Marriage and the Holy Trinity
Fr. Richard Conrad, O.P. – A sermon originally preached at a Ruby Wedding thanksgiving Mass (readings: Genesis 1:26-28, 31a; Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 2:1-11)
We come with great joy to give thanks for a covenant(1) made 40 years ago; to give thanks for the grace of fidelity to that covenant; to give thanks for its manifold fruitfulness; to give thanks for what it has meant to so many people – extended family, friends, colleagues, pupils.
The Holy Trinity, Mystery of Love
In our second reading we heard St. Paul speak of Marriage as ‘a great mystery’. It is a mystery, not in the sense of a puzzle to be solved, but in the sense of a reality that we cannot fathom, the stuff of poetry and not just prose. It is that, because it participates in the Mystery of Love that God the Holy Trinity is. In our first reading we heard the Holy Trinity say, ‘Let us make humanity in our image and likeness... Male and female he created them.’ That word ‘created’ should give us pause for thought.(2) It points towards how God alone possesses being, and in love grants being to all his creatures.(3) But that word ‘create’ is used at the very beginning of the creation story – ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – then not again until this point in the story when humanity is created in God’s image and likeness. For every time a new human being comes into existence there is a creative act of God. This implies that husband and wife engage in what we call ‘pro-creation’. They are ministers for God’s act of creative love. They provide, so to speak, the ‘material’(4) that God lifts to a new dignity, creating a new human being in His own image and likeness, someone who is then entrusted to the parents to nurture and cherish.We come with great joy to give thanks for a covenant(1) made 40 years ago; to give thanks for the grace of fidelity to that covenant; to give thanks for its manifold fruitfulness; to give thanks for what it has meant to so many people – extended family, friends, colleagues, pupils.
Unity in distinction, distinction in unity
It is not just the individual who is in God’s image and likeness. ‘Male and female he created them.’ Man and woman coming together in marriage to forge unity in difference: they too imitate God the Holy Trinity. That is a truth glimpsed by St. Augustine, and brought to our consciousness by St. John Paul II.(5) For in God the Holy Trinity there is unimaginably intense unity, and an unimaginably rich distinction: there is one Fatherhood, one Sonship, one proceeding-as-Love, which are too distinct to be added together to make anything at all like three Gods. It is that unity in distinction, distinction in unity, which is reflected in the coming together in marriage of man and woman, of male and female. This unity is not a dull uniformity; rather, husband and wife come to know, and cherish, each other in their complementarity as man and woman. This complementarity is of course biological, but it also involves the many personal variations on the theme of the psychological differences between man and woman, differences that to some extent correlate with the physiological differences. Then of course there are the many other personality differences that husband and wife learn to delight in (or at least to live with!) – one (not necessarily the husband) might be sporty and the other not sporty; one might be Northern and the other Southern. Thus a good marriage is a lifelong – indeed an eternal – voyage of discovery of each other.
We can gain some small purchase on the relationships within the Holy Trinity by thinking of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the love of Father and Son.(6) Thus we can see the fruitful love of husband and wife as nothing less than a mirror of the Holy Trinity!
Cana: the New Adam and the New Eve
So it is no wonder that in the Old Testament, despite the imperfections that have marked marriage for much of human history,(7) marriage is seen as a delight and a blessing – and as an image of God’s fierce loyalty to his People. And it is no wonder that the first of Jesus’s signs was given at a wedding feast. There Jesus revealed himself as the Divine Word who, year by year, turns water into wine, as the grapes drink the rain and their juice is buried in vats. What he does year after year in the world of nature, he did in one instant in that house.(8) That was where John the Evangelist hadhis first glimpse of Jesus’s glory, a glory he would see fully manifested when he stood by the Cross and saw Jesus lifted up from the earth.(9) He insists that he saw water and blood flow from Jesus’ side, symbolising the gift of the new wine of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it any wonder that Jesus’ first sign, given at Cana, was given at the behest of Mary, the Woman, the New Eve,(10) who is Mother and Daughter and Sister and Bride of Christ the New Adam.(11) Inevitably, Mary was there by the Cross, to symbolise the Church, which is also Jesus’s mother and daughter and sister and bride.(12)
The Spirit and the bond
The Sacrifice Jesus offered on the Cross is the new and eternal Covenant, God’s ultimate, irrevocable pledge of loyalty towards us – a pledge that has the power to attract our loyalty to God and to empower our loyalty to each other. Those who marry in Christ participate in that Covenant when they pledge loyalty to each other. If, as St. John Paul calls him, the Holy Spirit is the Divine Love in Person,(13) we can recognise that it is the Holy Spirit who comes to forge the bond of love between husband and wife.(14) He forges the Marriage Bond in a way fairly similar to the way in which He stamps us as belonging to Christ in Baptism, Confirmation and Orders. Hence the bond the Spirit crafts is an ongoing reality ‘till death do us part’, a reality which has the potential to be an ongoing sign and an ongoing channel of God’s grace. This means that forty years ago [the couple] became themselves sacramental to each other, to their extended family, and to us.
