Sunday, November 19, 2023

Wedded Love, Mysterious Law

John, sitting in his house on London's Jewin Street, felt desperate for some help. John was the poet who couldn't write. For the past ten years, John had been completely blind. But day by day, feeling like a cow itching to be milked, he needed to get this poem out of his head and onto the page through the hands of a scribe. So he dictated lines – ten, twenty, thirty, fifty at a time – to whatever friend happened to stop by that day.1 Now it was a late autumn day, 1662, and John was nearly finished with this poem in ten books – or should it be twelve? John had begun near the time his second wife and infant daughter died. Then came the 1659 military coup, and the 1660 restoration of the monarchy with the arrival of King Charles II. John, published praiser of the old king's killers, had gone into hiding, lest he die for his treason. Terrified of assassins even after prison and pardon, John was something of a wreck, and by this point, his three dissatisfied daughters had taken to thieving from him.2

It was hard to believe blind John, so fiercely and fearfully embattled, could stitch together any poem unseen, or that he should write movingly of marriage and its beauties. Barely had his first marriage begun than his wife Mary, despising him, had returned to her parents. Deserted, John became the most radical voice calling for an expansion of divorce law. He was furious in being refused the “meet and happy conversation” he believed God had made “the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage.”3 Mary thereafter returned, dying in childbirth seven years later. His second marriage lasted fifteen months before Katherine likewise died. Only recently had his doctor recommended him a third woman to consider for a wife: the doctor's own cousin Elizabeth, three decades John's junior.

But for all John's familial woes, his poetry lavished praise: “Hail, wedded love, mysterious law, true source of human offspring, sole propriety in Paradise of all things common else..., perpetual fountain of domestic sweets, whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced...”4 For John, in the books of this poem, was devoted to retelling the opening chapters of Genesis, which he approached in large part as a love story.5 And John succeeded in making his mark on history. For John's last name was Milton, and this poem was his Paradise Lost.

When we left off here last week, we heard how God decided to create two ways of being a human person: the male way, as a man, and the female way, as a woman. We talked about the ways in which men and women are different, made by God to complement each other, made to be fit for each other's company and to enrich each other. And we saw that men and women are equal in value, equal in dignity, equal in faithfully expressing the image of God. Neither man nor woman is the 'default' way to be human. Instead, both need each other.

Continuing from there this week, we see one particular area where they need each other: marriage. And the first thing we should realize is that “marriage is from God and is good.”6 Marriage isn't some bad or dirty thing, not some outmoded waste of time or a bureaucratic straitjacket of love. Adam and Eve belong together in marriage as obviously as a temple and an altar go together. And “it was the will of the Creator to bring the sexes together in harmony..., for marriage combines the sexes into one.”7 This passage in Genesis is written to show us that. Second, marriage is a divine idea, not a human one. Marriage has “an objective structure,” a meaning; it isn't just “a construct... created by its participants and shaped in its meaning and norms by their subjective purposes and desires.”8 And third, marriage is built on God's created reality of sexual difference. That's why a marriage can't be truly formed except between a man and a woman – that's simply part of marriage's objective structure; the man-woman dynamic is essential.

But before we get to marriage, we should say some words about a still wider thing: love. Love isn't primarily a feeling or an emotion. Love involves the lover actively willing good things for the beloved and seeking a union with the beloved.9 Love can take a lot of forms, but the form it takes in a given case should be appropriate to who you are as the one loving, to who and what the beloved really is, and to what kind of relations you should have.10 If you love your child merely in ways appropriate to a pet, or your pet in ways appropriate only to a child; if you love God merely in ways appropriate to a fellow creature, or a fellow creature in ways appropriate only to God; if you love your spouse merely in ways appropriate to a friend, or a friend in ways appropriate only to a spouse – well, those would all be problems!11 “Love calls on us correctly to adjust the relationship to the reality of the other person.”12 Romantic love is a specific type of love where “the other's good as a sexual being is willed in a way that involves the lover's sexuality,” as being a man or a woman, “and the lover strives for... a sexual union with the beloved, a union that consummates the love.”13 That willing and striving is often helped by the emotion we also call 'love,' a sense of “deep empathy and overwhelming passion for someone.”14 And “this union alone has the potential to create new life” in a natural way.15

With that in mind, the Bible is quite clear that a union like that is meant to be a marriage union.16 The reason is that, as “the deepest bodily union one can choose to have with another person,” sexual union “calls for union on all levels of the person, a union extended into the indefinite future.”17 Sexual union can't be appropriate outside of that more comprehensive union – and that's what marriage is. This isn't some trivial truth; it actually matters. In the early church, one bishop dubbed the relationship of husband and wife “the first natural bond of human society,”18 while another said that “the love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together.”19 “Marriage is a community,” and “a community... is a unity constituted by common pursuit of genuine goods.”20

