Our progressive society, in ever looking forward and condemning yesterday as outdated and obsolete, is quickly losing the wisdom of millennia of human culture. As a result, it has forgotten what a marriage is. Today, “marriage is between a man and a woman because that’s what is ‘natural'” say many Christians; no wait, “its what ever two people who love each other say it is” say the gays; actually no, “love is important but more than two people can love each other at once” say the polygamists; “but what about me?” says the man from Japan who married a robot, “don’t limit marriage to people! I love an object.” The result is demands from all sides for government to redefine marriage a hundred different ways and, given our pluralistic society which attempts to embrace all creeds and thereby is guided by none, we seem to be progressing towards a definition of marriage where “anything can marry anything.” Anything more restrictive than that and we might step on somebody’s toes.
The one question very few people seem to be asking, however, is why are we demanding that government be the one to define marriage for us at all? Marriage is, after all, a cultural and a religious institution predating even the institution of government itself. Thus, I believe that the authority to define marriage exists, not with government, but with our religious institutions. Let people enter into any legal contract that they want as long as everyone’s rights are respected but leave marriage to the churches. The legality of marriage is not an intrinsic part of marriage but is important because of the legal benefits gained by a state-recognized union, benefits like visitation rights for example which in no way need to be limited to married people. Likewise, two people don’t have to be “in love” to be married; if they did then their marriage would dissolve as soon as their passion had grown cold – divorce would simply be a matter of legality, the paperwork would need to be filled out but the marriage would already be gone. Except marriage is not defined by feelings any more than it is by laws. It is defined by churches.
Fundamentally, marriage is a cultural institution, defined, not by humans, but by humanity – that is to say, by our human nature. This is the “natural law” that Christians appeal to when they state that marriage is between a man and a woman. But this is not Christian. Even pagans abide by this definition. Marriage is fundamentally human but it is supremely super-human; in its fullness, marriage is a religious institution and therefore transcendent, therefore more than just human: it is sacramental. That is what our society has forgotten, but the Church does not forget. So, marriage is a sacrament, but what does that mean? What is Christian marriage?
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: Christian marriage is a duel to the death and no man has ever survived it.
This seems a bitter view of marriage and one our hedonistic culture abhors. In fact, it is quite the opposite. If man’s death in marriage seems a nihilistic sentiment it is because man no longer understands marriage. With the modern epidemics of divorce, infidelity and marital strife society is now in crisis. Obviously the institution is flawed and we must “fix” it. The problem, however, is not marriage. No, the difficulty lies in the fact that while many men get married few know how to actually be married. Marriage is not hearts and flowers, it is not “whatever two people who love each other say that it is,” and it certainly is not “settling down.” If anything, it is venturing out.
Marriage, understood in its true form, is a Christian institution and a sacrament and if we know one thing of Christianity it is that death is at the very center of its creed. What image is more prevalent within Christian tradition than that of the crucified Christ? Likewise, a crucifix lies at the heart of marriage. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How did Christ love his church? He died on a cross for it. That is the duel that no man can survive. Husbands, die for your wives as Christ died for his church. A man may boast that he would die a violent (and short) death for his woman but rare is the husband of whom such a death is ever demanded. All husbands are called to die. They are called to die to themselves every day and this is indeed the harder road for, while a violent death may be quick and noble, the death demanded of husbands does not end and it receives little recognition. The man who knows how to be married is the man who tends to his wife before himself, who protects his marriage above his reputation, who meets his children’s needs before he meets his own. In this way, like Jesus, the husband carries his cross every day and every day he dies on Calvary, crucified side by side with his Lord.
The secular man may despair at such a burdensome view of marriage and thus reject it. But God promises to make our burdens light if we just follow Him. If marriage is hard then it is also easy. Because if we die like Christ did then we will also be resurrected to new life just He rose on the third day. Thus in marriage, with death at its center, we also find life. In fact, does God grant the married couple with such an overabundance of life and love and joy that it literally cannot be contained between only two people. Thus, we have that greatest gift of life and the manifestation of God’s pure love in human form: children. This is the poverty of a sterile society: that such a supreme gift should be trucked for trivialities. For when husband and wife perform the marital act they are saying with their bodies, “I love you so much and you are so good that the world can only be made a better place with more people like you in it.”
To die for one’s friend is the greatest love and what greater friend does a man have than his wife? So, what greater love can he have than from dying for her? Our society wants all of the fruits of marriage without any of the work so is it any wonder that they want to redefine it by government mandate, as if bureaucrats could change the reality of the human soul? The fact is, however, that true love cannot be realized without first dying to self. Fixing marriage doesn’t require that we redefine it as something its not. It requires that our nation of egotistical boys grow up to be self-sacrificing men.