The work of God ‘beneath the surface’
Much of the work of God’s grace is unobtrusive, for the Holy Spirit is the Living Water that enters us to refresh us, the Fire that makes us aglow with love, and the Wind that blows where He will – but the wind is the air that we breathe all the time and usually take for granted. In the house at Cana, the work of the Divine Word was unobtrusive, even ‘understated’: as St. John tells it, the servants filled the jars with water, drew some and took it to the MC; when the MC tasted the water (become wine) but did not know where it was from. This unobtrusive gentleness is especially the case with the Sacrament of Marriage. All Sacraments employ something already laden with significance (washing, applying a ‘cosmetic’ or a salve, feeding, commissioning or apologising), but employ it in a specifically Christian ritual that is recognisably not something non-Christians do. But Jesus did not give us a ritual akin to the marriages human beings have made throughout history; He took that human ritual itself, and made it sacramental for all who would marry in Him.(15) Christian Marriage is, par excellence, grace pervading and perfecting nature: the Holy Spirit is at work in the whole everyday fabric of living the covenant, caring for each other, nurturing the children, attending to neighbours and the extended family… The work of God goes on largely ‘beneath the surface’ in a depth dimly discerned by faith. We believe – we can see – that grace has been at work in the Marriage of [the couple]. We hope confidently, and we pray in hope, that it will continue its work for many years.
Looking back and looking forward
So we look back with gratitude over forty years. But we look back much further, to what the Sacrament of Marriage points us back to and brings into our present: Jesus’s Paschal Sacrifice which brought us the Holy Spirit, who crafts our love and guides the pilgrimage we make together. And we look forward to what the Sacrament of Marriage points us forward to: the coming Kingdom, when Jesus and his Bride will be one for ever. In that Kingdom, we hope, we shall give thanks with and for those who have closely shared our pilgrimage.
Fr. Richard Conrad O.P. has taught theology in the Dominicans and at the Maryvale Institute. He is Director of the Aquinas Institute, Oxford. This text of the sermon includes passages omitted for reasons of time it was when preached.
1 For a long time Marriage was usually spoken of as a ‘contract’; it was Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes 48) that restored to our consciousness the Biblical and traditional term ‘covenant’.
2 It translates the Hebrew bārā’.
3 This is the meaning of the Name YHWH, at least as understood by the Septuagint translators, who rendered the explanatory Exod. 3:14 as ‘I am He Who Is.’ Arguably, it comes from the archaic form of the verb ‘to be’, and is a part of the verb which often means to cause someone else to do the action, in which case the Name could be translated ‘He is causing things to be.’ But that part of the verb is sometimes used for exhibiting a certain quality, in which case the Name could be paraphrased ‘His Being is resplendent.’
4 Not ‘material’ in the sense of undifferentiated stuff; sperm and ovum as they fuse are ‘biological material’ of immense complexity. Their genetic material, modified by epigenetic factors, is an individual combination of elements from previous generations and from the more immediate history of grandparents and parents. It will shape child’s physiology and ‘individual character’; family and society will help (or hinder!) him/her to make something personal of this inheritance.
