Marriage and sanctification

Today through Wednesday, Daily Episcopalian will feature two essays from Writings on Marriage, a recent book published by the Diocese of North Carolina. The first, which will be featured today and tomorrow is by Gene Rogers of the University of North Carolna at Greensboro, and the second, which will run Tuesday and Wednesday is by the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, a priest in the Church of England who teaches at the Duke University Divinity School. We’ll let Bishop Michael Curry offer the introduction:

Writings on Marriage, the journal of the Bishop’s Task Force on Marriage, was envisioned and produced by Greg Jones as an appropriate format to respond to a resolution of the 193rd Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina calling for study and report on the theology of marriage and the relationship between church and state vis a vis marriage. I am deeply indebted to Greg, and to the task force members and the journal’s contributors for their excellent work. My prayer is that it will be a resource for teaching and conversation among us a diocese, as a church, indeed, as a culture.

But my deeper prayer is that as we listen to Holy Scripture, to the wisdom of Christian tradition, to the stories of each of us in this conversation, the Stranger will walk with us and talk with us as he did centuries ago on a road between the city of Jerusalem and the village of Emmaus. May the conversation and journey continue.

Keep the faith,

+Michael B. Curry

Bishop of North Carolina


By Gene Rogers

The consideration of marriage theologically raises many questions – but the obvious essential question is: “What at its core is marriage for Christians all about?” One might seek to find the answer in the various ritual forms for marriage across the Christian churches – though it would be difficult to settle on a single “essential” feature. For Catholics, it is essential that one not have been married before to someone still living. For Protestants not. For Catholics and Protestants alike, the essential moment of the sacrament is the exchange of vows. That moment does not occur in the Eastern Orthodox Order of Marriage, or of Crowning. Although an Orthodox couple express their intention to be married, they express that intention to the priest rather than to each other, and the priest marries them, rather than their marrying each other, by announcing that they are crowned. In Judaism, what is essential is the ketubah, the marriage contract signed by witnesses – although many Jewish weddings take place without the parties knowing much or much caring what the ketubah says, and with no intention of carrying out its more interesting conditions. Of course there are further particulars essential to Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, pagan, and civil marriages. And yet, it seems, that very few if any of us who do not hold any of these different essentials would assert that couples married in any of these traditions are not truly married. So, while it is clearly impossible to speak universally about what marriage is – there does appear to be a family resemblance across the various forms of marriage.

Within the Christian tradition, to narrow the focus, there does appear to be a prominent feature of family resemblance among types of marriage, and I recognize that feature under the rubric of sanctification. Considering the theology of marriage in this way is particularly consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness–for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others–a spouse or a monastic community–from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams (1) has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” (2). Like all forms of ascetism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people–so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love. Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

Marriage and monasticism are two ways in which Christians make their bodies fuller of meaning by donating them to concentric communities with an other and others. The narrower community is that of the spouses or the brothers/sisters. Larger ones include the local congregation, the witnesses at a wedding or a taking of final vows, the town, the Church, and the whole human race. But the most embracing community of all is that which it is the goal of both marriage and monasticism to promote, however distantly, their members growing inclusion, in this life and the next: the community of the Trinitarian life. Here it is marriage that is the root metaphor from which monasticism grows. For Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a father who gives a wedding feast for his son.”(Mw 22:2) And marriage analogies abound in Christian texts and practices for the relationship of the human community with God. Thus we read:

• “I will betroth you to me forever…I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know [who I am].” (Hosea 2.19a-20)

• “Why do [others] fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9.14)

• “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” (Matthew 25.1)

• “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready…Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19.6-9)

Throughout the Christian tradition, in many times and places, what you might call an analogia nuptialis is productive of much theology. As Karl Barth has said, “Because the election of Israel is real, there is such a thing as love and marriage.” That is, God’s love for God’s people is the prime analogate, which marriage is to represent. Not only Catholics, but the Orthodox and even Protestants practice the analogia nuptialis.

The paradigm case of the analogia nuptialis is Jesus’ eucharistic remark, “this is my body, given for you.” It is Jesus’ self-giving that the married and the monastic both imitate in institutional form. That self-giving is at once a celebration, a wedding feast, and, under separable conditions of finitude and sin, a sacrifice. Both because marriage and monasticism are meant to sanctify, and because they imitate the eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus, they are essentially ascetic practices. That, indeed, is one of the two main things that make marriage and monasticism two forms of the same practice. First, they celebrate community; second, they practice asceticism – the giving up of less significant goods to gain more significant ones, the pearl of great price.

True asceticism is not a denial but a use, even a heightening of desire. Jesus did not give up his life from lack of desire, but from the intensity of it: “God so loved the world.” (Jn 3.16) Jesus did not descend from the cross, because he desired solidarity with the thief, because he so loved the thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23.39-43)

The choice between marriage and monasticism depends on which leads to the right sort of vulnerability that will change the human being for the good. It is about the right sort of vulnerability before the face of what sort of other. “Grace,” Rowan Williams has written, “is a transformation that depends on being perceived in a certain way, as desired, as wanted.” The transformative perception par excellence is the one by which God perceives us as God would have us be. God sees Christ in us, that we may change. In the next life, we enjoy the beatific vision, according to Aquinas, not by the power of the one seeing, but by the power of the One seen – by God’s causative perception of us. (Summa 1, 12, 13) People who find bodily satisfaction in God’s loving perception of them, who can place their bodily selves in God’s sight for transformation into God’s child, may be called to the monastery. Other people need the focus of a single human other for transformation; the one who, over time, loves them into growth, exposing their faults so that they may be healed. Given human sinfulness, this transformation is risky. To have the best chance of success – to be most hopeful and patient – Christians have traditionally believed that it needs singleness of focus, support of the community, and the promise of a lifetime. For this reason, the Church affirms marriage to be, at the very least, the public and solemn covenant between these persons made in the presence of God and before the nuptial witnesses, the Christian community, and the public community beyond.

Turning again to Matthew’s Gospel,

“Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast to his son, sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come…Then he said to his servants…’Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him out into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'”(Mt 22,1-3.9-13)

The parable reminds us that the Christian community must respect and celebrate how the Holy Spirit sanctifies in a public, committed, interpersonal, and life-long way: in concrete, marriage-like practices, ascetic practices, disciplines – “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8.2) – that lead the parties, Christians would say, into the sacrificial and glorious marriage of God and God’s people. The marriage of God and God’s people – Christ’s donation of his body to be for others – ramifies in diverse ways through Christian practices, in marriage, in monastics in community, and in the faithful baptized gathered as one in eucharistic fellowship.

Dr. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Among his published works, Rogers edited Theology and Sexuality, Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology (Blackwell, 2002) and authored Sexuality and the Christian Body (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

1. See Canon Michael Hunn’s piece in this journal which examines Rowan Williams’ landmark 1989 essay, “The Body’s Grace.”

2. Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”, in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 309-321.

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