Photo credit – Emily Waid Photography, 2012
Each person is fully gathered and reflected in the mode of the other: as other, as community and unity at once.
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite
Today, while reading David Bentley Hart on the Divine Fellowship of the Trinity, I began to think about marriage. Now, I imagine this train of thought was brought on by my own marriage which is just over a month away. At certain points this summer, I have lamented that I have not undertaken a more thorough theological study of marriage as preparation. Still, today I have received a rush of thoughts on a theological understanding of marriage, which I will offer as well as I can (not having formally studied the matter) below.
I want to reflect on four mysteries of marriage and their symbolization in sacrament (little s) within the wedding ceremony. The first begins from the quote above: Hart, in describing the Trinity, argues that an anthropology of personhood must be theologically derived, that is, we understand “person” in the divine sense before the human. This is because personhood (and to this I can philosophically align) is essentially relationality and no where do we understand relationality as fully as in the Trinity. Again, in the Trinity “each person is fully gathered and reflected…as other, as community and unity at once.” This is a beautiful picture of a social coupling, a robust vision of what it means to be a person in communion with other persons.
I believe there is a biblical case to be made that a marriage of two persons is a sacrament (symbol, icon) of Trinitarian personhood and relationship. In marriage as in perichoresis (the “dance” of divine love), two persons exist in harmony, which I think can be understood in one sense as sharing of will. To share will, two persons must be in constant communication, and not just speaking but deeply listening to each other–both to the words the other says as well as the meditations of his or her heart. In the marriage ceremony, this is symbolized by what I will call the “unity moment,” traditionally the lighting of a candle–demarcating a sacred space for the joining of two fleshes (in Jean-Luc Marion’s full sense of the word).
A second element of Trinitarian love is the desire of each person to bless and serve the others. It is not, I think, enough to simply bless another, for this assumes a kind of absolute authority that is inappropriate to an equal relationship (and the danger of headship theology). Nor is it enough to simply serve the other, leaving him or her with all the responsibility of headship. Leadership, within relationship, must be shared and expressed in each mode: blessing and service. In the marriage ceremony, this is well (albeit rarely) symbolized by foot washing, an act of humility and a gift of respect, devotion, and gentle care.
Third, Trinitarian love is characterized by eternity, that is, persistent and faithful presence. Christ’s incarnation, moreover, is an incredible witness to the commitment of God to love through difference. In this sense, difference becomes a moment for robust love, rather than a warning for divorce. Even Christ’s crucifixion, when he was separated from the Godhead by sin, is consummated by the restoration and transfiguration of relationship in resurrection–giving hope that even the worst hurts can be healed by forgiveness. For these reasons, those who are married pledge to abide with each other in “sickness and health, for rich or for poor.” A marriage covenant is a commitment to eternal love for that person. This is symbolized by the rings, whose beauty never comes to an end but constantly circles back and reinvents itself.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is one element of life that is not shared between Triune love and marriage. That element is suffering. The Triune life is one of infinite, divine joy, a mystery which we have little comprehension of here on earth. Earthly live, including married life, is not perpetual joy but brings many seasons of suffering. This difference, however, is key, for it is only in the context of divine joy that a marriage can thrive (or at least survive) even in seasons of suffering. This requires more unpacking.
Once again, I hold to biblical evidence for a three-tiered, analogically-related structure of love: the love of two married persons, the love of Christ and the Church, and the love within the Trinity. Paul speaks of the mysterious relationship between these and I think the element of suffering is one key way to catching a glimpse of this wonderful mystery. Marriage, in moments of suffering, receives grace and support from a church family, a larger body which is powerfully enlivened by Christ and can therefore be a mediator of grace to individual families. However, the Church is also prone to suffering, and thus its life is sustained by its being embraced in divine joy, in perichoresis. The sacrament of this joy and fellowship which sustains the Church, and by extension its members, is Holy Communion. This is why I think it essential to celebrate Holy Communion within a marriage ceremony: it is a symbol of the couple’s fellowship with their larger families, their larger families fellowship with the Church, the Church’s fellowship with Christ, and Christ’s fellowship with the Trinity. Each of these layers is connected through communion and each receives grace, ultimately, from the divine joy of the Trinity.
These four possible moments of the marriage rite–unity, foot washing, exchange of rings (orally signified by vows), and Holy Communion–are sacraments of the Triune love and life that a married couple is called to participate in and in turn be a symbol of to the wider world. This understanding of marriage is, I think, a beautiful one, and thereby a compelling vision which anchors marriage within its true theological home. A marriage cut off from God is a marriage endangered, just as a marriage cut off from the Church is at risk. But, at the end of the day, I am not a theologian and I remain open to other interpretations of marriage which could be just as true and beautiful. This, however, is the way I am coming to understand it and the way I hope to celebrate it in a little over a month.