our personal freedoms. That the essence of marriage has little to do with any of that comes most sublimely and achingly to the surface in the self-effacement of spouses within the context of the negative side of the disjunctions of the marriage vows: in their fidelity “for worse … for poorer … in sickness … until death.”
To be sure, marriage can and should be a pathway to joy, to abundant life; but only to the extent that it is cruciform, to the extent that it takes the Cross as its origin and its final waypoint within the horizon of this world. Seen in this way, marriage becomes a school of self-denial, another facet of the singular vocation of the celibate monk, the context within which our desires are first chastened, then burned to ashes, and ultimately reformed in a heavenly mold.
One commentator on the most recent fruits of the sexual revolution, the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman, notes that we poisoned the social soil of marriage long ago:
Those [now] manning the barricades describe themselves as “defending marriage.” That is a deep inaccuracy: marriage, as an institution, was surrendered quite some time ago. Today’s battles are not about marriage but simply about dividing the spoils of its destruction. It is too late to defend marriage. Rather than being defended, marriage needs to be taught and lived. The Church needs to be willing to become the place where that teaching occurs as well as the place that can sustain couples in the struggle required to live it. Fortunately, the spiritual inheritance of the Church has gifted it with all of the tools necessary for that task. It lacks only people who are willing to take up the struggle.
This is the constructive project facing those of us who take seriously our patrimony as Christians with respect to marriage. And frankly I find this project much more compelling than critiquing the latest and most advanced insanities of the sexual revolution. Our task is to return to the foot of the Cross sicut cervus, like deer longing for the waterbrooks, and to rediscover there the exemplary habits and disciplines necessary to sustain our pilgrimage toward abundant life — in the water and the blood flowing from the body of our crucified Lord.
This is our source and, as I say, the final waypoint of our life in this world, at the foot of the Cross. We, as Christians, married and celibate, gay and straight, have to learn again to conform our lives to Jesus, and keep our eyes fixed resolutely on the Cross, to the exclusion of every other commitment. This is how we can form our own lives into a shape that will “dazzle the pagan eye,” in the words of a Covenant colleague, Dr. Wesley Hill.
Wes has written one of the best reflections on the recent redefinitions of marriage. Apropos of the foregoing — and because in some ways it describes well my own experience as an unmarried Christian, and is a reminder that the vantage point of heaven knows nothing of “gay” or “straight,” but speaks rather only of men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, hospitality and communion — Wes’s words bear repeating:
[S]ay you grew up intensely, conservatively Christian. But say that you also grew up gay, knowing you were mysteriously drawn to the same sex even in childhood and, by adolescence, you were regularly falling in love with your same-sex friends. Say that as you grew older and encountered more liberal, progressive forms of Christianity, you also encountered strong arguments for changing your mind and abandoning historic Christian teaching on marriage and sex. But say, too, that you were loved so well — mainly by Christian married couples, some of them with children and some of them without, all of whom upheld the traditional Christian teaching — so that your embracing the biblical teaching on celibacy (Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7) began to seem like a real possibility for living your life full of love, friendship, and hospitality. Say that as you were asked, repeatedly, by Christian couples to become a godparent to their children, and as you were invited to move in and share a house with another Christian couple, you found yourself beginning to really believe the biblical model of celibacy in which living without marriage and sex is a path toward community, not away from it. Say that one day you would sit down to write these words: “Jesus has given me brothers and sisters and mothers and children. Knowing my celibate lifestyle, the Christians I’ve befriended have committed themselves, through the unity secured by the Holy Spirit rather than through biological ties, to being my family, whether or not I ever experience marriage myself. They have invited me into their homes, taken me on vacation with them, and encouraged me to consider myself an older sibling to their children.” Such, in brief, is my story of finding my eye — partly pagan as it is, like everyone else’s in America these days — dazzled by the burnished practice of Christian marriage. That happened to me (or, perhaps I should say, is happening, since conversion is never finished in this life). And it could happen to others too, I believe.
The featured image is “Montpellier” (2012) by Nikos Niotis. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Father Will – you are so very close to being Catholic. The completion of all your very true musings are found in JPII, “Theology of the Body”. Thank you for your beautiful words.