Living the Sacrament of Marriage: Friendship

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Our last meditation on the sacraments as a pattern for our spiritual life is on marriage.

We can think of marriage coming last precisely because marriage is the sacrament of ordinary life. Not everyone is married, of course, but marriage represents the sacramentalization of the basic way of life. Ordinarily – not always, but ordinarily – we live “between marriage and marriage.” As Genesis says (and Jesus repeats), we leave our father and mother and cling to our wives: we go forth from our parents’ marriage to our own.

To call marriage a sacrament is to remind even those who aren’t married that marriage is where they come from. The celibate are not meant to despise their parents (Jesus condemns that – see Matthew 15 on people using religious vows as a way not to honor their father and mother). To the contrary, they are to reverence the marriage that gave them birth and brought them to life.

Many of us (myself included) were not raised in marriage. But there, too, we are meant to appreciate the tremendous pain of single parenthood, to reverence our parents all the more precisely because we know that marriage is the normal way, and that living without (whoever’s “fault” it might be) is a place of pain. Marriage is the normal place we all begin.

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To recognize we come from marriage, however, is to recognize something profound about the human person: we are made for community. It is interesting, in political theory, that the great theorists of the modern world all pretend that society begins with a bunch of adult individuals deciding to form a “social contract.”

But that’s baloney – as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would remind us. To the contrary, we start off, long before we are adult individuals, in relationships. Before we know there is an “I,” we know there is mother. And marriage is the normal place for children to grow up – the only place we are supposed to be doing things that make babies! – precisely because children are meant to grow up in the context of relationship. We are meant to discover who and what we are in the context of friendship, of a mother and father who love one another.

Before we are individuals, we are part of a community. We learn to be human by learning what friendship looks like. And whatever our family looks like, we learn, too, that the most profound pain is when that friendship is broken. We are made to be in relationship. We are social beings.

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There is a popular idea, unfortunately invading even the thought of some modern Catholics, that marriage is about two people looking inward at one another. To the contrary, the traditional view is that marriage is about looking outward, toward family and society. Marriage creates a hearth, around which is gathered the ever growing community which is the family, eventually including even grand children and great grandchildren. It is the place where we prepare our children to go out into the world, to live as members of a broader community. It is the place we welcome in friends of the family. Marriage is a place not of exclusion, but of inclusion.

Jesus demands sexual fidelity not to make the couple turn in on themselves – “Members Only!” – but, exactly the opposite, to keep their sexuality at the service of their children and their society, to keep them looking outward, to keep them social. Marriage is about being social.

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Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. What a wild idea! Marriage is a mystery of unity and multiplicity. On the one hand, it shows how very close people can come together. Again, this is not restricted to man and wife: they are only the beginning. The family is, or is meant to be, a One, a communion of love. Christ comes as close to us as a family around a table. Indeed, the principal image of his closeness is not as Bridegroom, but as child, cheek-to-cheek with his mother. That is communion. That is family. That is what marriage is all about.

Yet the mystery of marriage is that we are also individuals. What a strange challenge is family life, and especially that central relationship, where we try to work together with someone who is not me! Marriage is a sign of God’s respect for our freedom, our individuality. It is a sign that individuality and communion are not at war, but in harmony. Indeed, in the sacrament of marriage, Christ is present to us not by overcoming our personal choices, but by being present within them.

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What role does friendship play in your family? In your understanding of being truly human?