Last December my wife and I had our first child, whom we named Jonah after the prophet to the Assyrians. My son is a member of this race, constantly threatened with extinction. But his birth is a sign of hope that God has not yet cut down the Assyrian family tree for good.
I have never experienced such overwhelming, spontaneous emotion as when Jonah entered the world. I was immediately overcome with tears of intense joy, relief, amazement — everything. At the same time as this baby was bringing joy into our lives, I was aware of the deep disappointments many of our friends were facing due to miscarriages that have possibly ruined their chances of having kids. I know people who have lost their children; another friend recently witnessed the death from drowning of his 11-month-old cousin. Such immense joy and excruciating sorrow are tied to family life and our procreative potential.
In the current debate over same-sex marriage the sticking point for traditionalists has continued to be the place of procreation in our understanding of this “sacrament.” What I want to talk about here is less the joys of children, and more the pain. I want to claim that any theology of marriage we profess must make sense of these pains. I will talk first, therefore, about what a sacrament is and how the sacrament of marriage sheds light on these pains. I will then come back to the same-sex marriage debate and whether we are talking enough about suffering.
What is a sacrament? The word sacrament sounds rather Catholic to some Anglican ears, but it is the Latin equivalent of what St. Paul calls in Greek a “mystery” (Eph. 5:32) when he discusses how Adam and Eve’s marriage foreshadowed the marriage of Christ and the Church. Anywhere you find Eve in Paul’s epistles, she consistently and “mysteriously” represents the Church (compare 1 Tim. 2:11-15 with 2 Cor. 11:2-3). Moreover, the New Testament understands other Old Testament women mysteriously to represent the Church as well, such as Sarah in Galatians 4, where she symbolizes the heavenly Jerusalem of the saints. This Jerusalem, St. John adds, is the Bride of Christ who will marry Christ, the Lamb, at the end of time (Rev. 21:2).
Here is a general definition of sacraments. They are visible means of invisible grace: “ordinary” things that have been taken up into God’s purposes — birthing, bathing, eating, drinking, dying — in order to bring us into contact with Christ’s death and resurrection. They are divinely designed means to an end. In the traditional typology derived from Israel’s Exodus from Egypt (1 Cor. 10:1-5), baptism is a means to cross spiritually from Egypt to Israel; the Eucharist is the means of sustaining ourselves on the journey to the promised land; and biological parenthood is the means of bringing forth children who will populate the New Jerusalem, which on the last day will be married to the Lamb. Marriage moves history toward the second coming of Christ.
Conservatives are not always clear about the role of procreation in marriage. St. Paul, after all, seems to make self-sacrificial love the symbolic center of marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Yet what does self-sacrifice have to do with marriage exactly?
Friends can lay down their lives for their friends; they can lay down their lives for their enemies, but this does not mean that they are married. I would like to propose that parenting has something to do with self-sacrifice in marriage: it introduces an added cross. Just like straight couples, gay couples can pick up this cross by adopting. Yet I know single people who have adopted, which shows that even parenting is loosely related to what makes marriage unique. That is because before children can be parented, they must be born. A conservative wants to say therefore that biological parenthood is what defines marriage.
The trouble with making biological parenthood — that is, birthing — the criterion of the sacrament of marriage is that sex and fertility are bound up with the all-too-ordinary disappointments I started with. I’m thinking here of those people whose patrimony (Indigenous or Eastern Christian) is in danger of being lost forever, those who have suffered miscarriage after miscarriage; or those people who outlive their own children, who see their branch of the family tree cut off. I’m also thinking of the ordinary trials of the average Christian who longingly waits for whatever length of time before he or she is given (or perhaps is never given) a spouse: I wasn’t married until I was 35! More tragically, perhaps, are those women, married or married too late, who are not fertile, and people who are impotent or disabled. Every family is acquainted with one or more of these circumstances, which is why a theology of sex and marriage must speak to these disappointments. These experiences of barrenness illuminate for us the meaning of marriage and so, in my view, must inform how we understand the sacrament of marriage.
Barrenness, the Cross, and resurrection in Scripture
The Bible is not silent about the peculiar experiences of mortality that come to us in the form of sexual barrenness. Take a passage from Romans 4 in which Abraham and Sarah are forced to suffer the infertility of their aging bodies despite God’s promise to bless them with children:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. (Rom. 4:18-19)
We know of course that Sarah’s womb underwent a miraculous “resurrection” when this 100-year-old woman conceived the promised child, Isaac. The faith that saved Abraham and Sarah hundreds of years prior to Christ was a faith in resurrection despite the fact of death. Their faith made them like Christ, and this had to do with the way he and Sarah related to the death and life of their own procreative power. Having grown too old to procreate, Abraham and Sarah did not have an abstract faith in the promise: they were conformed to the image of Christ through the way they faced death in the peculiar form of barrenness.
The Suffering Servant prophecy of Isaiah 53 speaks a similar word, in my view. Christ becomes the archetype of the barren young man, dead before his time: “And who can speak of his descendents?” (Isaiah 53:8, NIV 1983). What parent isn’t devastated when a son or daughter dies as a young adult, having never left behind any child to remember them by? This was Jesus.