5 Augustine put forward lover-beloved-love as a ‘model’ for the Holy Trinity, but saw the individual mind as the best image of the Holy Trinity. It is arguable that he provides us with resources that can be applied to Marriage, including an intense sense of the Holy Trinity as unity in distinction, distinction in unity. For two accounts of valuable recent theology and doctrine, see: (1) Bertrand De Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History (Petersham: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), the section on Marriage as an icon of the Trinity; (2) Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
6 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars 37, 1; St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 10.
7 These imperfections are summarised in the sections on ‘The disfigurement of marriage’ and ‘Marriage and Original Sin’ in: Andrew and Dora Nash, Christian Marriage: Covenant in Christ (Faith-Keyway Trust, 1983), which gives a beautiful and inspiring account of the restoration and elevation of Marriage in Christ.
8 Cf. George Mackay Brown, ‘A Treading of Grapes,’ in A Time to Keep and Other Stories (Hogarth Press, 1969), the sermon ostensibly by Fr. Halcrow, a 16th-Century Catholic priest.
revealed as the Only-Begotten Son who accomplishes His Father’s work and enacts His Father’s love and loyalty. The Gospel moves inexorably towards the Hour when Jesus will be glorified, will be revealed as I AM HE (John 8:28), and will draw all things to Himself (John 12:32).
10 The title ‘Woman’ in John 2:4, 19:26 alludes to Gen. 2:23. The Fathers of the Church recognised Mary’s obedience in Luke 1:38 as undoing Eve’s disobedience. For St. John, Mary seems to act as New Eve at Cana, where she urges Christ, as the New Adam, to embark on the course that will lead to His great act of saving obedience. It is likely enough that Mary and Jesus had talked over the strange things that had happened and which Mary had treasured in her heart, had pondered the Scriptures together, and had realised at least something of what Jesus’ ministry would lead to. (Obviously Jesus saw His whole course in the Beatific Vision; but that Vision is not a matter of concepts of the kind that can be handled in the normal way.) When Jesus asked Mary, ‘What to me and to you?’ (John 2:4), he was using an idiom found in the Old Testament (e.g. Judges 11:12, II Sam. 19:22, I Kings 17:18, II Kings 3:13, II Chron. 35:21), which can mean, ‘Why are you putting me under pressure?’ or even, ‘Why are you endangering me?’ Both of them knew what Mary was asking, indeed what, as Mother of all the living (cf. Gen. 3:20), she had to ask on behalf of a world needing ‘wine’.
11 In the Song of Songs the bride is also the sister (4:9). The Mediaeval poets knew they had to be agile with such symbolism, for example Dante, Paradiso, Canto 33 line 1, and the carol ‘This endris night.’
12 Jesus Himself asks us to apply the symbolism of mother and sister/brother to ourselves: Mark 3:35. A sermon by Bl. Isaac of Stella (see the Office of Readings for Saturday in the 2nd Week of Advent) presents Mary as type of the Church and of the Christian soul. The Fathers of the Church recognised the Blood and Water as symbolising the Church, the New Eve, born from the side of the New Adam as He slept in death, a mystery prophesied by the formation of the first Eve from the side of the first Adam as he slept in the garden. The Blood and Water symbolise the Eucharist and Baptism, the Sacraments which most of all build up the Body which is Christ’s Bride. St. John wanted us to see this complementary symbolism of the Blood and Water, since he tells us how the Passion began and ended in a garden (John 18:1, 19:41).
13 The precise phrase is, ‘He is Person-Love. He is Person-Gift’ (Dominum et Vivificantem, 10).
14 This is expressed by the long-standing custom in Poland of singing the Veni Creator Spiritus immediately before the Marriage Vows.
15 So, for some centuries, Christians married according to the local custom, then went to Church for the Nuptial Mass, which was given immediately after the Eucharistic Prayer (for it seems to have been a few centuries before the Our Father was recited at Mass), i.e. ‘under the shadow’ of Christ’s Sacrifice which is symbolised by, and empowers, the self-giving of Marriage. Gradually, the Vows came to be taken at the door of the church, then in the church itself.