St. Augustine, one of those bishops we just quoted, saw three main goods in marriage: the fact that marriage is the shape of a loving relationship between a husband and a wife; the fact that marriage is where children are naturally conceived, born, raised, and taught; and the fact that the marriage bond has a permanence with a profound symbolism that points beyond itself to a higher truth.21 Marriage, the original two-sex community that fully express humanity, is a profound image of the Creator God who is himself Love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.22

So what would that community have looked like in Eden, when things were still so very good? And what ought it look like for us, if we want marriage today to be as Edenic as we can have it? 

First, it begins with recognizing the other as an amazing wonder, as a complementary counterpart to be loved (Genesis 2:23). John Milton beautifully imagines what it might have been like for Adam to first lay eyes on Eve on their wedding day: “On she came, led by her heavenly Maker, though unseen, and guided by his voice;...: Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye, in every gesture dignity and love. I, overjoyed, could not forbear aloud. 'This turn hath made amends! Thou hast fulfilled thy words, Creator bounteous and benign, Giver of all things fair, but fairest this of all thy gifts.... I now see bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, myself before me: Woman is her name, of Man extracted:... they shall be one flesh, one heart, one soul.”23

Milton sees here how important that amazement recognition can be, whether it begins before or after the rite of marriage itself. In calling the woman his own 'flesh' and his own 'bone,' Adam is recognizing her as already being his own nation, his own tribe, his own clan, from the outset (cf. 2 Samuel 19:12-13). She's amazingly like him, and yet amazingly unlike him, revealing to him his own identity. That's what love does: it amazes.

Second, Genesis goes on with a comment about how, because of this new reality displayed in Adam and Eve, “a man shall abandon his father and his mother” (Genesis 2:24). That's a curious thing, since in all the cultures around there, a son's loyalty to his father until death was nearly absolute. If the son married, the new wife was absorbed into the son's father's house. But here in Genesis, defying every culture, marriage makes something stronger even than the bond of a son to his father and mother. Turning from them, “he shall cling to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). Marriage means “to sever one loyalty and commence another.”24

That means it isn't something a father and mother can force onto a son or daughter, much as many cultures have tried to make it so. Whether arranged or not, the pivotal element of marriage is created out of a consent no earthly power can compel. A child didn't consent to come from father and mother, but it's by consent that a man and woman pledge their lives together in loyalty to create this new thing called a marriage.25 Marriage just is, as one theologian put it, “a legitimate consent... by a male and a female to observe an undivided common life.”26 The first marriage began when man and woman first consented “to live together... in single-hearted devotion.”27

Third, while a marriage is created by the couple's consent, it's ceremonial because it's meant to be open to the blessing of God and the support of his creation. In this first marriage in Eden, God plays a triple role: father of the bride, best man to the groom, and officiant for the couple. An early Christian poet pictured that original wedding: “The One who fashioned everything by his skill adorned that bride and gave her to her bridegroom... All creation stood there like bridesmaids, and they surrounded them with their songs and their chants. … And with its gifts, the entire world rejoiced with them. … Paradise opened its high gates, that the wedding partners might enter in, to rejoice there in the banquet of good things that had been prepared.”28

At that first wedding, Genesis tells us, “God blessed them” (Genesis 1:28). Taking inspiration from that, Jews and Christians continued to pray for God's blessing on their marriages (Tobit 8:6-7), and the marriage ceremony developed as a way to embody and express God's blessing. In the ninth century, one bishop explained Christian wedding customs by saying that the bride and groom were “stationed by the hand of the priest in the church of the Lord along with offerings which they should offer to God, and so at last they receive the blessing and the celestial veil, on the model of the Lord who, after placing the first people in Paradise, said to them: 'Increase and multiply.'”29 But already in the early church, they said: “How shall we ever be able adequately to describe the happiness of that marriage which the Church arranges, the sacrifice strengthens, upon which the blessing sets a seal, at which angels are present as witnesses, and to which the Father gives his consent?”30

