All Saints, Morton—Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-9
Very often, subjects that we think we’re the most familiar with turn out to be the ones we actually know the least about. I suspect that the subject of marriage is in this category. Today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, and the gospel passage from Mark, certainly do not exhaust what the Bible has to say about marriage, but any Christian reflection on marriage has to deal with this material. It is absolutely central to an informed Christian understanding of what marriage is. And, of course, I’m aware that marriage is presently a controversial subject, in both church and society.
I have three main points I want to share with you today on the subject of marriage as it is illuminated by these scripture readings. It will help if you can visualize a garden plant—a sunflower will do very nicely. It has a root system, which is unseen, but which anchors the plant in the soil and without which it couldn’t live. It has a stem, or “shoot,” which is the main body of the plant and which gives the whole organism is height and standing in the world. And on top of it all is what we might call the “fruit” of the sunflower—the flower itself, which contains those wonderful seeds that are good either for roasting, salting, and eating; or—better yet, from a biological point of view—for producing more sunflower plants. The production of this “fruit” is the whole purpose of the sunflower’s existence. Root…shoot…fruit. I want to talk about the root, the shoot, and the fruit of the institution of marriage.
The root of marriage is that it is a gift from God. We learn this from the virtual beginning of the beginning of the Bible, the oldest material in scripture, the book of Genesis, chapter two. The Lord is with the newly-created man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden, and decides that it’s not such a good idea for there to be only one of him. It would be better if he had a partner, someone to share his life with. So God parades all the animals in front of Adam, hoping to find a suitable candidate. Adam thinks they’re all splendid, and he gives them names, but he is not impressed with the potential for any of them to become his partner—not even the dog, apparently, despite what we have since come to say about “man’s best friend.” So the Lord reverts to Plan B, and puts Adam under a general anesthesia, removes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman, Eve. After waking up, Adam takes one look at her and tells God that, this time, He got it right! The author of Genesis then tells us: “For this reason…” —that is, “in order to enter into this sort of relationship”— for this reason, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh.”
Therefore, we can affirm that God invented marriage. It is not merely a human invention, an institution that human societies have developed and adapted, and will continue to develop and adapt however it seems appropriate and desirable to them. Marriage is God’s idea, not ours. The fact that we first encounter it in the book of Genesis, and not in Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, is extremely significant. This tells us that marriage is part of the order of creation, part of the very fabric of universal human existence. It is not merely part of one of the succession of covenants that God made with humankind. It is more basic than even the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses. Marriage is from the beginning. Marriage is a gift from God. This is the root of marriage, and when we ignore the roots of something, then we don’t really understand it properly.
So if the root of marriage is that it is a gift from God, then the “shoot” of marriage is that it enables human beings, both those who are married and those who are single, to share in the very life of God, the love that exists within the Blessed and Glorious Trinity. I’ll try not to digress too much into complicated Trinitarian theology, but we need to remind ourselves that, contrary to the way we may often think of Him, God has revealed Himself as a “complex” Being. We might even say that God is a “community” —a community of three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as long as we’re careful not to extrapolate from that the idea that there are three Gods. The Church believes that there is one God who subsists in three co-equal “persons” who are in a relationship—an ordered relationship—with one another. There is an essential unity among the Persons of the “Godhead”—they are all equally 100% God. But they are also distinct, and not to be confused with one another. They have their own unique characteristics. Now this is hard to wrap our minds around, I know. It’s a paradox, not really “logical” in the way we think of logic. There is a sort of tension between the “unity” of God and the “community” of God, between the essential sameness of the Persons of the Trinity, and their distinctive differences.
The theological and spiritual significance of marriage is a reflection of this same kind of paradox, this same kind of logical tension. When Adam lays eyes on Eve, he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He was rejoicing in the sight of someone who was like him, an equal, a peer. Yet, it was obvious that there was also something mysteriously different about her. She was like him in her essential humanness, but at the same time undeniably and distinctly different. This tension between sameness and difference is reflected in our very language: In the Hebrew of Genesis, the word for a male human being is ish, and the word for a female human being is both the same and different, ishah. We see the same thing in the English words “man” and “woman.” A marriage, then, both for those who are in the marriage and for those who are observing the marriage, those whose lives the marriage touches in some way—a marriage is a living icon of one aspect of the Holy Trinity. In it, we see something of the nature and life of God. This is where marriage “happens,” the daily “living into” the paradox of sameness and otherness. My favorite prayer from the wedding liturgy asks that the marriage which is being blessed will be a “sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” So the “shoot” of marriage, the main body and life of marriage, is to be a sign, a sign that points to a deeper and higher reality.
Root…shoot…now this brings us to the “fruit” of marriage. The fruit of marriage, is the experience of responding to a call out of and beyond ourselves, into the ideal which it represents. Jesus’ blunt words to the Pharisees are still echoed in traditional Christian marriage services: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Marriage is an ideal, and Jesus’ words affirm that ideal. In the meantime, though, we are sinful human beings. All too often, we fall short of our ideals. When that happens in a marriage, the courageous response is to admit failure, make amends, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, repent, and move on. Hopefully, “moving on” means doing so together. God hates divorce. But sometimes the damage is too great and the wounds too deep, and “moving on” means doing so separately. The cowardly response to failure to attain the ideal of marriage is to conform the ideal to what is supposed to be real—in effect, to abandon the ideal. If we can’t jump over the bar, then we just lower it until we can. That way there’s no failure, and no need to repent. This might make us feel better temporarily, but it’s dishonest, and in the end it’s a deal with the devil.
A true ideal, by contrast, invites us to extend ourselves, to stretch, to grow, to risk, to have the gall not to accept the unacceptable. Estrangement is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to unity. Guilt is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to forgiveness. Despair seems to lie at the end of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to hope. Marriage is an ideal that is desperately needed by all of us. We need to be reconciled with that mysterious Other who is also like us. In our human experience, we generally recognize the mysterious Other in the opposite sex. But ultimately, even that is a mere shadow of a veiled Reality. Ultimately, the mysterious Other with whom we seek union is God Himself. The purpose of marriage is to prepare us for Joy: consummated union in bliss with the One who is the true object of all desire, the One who is both the same and “other,” and whose very name and life is Love. Amen.