By James M. Stanton
We think we know a lot about marriage. It’s all about falling in love, and living happily ever after. And, oh yes, that sex thing. Maybe in this sense the Church service is just to make it all okay, or clean or even noble.
In recent decades, of course, all this stuff about marriage is up for grabs. Certainly we know that people live together without — as they say — benefit of clergy. Since the 1960s, at least, cohabitation without marriage has been a sign of doing your own thing — of being unique, of rebelling against the establishment — whatever the establishment might be. In the meantime, we have become liberated to all sorts of living relationships.
The Church, sadly, has fallen into this line of thinking. You can’t help falling in love when it happens, they say. And since the gospel is all about a God of love, maybe human love is the doorway to God! Just bless the love between couples and hope for the best!
Our sense of marriage doesn’t run very deep. No wonder the divorce rate is as high as it is, our sexual ethic is as flimsy as it is, and our families are imploding as quickly as they are.
As you come to renew your marriage vows, I want you to see what the Church believes about marriage, and what our Lord Jesus wants you to know about it. And then we shall have a better notion of what God’s blessing might mean to us as we go our way.
We can set all this out in three simple ideas: marriage is God’s invention; marriage is God’s tool for building character; and marriage is a ministry in God’s service.
First, as the Prayer Book service says, “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.” God invented marriage. Wow! That’s about as important a thing as anyone could say about marriage. How do we know this statement is true? Because Jesus told us so (Mark 10:6-9).
So what does it mean? It means that marriage is not whatever you want it to be. God created it. It belongs to his plan. It does not depend on the decisions of legislatures, or the definitions of courts. And because God established it, no one of us — nor all of us together — can change it.
It also means that if you wish to build a marriage that is good and solid and rewarding, you’re going to have to know what God meant for it.
And here the Prayer Book is a help to us, too.
Christian wisdom through the ages tells us that marriage is a tool of God:
“The union of husband and wife in heart, mind and body is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
There’s a lot in that. Maybe we can say that the basic intention of God for marriage is that it build full and complete persons — that it is a tool for character-building. We certainly see this in the procreation of children. We know that children require patient and careful attention from both a mom and a dad over a long period of time. The family is a crucible in which capable, strong, and enduring characters are built.
This requires commitment and it takes permanence. It also takes joy, which brings excitement and a sense of well-being; and it takes mutual assistance in all the ups and downs of life — in the good times and in the bad.
But marriage is not just for building up the character of children, but of the adults who form it in the first place. Marriage is a commitment to maturity and the transformations it will require. That is why we say we take each other — “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” It is said that a man marries a woman hoping she will never change and that a woman marries a man planning how he will. But both have to give in and both have to give a lot over time — because that is how God has designed us and what his gift of marriage requires of us.
As a pastor over many years, the saddest thing I heard from married couples was the complaint: “We have changed.” Of course they had! Did they not expect to change? The whole purpose of human life is to change — to change from infants to adults, from selfish consumers to generous givers, from takers of creation to sharing communion with the Creator. God made you for eternal fellowship with himself — but that means you will have to go through many changes before you get there. Marriage is one of God’s greatest tools — not only to bring us into life, but to equip us to change so that we are ready to share his life eternally. And that is why marriage is also called a Sacrament: it is an outward and visible way God gives us his inward and spiritual grace preparing and empowering us for eternity!
Finally, marriage is a ministry. We have seen this already when it is said that marriage is intended for the procreation of children, and here is the important part: “their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” The ministry of husband and wife in this instance is to be the first Christian educators — and the most important educators — of their children!
But there is so much more: When the congregation prays for the newlyweds, we ask God to do certain things for them. We’re going ask God to do the same things for us— and they all have to do with ministry!
We ask God to give the married “wisdom and devotion” in their common life that each may be to the other “a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” Get it? We are supposed to minister to each other in strengthening ways. And this intensifies when we ask God to give us grace, so that when we hurt each other, we may “recognize [our] faults and seek each other’s forgiveness” — and God’s. We are supposed to be ministers of absolution and mercy! We are supposed to be priests to each other!
Okay. We minister to each other, and our kids. But there is more!
We ask God to make our lives together “a sign of Christ’s love” to this sinful and broken world. How is this supposed to happen? Well, as the prayer indicates, when our oneness cannot be broken, we are a sign that unity of spirit is greater than the world’s estrangement — that our forgiveness of each other is greater than sin and guilt — that our joy together is greater than the despair that engulfs the world. Have you ever thought of your marriage as a sign to others? Have you ever seen your marriage as a tool of evangelism? Have you ever seen your marriage as an evidence for the truth of the Gospel? This is what God wants your marriage to be! And this what we ask him to make it!
In one of our prayers we ask God to give us such fulfillment in our mutual affection that we may reach out in love and concern for others. Did you get that? We ask God to give us joy in our love that our marriage is no longer our main concern: such a joy empowers us to grow outside of ourselves and to overflow in love and care for others. And this kind of love reflects the love of Christ himself.
When I used to officiate at weddings, I would say to the couple, “It takes 25 years to get married.” And it is true. No one gets married in an instant, any more than one becomes a person in an instant. We must grow into it. But the glorious good news is that God created marriage, created us for marriage, creates us through our marriage, and wants our marriage to shine as a light to His world.
Let’s thank him for this gift by renewing our vows now.
The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton is the retired Bishop of Dallas.