Fourth, then, once pledging their consent and having entered at least into God's general blessing on marriage, “they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). On one level, that's about the creation of a new identity: this man and this woman are now family to each other. But there's more. What makes your body one body? The fact that it's “an articulated entity with parts that work together cooperatively, each performing some function needed by the whole.”31 Part of what Genesis is showing us is that the two unite – personally, psychologically, physically – as a new body system, for the sake of “a mutual organic striving for reproduction.”32 In sexuality, they undergo “real biological union” to become, in certain ways, “a single organism.”33 And when that full organic union beyond the mating moment by means of commitment, the two endure as 'one flesh.'34 In marriage, man and woman achieve a comprehensive union as persons, in all aspects of their life.35

Fifth, in light of that, “husband and wife also have a duty of fidelity to one another,” and the trust they share is “a spiritual good of great value,” more valuable even than life itself.36 Jesus himself quoted this story to show the Pharisees that marriage, by its very nature, is unbreakable: “What God has joined together, let not man separate. … Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:9-12). For “they are no longer two but one flesh” for life (Mark 10:8). Jesus' words! So Milton was wrong to think, as he did in his pain, that when good feelings or good relations die, “there can be left of wedlock nothing but the empty husk of an outside matrimony, as undelightful and unpleasing to God as any other kind of hypocrisy.”37 Marriage, by nature, is “a union between one man and one woman which is exclusive, permanent, and open to life.”38 And in Eden, this would have been perfectly honored. For Adam and Eve, there was no prospect of unfaithfulness or marital breakdown, no way to grow apart, no testing their ties. They lived to the whole truth of marriage; so should we.

Sixth, in this marriage, Eve was indeed a genuine and equal partner. One early Christian teacher remarks that in the garden, “Eve... would also help Adam... with any other task that Adam was capable of doing.”39 And “the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Or, as Milton put it: “So passed they naked on, nor shunned the sight of God or angel, for they thought no ill.”40 There's no secrecy, no protective distancing, no holding back, nowhere to hide because nothing to hide. Adam and Eve bring no baggage of the past, no fears for the future, no thoughtless deeds or callous words to apologize over. Yet they truly see each other in total transparency. St. Augustine sums up that “the first pair lived in faithful and unalloyed fellowship, and their love for God and for each other was undisturbed.”41 In this right marriage relationship, there are “no barriers of any kind, no self-consciousness, but complete and unhindered giving and enjoying of one another.”42 Recognizing the “spousal meaning” of their unobstructed bodies, they're full of “precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift,” a love that lets them live for each other in infinitely intimate communion.43 So Milton portrayed them, quite beautifully, as “imparadised in one another's arms,” there to “enjoy their fill of bliss on bliss” in the “happier Eden” of their marriage.44

And that sort of transparency and self-giving is something to aspire to imitate in our marriages, as much as we today can regrow Eden at home. Here's how one early Christian pictured “the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope”: “Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. … They pray together, they worship together, they fast together, instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. … They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other's company, they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts. Unembarrassed, they visit the sick and assist the needy; they give alms without anxiety... Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices.”45

But why were all these things written in Genesis? Not only to teach what we've just said, but also as prophecy, as a profound mystery to be unfolded to view as the fullness of time drew nigh. In limited fashion, it began to unfold at the dawn of the new covenant, which the prophets described as a wedding between God and Israel. Just as someone was to forsake father and mother, so Israel was to “forsake the idols of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:8). Just as husband and wife were to 'cleave' or 'cling' to each other, so Israel was to “cling to the LORD your God” (Joshua 23:8). “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). “I spread the corner of my garment over you..., I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water... and anointed you with oil; I clothed you also with embroidered cloth..., and I adorned you with ornaments and put... a beautiful crown on your head..., and your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 16:8-14).

But even that wasn't yet the fullness. Think back: what happened to Adam in the garden? Adam was put into a deep sleep, a sleep as still as death; then a wound was made in Adam's side; Adam's body was opened so that the stuff to birth his future bride could be taken out and then built up by God into a fitting partner (Genesis 2:21-22). Now let me tell you a story, not of the First Adam, but of the Last. The Last Adam was, by his Father's dispensation, nailed to a cross fixed on a hill's rib above a garden place. There, on that cross, the Last Adam “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” in the sleep of death (John 19:30). What happened then? “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear.” A wound was made in the Last Adam's side. Why? Because “at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). Genesis was prophecy! “In this sleep [of Adam] was depicted the death of the Crucified One, and in the blood and water, all the beauty of baptism.”46 This blood and water is the stuff of the Last Adam's bride-to-be, “the mystery and the rebirth of the Church through fire and water.”47 “A wife is made from the side of the sleeping man; the Church is made for the dying Christ from the sacrament of blood that flowed from his side when he was dead.”48 “From the side of Christ sleeping on the cross flowed the sacraments... by which the Church was established.”49

