One of the clearest images of the relationship we have with Christ is that of marriage between a man and a woman. St. Paul makes reference to this in Ephesians 5:
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church (28-32).
The image as also occurs elsewhere such that we understand that the Church is the “bride of Christ.” The Eucharist is a foretaste of the “wedding banquet,” etc. In drawing on this common image it instructs us both about the nature of marriage, and about the nature of the Church and our relationship with Christ.
I have been married for nearly 32 years and have been involved in counseling countless others as they prepared for marriage or as they sought help in living fully into this great sacrament of the Church. One thing is quite clear to me: whatever marriage may be, the legal metaphor is foreign to it. The state may have its legal framework for marriage (precious little anymore), but little if any of that has anything to do with making a marriage work.
A man and a woman become “bone of bone and flesh of flesh”: not a legal expression. St. Paul is as graphic as one dare be in his description of this aspect of marriage in the passage cited in Ephesians: “No man ever yet hated his own flesh.” But I might add that no matter how much a couple may love each other as they begin their married life, they are not yet living as fully as they will or can in the image of Christ and the Church. It takes years.
It generally takes forgiveness by the truckload. But forgiveness that is understood “legally” is one of the beginnings of a failing marriage. How can my wife forgive me “legally?” Would that mean that she would not hold me “legally” responsible for something? But what would it mean about her heart? Any married person knows that it is the heart that matters. Words are useful, but only when they are truly expressions of the heart. And this aspect of marriage is difficult. When we hurt each other, forgiveness sometimes comes slowly and painfully. This would not be so if forgiveness were actually a “legal” issue. It never has been and it never will be.
Forgiveness is a matter of our relationship. Having stated that, it is still misunderstood by many who would agree with the statement. For many, relationship is still a weak word, signifying nothing more than the “state of things between two individuals.” When used with regard to the sacrament of marriage, relationship refers to the bond or union of two people. They are bone of one another’s bone, flesh of one another’s flesh. Their relationship is the state of their union.
What becomes frightfully important is that when there is something that needs to be forgiven – it is not simply the “legal state of things between them” – it is the ontological state of the mystical union that exists such that the two of them are one. If something needs forgiveness, then both are sick. It cannot be that something affects my wife and does not at the same time affect me. I cannot be in the wrong, my wife in the right, and the problem just rest on my head. If I am wrong, then I am poisoning us both.
Thus St. Paul will use dramatic language and ask:
Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (1 (Cor. 6:15-20).
This is not a legal problem for St. Paul, but a problem affecting our very ontology. Thus it is that sin will kill us – not because God puts us to death, but because sin is like a disease destroying us from within.
By the same token, union with Christ is a balm, a healing, a new life, a resurrection from the dead. The union of husband and wife, lived rightly and in union with Christ is an instrument of salvation. I always tell young couples that their marriage is for their salvation. It is not simply for the well-being of a culture, nor only for the procreation of children. It is for the working out of our mutual salvation. My own personal experience is that nothing in my life has had the same profound affect on my salvation as my marriage to my wife. Other than God’s own Life given to me, my wife has doubtless been His greatest gift to me. And this is as it should be.
By extension, every member of Christ’s body is also united to one another in a mystical manner. What happens to one of us happens to us all. This mystery is so great that legal imagery cannot begin to touch even the hem of its garment. I can imagine legal imagery having some usefulness, but I generally find it so weak that it often does more harm than good.
When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4).
What a wondrous mystery: Christ, who is our life. What a wondrous mystical marriage!