Holloway on… The Covenant of Christian Marriage: Part I
We have all at one time or another seen those TV programmes featuring Sixth Formers in which boys and girls, and significantly enough more militantly the girls, will state with obvious honesty that they don’t intend to marry till death do us part, although if the love does go on lasting so much the better. Similarly they will say that they just don’t see how you can live with anybody for ever and ever without getting frantically bored. The child from a broken home sees it otherwise, and the teenager from a broken home as well, unless of course by now they are set upon sexual experience rather than marriage, and can afford to talk glibly about ‘knocking it off if it does not work out’ etc.
As with everything in the Christian life, it is a case of ‘Without Me you can do nothing, but with God all things are possible’. We can see why marriage must be a permanent state of commital and love. Among the baptised it is a direct sharing in the love by which God creates for time and eternity, and the consent to share this work with Christ is made at the altar. It is in fact the matrimonial consent, and that consent is not ratum, i.e. ratified with finality, until it is also consummatum, until the office which is inherent in their love, through their souls, and their bodies which are ordered to each other for this office, is effected through sexual union after the sacrament. From that time their bodies and their souls minister to Christ and with Him in a creative love, a love to which as members of His Body by Baptism, they are accepted of their own free will in a mutual work.
An office delegated from Christ
This work as we have suggested must be an office in the Church, a vocation in Christ, and a ministry in the Church. Once their bodies and souls have been so given to Christ and accepted there is no going back. Christ’s love does not change, and they have ratified and consummated an office delegated from Him, sharing in His own work of creation. The love which binds Christ to the Church is indissoluble, and the love which shares in that love of His must also be indissoluble. It springs from the relationship established inBaptism, which incorporates us into Christ as members of His Body, sharing His life and His work, according to our grace, gift, and offices. The love of Christian marriage shares in all things in this love of Christ, and in couples who live their lives together as one great prayer of union, supplication, contrition, and joy in Christ, that love will mellow and ripen down the years. Of course it cannot last for ever unless it is spiritual, and in the grace of Christ. If it is so, then it will take up all things of body and of soul into that relationship with Christ, and it will not only last, it will increase, and increase towards sanctity.
The priest’s chastity and married couples’ fidelity
The same argument is true of the priest and of the continuance of his sense of joy in his vocation. It can only increase if a man loves God humbly in joy and in sorrow, in sin and in virtue. If a man loses his faith and becomes even subconsciously a Rationalist, then he will be the most wretched of all creatures. Of course he will wither. The vow of priestly chastity sharpens the dilemma not only because it denies a man a secure all too human love, and with it sexual companionship, whereas given the possibility of marriage a man can ‘drop back’ into a comfortable state of being professionally holy, and drift along unnoticed among the tide of mankind. The priest who takes a vow of chastity for the Kingdom of God’s sake, is exposed much more nakedly to emptiness and frustration, for of its nature this state of perfection in living does not have surpassing joy and satisfaction except it be lived in God as He divinely is.
But also in marriage: there is no guarantee of a lasting love and a love faithful and forgiving in pain, human faults, and human dereliction unless men and women be joined to Christ in a living prayer. If the Eucharist has a special relevance to the grace of marriage and its state, it must also have a relevance to the passion and cross of its betrayals and dereliction. Here too, the Christian spouse is called to come through the Cross to the Resurrection, to come through the Cross to a new challenge and a further vocation, not to deny the bond. Christ did not deny the bond but was faithful unto death, even to the death of the Cross. This also can be preached, but we have no time to develop the theme in this article.
Forming the mind and heart of children
When a young couple come to the foot of the altar there can come to the mind of a priest the words said to him long ago by the bishop, in the former service for the ordination of Sub-deacons: ‘Dearly beloved son, again and yet again I do adjure you, consider how great a burden of responsibility you take upon yourself this day’. Because before him he sees fifty years of life ahead, and all the drama and achievement, and all the sorrow and pain of human life, from springtime to the grave. He sees the hot and bothered years of young married life, and the forming of the mind and heart of children, through the atmosphere of their parents’ personality in the love of God.
In the next age of marriage, he sees the young teenager, brimful of life, jealous of independence, responsive alike to high ideals and fierce squalls of temptation. He sees and senses too his own role here, his ability perhaps to hold and help better than ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, his ability to give reasons as well as love, and a vision of the Faith which builds on the world of science, and school, and human culture. He is given these kids by these parents to build on that rock of solid Christian faithfulness in loving, on that rock which is an office in the Church, made for his own office, fulfilled in his own love.
He reminds them in his sermon that their greatest achievement will be the nurturing of children like themselves, their greatest reward will be that which their own parents have here and now, when they stand in the benches behind their own children at their weddings, children who will thank God above all other things for the gift of a good and truly Christian, mother and father. They will know then that all achievement is in persons only, not in houses, lawns, and investments; only in the love that is undying, the gift of the mind and heart of those who love. The only reward of life is that men and women think they have reason to love you, that through all your faults, the seed of God’s image lives in you, and you are, God help you, lovable, worthy to be loved. Life has no other reward, you take nothing else beyond the grave.
Parents and their adult children
He may tell them that even in the years when they can but pray and agonize, like himself, for their children, they will still hold them as the best and most valued of counsellors, if they know how to love without possessiveness, and to grow up with their children, treating them with a natural respect, with the recognition of their new adulthood, as they grow in the teens. He will tell them too, that the love which knows not divorce knows no end to its vocation down the years of life. Faithful to each other, forgiving in love, reverential of each other in body and in soul, they will know how to teach their children, as young wives or husbands, the laws of Christian goodness, prudence, tolerance, and chastity in holy wedlock. They will not be rich when they die, for their hands, even in middle-age, will be going again and again deep in their pockets for money, mortgages, and many a help.
Summer into Autumn
As their summer lengthens into autumn, they will still be teaching both children and grandchildren the ways of God, for those ways shine in their faces and their works. They will learn to value the unity of their children’s marriage more than their personal love of son or daughter. They will not take sides in quarrels, they will not divide, they will learn to mind their own business. They will not line up behind their offspring in family rows like football supporters behind their own team. This selfish misdemeanour of in-laws has been the beginning of many a divorce.
The better part
Even in old age he will tell them that their work continues, their vocation undimmed. They will still be wanted by children’s children as babyminders and sitters. Even so, when frail and more than a little tired, and wracked with rheumatic pain, they will be forming the minds of children’s children in their first prayers, and in the simple love of God. They will rejoice with Jesus that when others are out in the company of the wise, brilliant, socially delightful etc., that to them is given the better part, to stay in the company of the Master, and to reveal Him to the little ones. And in that sunset of life they will know the further reward of hearing in the voices of their children, in those simple words ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ overtones of reverence and of a love spiritual which echoes the reverence in the title of ‘Father’ given to a priest. For this is the reward of faithful love, a love which shared with Christ all the burden of creation, from conception to salvation, from the cradle to the grave. This then is Christian love, and so we should teach it, and allow ourselves to feel a little bit ‘commosso’ whenever a good couple hold hands before us at the foot of the altar. Because all the drama of life is here, for better or for worse, and at the end there will be true of them a variant reading from the book of Wisdom:
‘Like the sunrise over the mountains of the Lord so is the majesty of a good wife in a well ordered home: Like the golden glow of the sanctuary lamp before the altar of God, so is the beauty of the face in a ripe old age.’ (Sirach. 26:16-17).
For as the burdens and the duties last till death do us part, so also the glories and the beauty shine from time into eternity.
This is the second half of the Editorial for the September/October 1979 issue of FAITH.