Here lies the great secret of the cross! “This mystery [in Genesis] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). How often, in the days of his ministry, did Jesus have to call himself 'the Bridegroom' for us to get it (Luke 5:34-35)? “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her... by the washing of water with the word,” by baptism (Ephesians 5:25-26). Ever since then, “the Church... was being built up,” and is being built up even now, with his sacramental loving and nourishing and cherishing (Acts 9:31; Ephesians 5:28-30), “so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor” at the wedding feast of the Lamb we're all waiting for (Ephesians 5:27). That's why, to the extent any form of Christianity separates from that Church, “it loves Christ with an adulterous love,” as one bishop colorfully put it.50 The Church is the Savior's helpmeet – in the words of one teacher, she's “a helper and wife that never turns traitor..., a helper that gives life to the dead..., a blameless and indestructible helper. … She has assisted the whole human race... God the Word became one with the Church so that man might never be alone but wholly with God...”51 And to this perfect mystery, our marriages are made to point.

So, in the words of the prophet, let be “heard again... the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the House of the LORD (Jeremiah 33:10-11)! Amen.

1  William Poole, Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost (Harvard University Press, 2017), 132.

2  Neil Forsyth, John Milton: A Biography (Lion Books, 2008), 147-154.

3  John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (n.p., 1664), 8.

4  John Milton, Paradise Lost IV.750-752, 761-762, in Matthew Stallard, ed., Paradise Lost: The Biblically Annotated Edition (Mercer University Press, 2011), 160.

5  Neil Forsyth, John Milton: A Biography (Lion Books, 2008), 168.

6  Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments 2.11.2, in Victorine Texts in Translation 10:289.

7  Theodoret of Cyrus, Questions on Genesis 30, in Library of Early Christianity 1:69.

8  Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 5-8.

9  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 11, 20.

10  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 29.

11  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 19-20.

12  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 370.

13  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 87.

14  Rene J. Herrera and Ralph Garcia-Bertrand, Sex and Cohabitation Among Early Humans: Anthropological and Genetic Evidence for Interbreeding Among Early Humans (Academic Press, 2023), 105.

15  Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius Press, 2022), 41.

16  Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby, Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11 (Morgan James Faith, 2018), 89.

17  Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 75.

18  Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage §1, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/9:33.

19  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians 20, in Popular Patristics Series 7:44.

20  Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 40, 46.

21  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 9.7 §12, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/13:382.

22  William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), 43-44.

23  John Milton, Paradise Lost VIII.484-499, in Matthew Stallard, ed., Paradise Lost: The Biblically Annotated Edition (Mercer University Press, 2011), 301.

24  Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1990), 181.

25  Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body 10.3 (21 November 1979), in Michael Waldstein, ed., Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 168.

26  Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments 2.11.4, in Victorine Texts in Translation 10:291-295.

27  Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch 1.2.2, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 137:57.

28  Jacob of Serugh, Memra 71.2461-2462, 2465-2466, 2496-2500, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 59:80-84.

29  Pope Nicholas I, letter to Bulgarian khan Boris I (866), §3. <>.

30  Tertullian of Carthage, To His Wife 2.8, in Ancient Christian Writers 13:35.

31  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 90.

32  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 135.

33  Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 44.

34  Alexander R. Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 170-172.

35  Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 59.

36  Augustine of Hippo, On the Excellence of Marriage §4, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/9:35.

37  John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (n.p., 1644), 15.

38  Cormac Burke, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 2.

39  Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 2.11, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 91:104.

40  John Milton, Paradise Lost IV.319-320, in Matthew Stallard, ed., Paradise Lost: The Biblically Annotated Edition (Mercer University Press, 2011), 145.

41  Augustine of Hippo, City of God 14.10, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/7:115.

42  Donald E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1-11 (Eerdmans, 1988), 50.

43  Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body 15.1 (16 January 1980), in Michael Waldstein, ed., Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 185-186.

44  John Milton, Paradise Lost IV.506-508, in Matthew Stallard, ed., Paradise Lost: The Biblically Annotated Edition (Mercer University Press, 2011), 151.

45  Tertullian of Carthage, To His Wife 2.8, in Ancient Christian Writers 13:35.

46  Jacob of Serugh, Memra 71.2415-2416, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 59:76.

47  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 9.6.7, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:349.

48  Augustine of Hippo, Answer to Faustus, a Manichean 12.8, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/20:130.

49  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.92, a.3, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 13:41.

50  Leander of Seville, Sermon on the Triumph of the Church for the Conversion of the Goths, in Fathers of the Church 62:234.

51  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 9.3.8, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:327-329.

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