Jesus voluntarily went to the grave as a celibate man. But had he not taken celibacy and barrenness to the grave, before his resurrection and marriage to the Church, the single person would have little space in Christianity: that crucially includes not merely “vowed” celibate monks, but all of those people who wait and wait and wait for “the one.” Is their waiting meaningless? What about those who are barren due to miscarriage, death, or disability? Is their barrenness meaningless? Not necessarily, now that Christ has taken barrenness to the grave.
Celibacy is an instance of a broader biblical pattern of interrupted genealogy and barrenness, common in human experience. Consider God’s requirement that Jeremiah remain unmarried; the infertility of Rachel, Hannah, Samson’s mother, and Elizabeth; the many stories of dying children such as David’s firstborn son; the annihilation of Job’s family; even perhaps the death of Ezekiel’s wife.
Barrenness is a cross that God calls humanity to take on. God calls humanity to endure chastity until marriage (Heb. 13:4). We are all called to “wait” like Abraham and Sarah for “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). We wait for spouses, we wait for God to open up wombs, we wait for the resurrection of our disabled and infertile bodies.
The contraceptive gap
I struggle to communicate this because contraception has severed sex and genealogy in our cultural imagination. Indigenous cultures still may not have this imaginative gap, nor did cultures prior to ours. In our culture when we think of “carrying our cross” in relation to sex, we think of battling lust, not dead family trees. We think of our prudish youth pastor: sex is bad, lust is sin … don’t do it.
Years ago I went on pilgrimage to Rome during Easter. I began at the tomb of St. Paul, where I met a young Catholic priest who accompanied me for several hours on my way to St. Peter’s Basilica. The cross of celibacy, he said to me that night, had more to do with giving up a family. This may be the greatest scandal of monasticism and of the celibate priesthood. How many stories are there of modern parents who are disappointed by their son becoming a childless priest or barren nun? Similar concerns permeated ancient, pagan Greco-Roman culture. They often thought sex was gross or ignoble, only suitable for certain seasons of the year or places. What was scandalous was not that Christians were giving up sex, but giving up the closest thing to immortality: family and genealogy.
The scandal of celibacy today is relatively superficial: many believe Christians give up the best form of entertainment, sex, and they wait to enjoy it with only one partner. Genealogy does not come into the equation, even though it is still there under the surface when you dig for it. It is still there tormenting us in our miscarriages, in the deaths of children, in our aging bodies, in our lonesome single life when our biological clock has run down. It’s still there in the longing of the adopted child to know biological parents. It’s still there in others’ anxiety over their vanishing ethnic heritage.
I think the reason why it is hard to admit that biological parenthood centrally defines marriage is that we all experience these disappointments, we empathize with the barren, and don’t want them left out. If procreation defines marriage, what about the disabled, the infertile, the impotent? We look at “spinsters” in our pews and pity them; we wish we could set them up, make them live happily ever after.
But speaking as someone who did hard time as a single man, I didn’t want your pity. Pity can become an expression of fear and horror. “Oh God, please don’t let me suffer like that person!” The fact of the matter is that all of us deal with barrenness in one form or another: if not in infertility, then in death. Yet Christ’s cross has made barrenness meaningful, such that procreation can be a foretaste of Christ’s resurrection.
Sacraments are known as “ordinary means of grace.” Biological parenthood is extremely ordinary, the pain of barrenness is extremely ordinary. If biological parenthood does not define the sacrament of marriage, then the ordinary loses the possibility of becoming extraordinary, completely unrelated to the normal experience of marriage.
Same-sex marriage and the Cross
In light of what I have discussed so far, I wonder how advocates of same-sex marriage could articulate the cross of gay marriage in terms of literal barrenness and fertility. I do not see how same-sex marriage relates to procreation in a manner like Abraham and Sarah, an experience that carries the cross. There is no waiting for literal fertility as a foretaste of immortality and resurrection because literal fertility has been voluntarily forsaken. Unlike Christ’s voluntary celibacy, same-sex barrenness is permanent. By not being conformed to the image of Christ in this concrete way — and Christ-likeness, I stress, is the very definition of salvation — the queer Christian forfeits the vision of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
If our church removes reference to procreation, those of us who suffer the disappointments of infertility are left without resurrection hope if we are rendered barren. If procreation has nothing to do with marriage, then barrenness is just barrenness, miscarriage just miscarriage, singleness just a prison, the impotent and disabled person just an object of horror. It then bears no relation to the cross.
The Anglican Church of Canada must now decide whether it will speak a word of hope to the Abrahams and Sarahs of the world or whether it will take away their hope. Canadians have proposed same-sex marriage as a “pastoral response” for the loneliness and hurt within the gay community. But does God look upon us all as pitiable “spinsters” whom he needs to “set up”? Is marriage his “pastoral response” to our hurt and suffering? It would seem in fact an added burden because our procreative potential makes us much more vulnerable to suffering, not less.
The featured image is David Jones’s “Bride” (1930) on display at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.