Solomon wrote, in Proverbs 18:22, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” As we know, Solomon went on to marry 700 wives as well as concubines, which was perhaps too much of a “good thing”. Matthew has chosen just Erin. One woman. In that, he is wiser than Solomon.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that “There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world – how she may please her husband.”
This is a hard saying. It is certainly not a popular text to mention at weddings, where we all want to celebrate marriage. We do not want to hear that the married state is a limitation, or that single men and women have more freedom to serve the Lord. But that is what Paul says, “not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.” Yet he adds that, “if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn.”
As we heard from Fr. Manto at the beginning of this service, marriage is a vocation with three purposes: “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children… Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication… Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
I confess that I find the phrasing of that second purpose unfortunate. “Avoiding fornication” is true enough, but it is a far too negative a way of stating what marriage is about — like saying that one runs merely to avoid becoming crippled, or that one drinks merely to avoid dying of thirst, or that one bears a child to avoid abortion.
The Song of Songs gives us a different view of what marriage is about, for the Shulamite and her bridegroom don’t appear to be avoiding anything, but rather, seeking each other with all the ardor and passion that Hebrew poetry can produce. Some theologians have claimed that it is a romantic composition about the delights of married love, while others have insisted that, no, it is really about Christ and the Church. This question is a false dichotomy, for the apostle Paul teaches us that every marriage — whether of believers or not — is about Christ and the Church. To say that the Song of Solomon is about Christ and the Church does not mean that it is therefore a cold and abstract piece of theology shorn of all its obvious erotic life. Christ is not a worse lover than an earthly husband. He loves the Church with more passion and possessive jealousy than any husband in this life.
When Paul says that marriage is about Christ and the Church, he is saying nothing new. God’s relationship to Israel had always been depicted by the images and language of romantic love. The Exodus itself was God’s taking a bride for himself out of Egypt, enacting a marriage ceremony under his wedding canopy, or chuppah — spreading His garment over His bride, to overshadow her, in the language of Ruth and the annunciation — and then laying down the rules of the house and the blueprints for the wedding cottage, the Tabernacle, where Israel, the newly married Mrs. Jehovah, could dwell with her divine Husband. Incidentally, some of you may know about the house Matthew is restoring. He is embarking on an architectural resurrection of the dead. He gave me a tour of all its burned out walls, and at the end, I told him, “That you would undertake such a job shows both how much you love Erin, and how much faith she has in you.” He also assured me that he enjoys working on that house. “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.”
We live in an age that puts tremendous pressure on marriages. We live in an individualistic consumer culture, where we all strive to have a “lifestyle”, and to emulate those who have attained the height of self-expressive consumption. And in this age of fruitless sex, this age of working in order to play, this age of lonely self-entertainment, of white earbuds connected to iPods with almost magical powers to entertain the isolated individual — in such an age, men and women marry if they think they have found someone who will contribute to their own self-expression. The phrases “trophy wife” and “designer children” and “better homes and gardens” — “better homes and gardens than yours”, my wife calls them — are all expressive of where this worldview leads, and what it does to marriage and family.
Says one sociologist, “With the family’s primary social functions largely eliminated” — because work and health and education are all done outside the home in specialized institutions — “the family shrank from the older extended family to the modern nuclear family, and romantic love became the primary, if not only reason for marriage. Since romantic love is notoriously unstable, it can hardly sustain a lifelong relationship in the way that practicing the virtues necessary to the common goals of raising children and producing sustenance can.”
When I was about to embark upon marriage, a certain man who did not want me to marry, and who had made a botch of his own relationships, thought he would impart a little wisdom to me. He said that a happy relationship depends on the little things, like a cup of tea in the morning. By contrast, the Bible teaches that the success of a marriage depends upon practicing the virtues needed for the high and noble purposes of God. The Biblical teaching is that the Lord gave the woman to the man so that together they might exercise dominion over the creation. Thus, marriage is not about your self-expression, but about God’s purposes, and the virtues needed to pursue them.
But we are confident of better things in your case, Erin and Matthew. Walk in the way you have begun. Then your marriage will be lifelong, and your romantic love will be freed from being the foundation that sustains everything else — as though a man were to build a house perched on top of sunflowers instead of on a foundation of stone. When serving the Lord is the foundation, the result is that your love will be free to bloom and flourish beyond what it is now (hard though that may be for you to imagine at this beautiful moment!). You will be bound to each other — and yes, that means that you will not be as “free” to serve the Lord in other ways, free to go places and do things without worrying about whether your spouse or children can come. But now you will serve the Lord in this way, as a family — and thereby you will be changed. And that is what the Bible means by “one flesh”: two lives made into one, two separate lives lost, one new life of one flesh thereby made fuller.
Really, marriage is only the most obvious instance of this pattern, for that is how it always works. We are most ourselves when we are related to others. Anyone who thinks he can best find out who Jesus is by considering Him in isolation from the Father or the Spirit would be profoundly mistaken. And anyone who wants to know who Jesus is must find Him in the Church, which is His bride, for which He gave His life. In like manner, no one will really be able to know who Erin is without knowing that she is married to Matthew; nor Matthew, without knowing that Erin is his wife. Who they are, their fundamental identity, has changed. By a pair of metal rings, some uttered words, and a transfer of the bride’s hand from her father to the groom, the essence of Erin and Matthew has been changed right before your eyes.
The Reformers fought hard to vindicate married life as an estate of holiness, that no one should say, “monks and priests and nuns are engaged in service to God, but married men and women are engaged in profane, secular life.” No, you have exchanged the freedom to serve God as single people for the joys of serving God as husband and wife. You are now embarked on a life of serving the Lord in the family. It is a high and holy calling. You have lost your lives, and thereby found them. I cannot do justice to that idea now, but I would like to share one of my favorite quotations about family life, from Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck:
“The family is not of man’s making; it is a gift of God and full of life. Upbringing in the family bears a quite special character. No school or educational institution can replace or compensate for the family. Everything educates in the family, the handshake of the father, the voice of the mother, the older brother, the younger sister, the baby in the cradle, the sick loved one, the grandparents and the grandchildren, the uncles and the aunts, the guests and friends, prosperity and adversity, the feast day and the day of mourning, Sundays and workdays, the prayer and the thanksgiving at the table and the reading of God’s Word, the morning and evening prayer. Everything is engaged to educate one another, from day to day, from hour to hour, unintentionally, without previously devised plan, method or system. From everything proceeds an educative influence though it can neither be analyzed nor calculated. A thousand insignificant things, a thousand trifles, a thousand details, all have their effect. It is life itself that here educates, life in its greatness, the rich, inexhaustible, universal life. The family is the school of life, because there is its spring and its hearth.”
We are all rejoicing today because we are present at the creation of a new spring and hearth, a new family. So we say to Matthew, with that wise man Solomon, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth.” Amen.