Marriage: The Forgotten Vocation
Although homilists are more likely in this generation to mention marriage when they speak about vocations, the emphasis is still on the need for priests. Yet marriage is manifestly the vocation of most people. Demonstrably, it is also the key to all other vocations. Despite these realities, we have come to take for granted that 50% of all marriages will end in failure. Clearly, it is time to take a closer look at marriage.
Natural Institution and Sacrament
Matrimony is unique among the sacraments in that it is a natural institution raised to the sacramental level. This alone tells us how valuable and important marriage must be in God’s design. What are its essential characteristics?
First, marriage is a natural union of opposite sexes, one man and one woman. This union surpasses any other kind of union, including unnatural unions which ape marriage without possessing its essential qualities.
Second, marriage is a permanent union, dissolvable only by the death of either spouse. Because of its contractual character, many cultures allow the public authority to dissolve the marriage contract, but this necessarily creates an unfortunate tension, for by its very nature marriage is permanent, as is clearly reflected in the vows.
Third, marriage is an exclusive union. It both demands and depends upon the fidelity of the spouses to each other alone. It is opposed to every kind of casual sharing or group distribution of spousal privileges.
Fourth, the permanence and exclusivity of marriage are guaranteed by a formal contract. As such, the character of marriage is both higher and deeper than any informal and temporary arrangement, such as mere “living together” or concubinage.
How God Values Marriage
That Our Lord valued these characteristics of marriage so much as to sacramentalize them is only the first sign to Christians of marriage’s supreme importance. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find marriage alluded to in connection with the deepest mysteries of life and being. This begins at the story of Creation, when the Man was found to be incomplete, in need of a partner. And so, with the creation of the Woman, they became two in one flesh.
Throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between Israel and the Lord is described in terms of marriage. The prophets repeatedly denounce Israel’s faithlessness as a sin of harlotry or adultery. Thus Jeremiah: “You have played the harlot with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1) And Hosea: “For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the harlot.” (4:12) And, above all, Ezekiel: “Yet you were not like a harlot, because you scorned hire. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (15:31-2)
The Song of Songs gives us a more positive treatment of this theme. In this great poem of courtship between God and the soul, the relationship begins in love and culminates in spiritual marriage. The same theme is carried forward into the New Testament to describe God’s love for His Church. St. Paul’s famous passage in Ephesians brings it to fulfillment:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church. (5:21-33)
For Christ and his followers, marriage was a total commitment, a permanent self-giving, even before Christ elevated it. St. Matthew and St. Mark both quote Our Lord on this very point: “So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:8) In St. Luke’s account, we see that Our Lord was more forceful still: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (16:18)
How important it is for Christians to recapture the vitality of this commitment! This permanent, exclusive self-giving in marriage is not only the foundation of the social order and the key to the sanctification of the vast majority of all human persons; it is also the school of commitment that makes every other vocation possible. By far the greatest number of priestly and religious vocations come from good and stable families founded on a bond between husband and wife which mirrors the bond between Christ and His Church. Similarly, every other human commitment, every unbroken act of the will to sacrifice and serve, is strengthened in the school of marriage and family.
It is with very good reason that St. Paul stated point blank: “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7:10) This bond of commitment is so critical to everything human and divine that we cannot possibly be surprised at Christ’s own choice of the wedding feast at Cana to enter into his “hour”, that hour which would lead him to redeem his bride on the Cross (cf. Jn 2:4).
Making Right What Is Wrong
The evils of the world are symbolized by the great harlot of the book of Revelation (cf. chapters 17 and 19). Included in this enormous image of rampant prostitution are all the distractions, impurities and sins which render the soul incapable of that self-giving to another, that disciplined support and protection, that pure commitment to good which lie at the heart of marriage.
In our time, so deeply afflicted by the same evils, marriage has indeed become the forgotten vocation. It has been replaced by an anemic substitute, a relationship of convenience, a sham. In restoring marriage, we would do a great and wonderful thing, but not just for its own sake. For if we wish to honor, enrich and increase all of God’s callings, we must begin by making marriage what it is supposed to be.
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