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Perfect happiness

“And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” St. Luke 20:34-35

I was talking with a good friend of mine recently, who is preparing to be married in the spring. He’s an Episcopalian, but his fiancée isn’t a Christian. They had their first marriage preparation session a few weeks ago with the priest who will marry them. I asked him how it went. “Well, okay I guess,” he said, “but the priest had her in tears by the end of the session.” “What happened?” I asked him. “Well, he told us that we won’t be married forever, and she didn’t know what to make of that. It really bothered her.”

Now, I have to admit that I was just a little bit envious of that priest, who is also a good friend of mine. Not because I would like to have his gift for making beautiful young women cry, but because he had the courage to bring the Christian understanding of marriage out into the open, in all its fullness, even the parts that some people find difficult.

Because, of course, the priest was entirely correct in what he told them, and I just read you the passage, right from the lips of Jesus that shows where he learned it. We are married “until death do us part,” and then it’s really over. In the world to come, in life with God in heaven and on the day of resurrection, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Marriage is a very good thing, perhaps the best of the things that belong to this world alone, but it not the best of all things. And I think that for the sake of Christian marriages everywhere, facing this truth is actually a tremendous blessing.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Why did my friend’s fiancée burst into tears? Why did she want to be married forever? Well, this coming marriage is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in the life of this woman. My friend fills her life with joy and purpose. In him, she believes, she has found all that she has ever wanted. And she’s prepared to give herself entirely to him. She wants him to always be beside her. She wants to be the mother of his children. She’s ready to make all kinds of sacrifices for his sake. She wants to grow old with him. To her, at least at this moment, there can be nothing more beautiful, more enjoyable, more satisfying than holding him close to her. So if the world to come is a good thing, the very best of things—well, why in the name of all that’s right, shouldn’t she be able to be his wife forever?

It’s a very good question. And really, the world she’s grown up in, the world of contemporary middle-class America, well, it’s been telling her ever since she was just a little thing that romantic love is the one thing that gives life its greatest meaning. It’s been telling her that true love is the pearl of great price, because it lasts forever. Think about Lionel Ritchie (not a name that comes up in sermons very often). How did he have it?:

You’ll be the only one,
’Cause no one can deny,
This love I have inside,
And I’ll give it all to you,
My love, my love, my love,
My endless love.

Or, if you want a different genre of popular music, try Randy Travis:

I’m going to love you forever,
Forever and ever, Amen.
As long as old men sit and talk about the weather,
As long as old women sit and talk about old men.

Now that’s very powerful stuff. But what Jesus is saying is that it’s just not true, something she finds deeply upsetting. And in this way, at least, she has something in common with the Sadducees, the Jewish elders who are questioning Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.

The Sadducees also think that marriage is very important, but they’re not romantics, like my friend’s fiancé. For them, marriage is all about possession and offspring. They pose this nightmarish quandary about a woman who had been widowed seven times. Following the Old Testament law of levirate marriage, she had married seven brothers in turn and borne children by none of them, and in the age to come, they ask, “whose woman will she be”—that’s what the Greek actually says, not exactly the way we modern PC romantics would put it, but there you have it. They aren’t interested in which of the husbands was her soul mate. And Saint Luke tells us that they are skeptics about the resurrection, and this question is their way of trying to make the afterlife look ridiculous, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Because even though they doubt the resurrection, just like my friend’s fiancé, the Sadducees do believe in a kind of immortality and it’s all connected to marriage. They believe that immortality comes through your children, and because your wife bears your children, marriage is a big deal. For them, it was a paramount religious duty to bear children, so the people of God might not perish from the earth. If, by chance, there is to be something like an afterlife, what interests them most about it is how the family units are going to be sorted out, probably so more children can be conceived, because if God means anything to last, it must be offspring. It’s also significant that the Sadducees use this kind of example to test Jesus on his doctrine of the afterlife. He is, after all, a celibate man, and there’s an implied rebuke in the question: how can you claim to teach us, when you haven’t yet done your own duty. What of you will ever survive?

