Marriage, the fall, and the coming of Christ

Marriage and the Fall

Our first parents never got to live out that original state of marriage. God had created them as spiritual creatures with the ability of know and love. But it wasn't possible to create spiritual beings that didn't at the same time have the ability to misuse their freedom. If we are going to be able to love, we also have the ability to sin. In some serious way our first parents turned away from God, and this rejection of God had devastating repercussions for them and for us. It is interesting to see that immediately after the sacred author in Genesis describes the Fall, he or she writes, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked." I don't believe that this comment, coming where it does, is an accident. If marriage was God's best and brightest idea about how we were to draw close to him, then this original sin will have its first and most powerful effect on marriage itself. This seems to be confirmed when the sacred author continues a few verses later and has God say to the first woman, "I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you." (Gen. 3: 16)

The pain of childbirth is a symbol of the pain that a mother will bear in relationship to her children. The fundamental equality of men and women, essential in order that they can together manifest what it means to be in the image and likeness of God, has now become distorted. Men, stronger in physical nature, will begin to lord it over their wives, failing to see that their wives have other qualities which they have only in a less developed way. The first man, too, also receives his special punishment: "Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life." (Gen. 3:17)

When our first parents sinned, they not only damaged their relationship with God, but their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the rest of creation. The original beauty of sexuality has been distorted, as well. The eyes of our first parents have been opened, and they experience disordered sexual passions. The tragedy of original sin has fallen not only on their relationships to the people and things around them, but has put them at odds with themselves, as well, and nowhere is this inner turmoil more evident than in the realm of sexuality.

Marriage and Sex in the Old Testament

As soon as we turn to the pages of the Old Testament that followed these initial chapters of Genesis, the picture of marriage and sexuality that emerges stands in stark contrast to the primordial state of marriage and confirms what a powerful blow it sustained. We are greeted with a graphic portrayal of sexual disorder in terms of rape, incest and other examples of the sexual instinct gone astray.

Even the Patriarchs, our forefathers in the faith, have difficulty in managing their married lives. They have, for example, more than one wife, and to the multiplicity of their wives is added concubines, as well. And the amazing thing about this polygamy is that the Patriarchs seem oblivious to its ethical implications. They exhibit no sense that it is wrong, and a departure from the original state of things. When the Mosaic law is formulated it allows for divorce, and we do not find any developed notion of consecrated virginity in the Old Testament.

Marriage and the Coming of Christ

The original sacramentality of God in marriage had been damaged, and it had to be repaired by a new visibility of God that manifests itself in Jesus. There could be no going back to the beginning, no erasing of all the history that had transpired since then. Jesus had to come into the world as it was and begin to restore it from within. The visibility of Jesus during His earthly life is continued in the visibility of the Church over the ages, and the visibility of the Church is made manifest in the sacraments that bring us into a special contact with Jesus. So in a certain way when we come to the New Testament we find a whole new order of sacramentality, and this order is the foundation for the possibility of consecrated virginity and a celibate priestly life. It is in a fallen world in the process of redemption that consecrated virginity makes sense as a distinctive grace given to certain people to witness in a special way that the kingdom of heaven has really arrived with the coming of Jesus.

But what about marriage? Did God give up his original plan? The gift of God's love to draw people to Him through marriage remains without repentance, and it still remains the main way that God chooses that most of us walk on the road that leads to divine union. But marriage no longer exists in that primordial state, but rather, in a fallen and redeemed world. The coming of Jesus will mean the restoration of marriage. Christian marriage once again regains its fundamental sacramentality, but this time in and through Jesus, and in a world in which the redemption must be worked out day by day and individual by individual. This is what is meant when we say that Christian marriage is a sacrament.

Once we begin to see marriage against the panorama of the history of salvation certain passages in the New Testament yield a deeper meaning. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, for example, we read about this incident in Jesus' life:

"Some Pharisees approached Him, and to test Him they said, "Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?" He answered, "Have you not read that the creator from the beginning made them male and female and that He said: "This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one body?" They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide." (Matt. 19: 3-6)

The Pharisees, of course, knew that Moses permitted divorce, and this was another one of the traps that they had been setting for Jesus in order to finally condemn Him. But what is particularly interesting here is that Jesus invokes the original state of marriage, and by doing so indicates that with His coming it has somehow been restored.

But the Pharisees were not to be put off.

"They said to Him, "Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in the cases of divorce?" "It was because of the hardness of your hearts," He said, "that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning." (Matt. 19: 7-9)

In saying it was not like this in the beginning, Jesus in one stroke points to the original wholeness and beauty of marriage, and reaffirms again that He has come to make it possible for that wholeness to begin to reassert itself. It is the hardness of our hearts and the disorder of our passions that has blinded us to the original mystery of marriage. Through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus we now have a chance to restore ourmarriages.

In the Epistle to the Ephesians we find another place that affords us a glimpse of the mystery of Christian marriage and how it is rooted in the very mystery of Christ and His Church. St. Paul writes,

"Wives should regard their husbands, as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church 'and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body - and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband." (Eph. 5: 21-33)

We shouldn't become sidetracked from the deeper meaning of this text by worrying overmuch about how it might have been influenced by the role that women were allowed at that time. This passage speaks in a very powerful way of how the mystery of marriage has been taken up into the mystery of Christ, Himself. Just as Christ loves all of us, we should love one another, and especially our spouse who has been given to us in a special way so that together the mystery of Christ can be worked out in our lives. We are meant to see Christ in each other, and love each other as Christ loved the Church, and sacrifice ourselves for the other, so that the other may become truly holy. In marriage we become one body with our spouse, but the mystery of union goes far deeper than this so that our spiritual destinites become bound up together, and are worked out together, and our own union becomes the place where our union with Christ is meant to flourish.

Marriage as it was meant to be
Marriage and the Interior Life
Inner Marriage