Now, according to Jesus, my friend’s romantic fiancée and the offspring-obsessed Sadducees actually suffer from the same problem when they try to think about the afterlife. It’s a failure of imagination. They just can’t see that for all that is good in marriage, it’s just not the greatest thing that human life can offer. Fellowship with God is simply better than the love between a man and a woman, it’s better than the delight in children. And God, because he loves us, wants us to have the best. So, marriage must be set aside. As Saint Paul would explain it to the Corinthians, “when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.”[1]

Marriage is a good thing. I’ve said that already and I’ll say it again. It was instituted by God. Jesus blessed it by His presence and first miracle at Cana. We bless marriages in the Church; we count matrimony as a sacrament. We pray that married couples will keep their vows. Marriage is a school for holiness, and a pillar of society. And the Romantics and the Sadducees are both partially right about it, at least in my experience. It brings joy to our lives and helps us grow. The children that often come from it are a sign of God’s faithfulness, and raising them brings a unique kind of fulfillment to us. But marriage is imperfect. And in part, that’s because it’s a union of imperfect people. So that the things that make up marriage: loyalty, delight, sex, domesticity, they are good, but if we’re honest, there’s always a bit of sin woven into them, like everything else in the world. We can never quite get our selfishness and pride out of it all, even though we’d like to do just that.

But even when marriage is really good, when we’ve learned to live in peace and to truly give of ourselves; it remains imperfect, because God has prepared something even better. Every time I celebrate the Eucharist, I say a prayer in the Sacristy as I remove my vestments. It was written many centuries ago by Saint Thomas Aquinas, and it closes with these words:

And I also beseech thee, that thou wouldest vouchsafe to bring me a sinner to that ineffable feast where thou, with thy Son and the Holy Ghost, art to thy saints true light, full and everlasting joy, and perfect happiness.[2]

Now, I love my wife very much, but I do not expect her to give me “full and everlasting joy and perfect happiness.” I know her, and it’s too much to ask. And she would certainly say the same thing about me. I want to make her happy. I want to be loyal and generous and courageous. I want her to feel that being my wife is a blessing, and together we want our children to flourish. But there’s only so far we can get on our own. God alone can supply what is truly the greatest.

Because God gives what is truly perfect, and because life with God is what really lasts forever, well then God must be most important to us. God must have the first place in my heart, not my wife, not my children. I must serve God above all.

And if I didn’t give God the first place in my heart, I think it would make my marriage into a great mess. People who really think that marriage is the greatest thing in their lives expect far too much from each other. If marriage was really the most important thing, my wife might expect me to do wrong for her sake—to lie or steal to help her, or to shut out other kinds of friendship and the need to care for other people. And I’m sure that if we thought our children were the most important things in our lives, it would make their lives a living hell. We’d either spoil them terribly by giving into their every whim, or we’d nag them incessantly because they weren’t living up to our expectations. And if we really thought about life that way, imagine what it would feel like if we hadn’t been able to find somebody to marry, or if we hadn’t been able to have children. Imagine how much worse it would be when one of us eventually dies.

To say that marriage is the highest good is to make marriage into an idol. And the thing about idols is that they never, never keep their promises. Idols always betray us, and they always enslave us. The only way to find peace and freedom is to give God the first place in our lives, because only He can fill that place. And the best possible way to be a good spouse or a good parent is to strive, above all else, to grow in holiness, so that we might come, by grace, to God’s heavenly kingdom.

I think that putting my wife second, second to God, makes me a better husband. And I know that she tries to do the same thing, which makes her a better wife. I love her because I love God, and God has given her to me to love. I love her with the love God provides for me, and when I am able to be the man I want to be, and to bring joy to her, that’s the fruit of His work in me.

Do I want to know her in the life beyond death—yes, of course. Do I want to be with her, certainly. But I don’t want to gaze into her eyes there, and I don’t want to proudly survey our children. I want to see God: the true, the good, the beautiful, He who alone is “true light, full and everlasting joy, and perfect happiness.” I hope I hold her hand while I do it, but no matter how things are arranged, I know that it will be as it should be, “forever and ever, Amen.”

[1] 1 Cor. 13:10.

[2] “Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas” from “Communion Devotions.”  Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book.  West Park: Holy Cross Publications, 1947, 105.


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