Monday, November 7, 2011

Thoughts on the ecclesisal nature of Christian marriage

I owe a very deep diaconal bow to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who blogs over at the Christianity Today blog Her.menutics, for this post. In her post Yes, We Can Learn Something from the Kardashian Fiasco, Pulliam Bailey observes that theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his essay "The Radical Hope in the Annunciation: Why Both Single and Married Christians Welcome Children," "challenges the romantic notion that 'a couple falls in love and comes to the church to have their love publicly acknowledged.'" "The congregation," she goes on to note, "is not a passive on-looker while the couple independently embarks on this new journey. Instead, the congregation of family and friends makes that journey tenable in the first place." She then cites Hauerwas at length:
the church rightly understands that we no more know the person we marry than we know ourselves. However, that we lack such knowledge in no way renders marriage problematic, at least not marriage between Christians; for to be married as Christians is possible because we understand that we are members of a community more determinative than marriage. That the church is a more determinative community than a marriage is evidenced by the fact that it requires Christian marriage vows to be made with the church as witness. This is a reminder that we as a church rightfully will hold you to promises you made when you did not and could not fully comprehend what you were promising. How could anyone know what it means to promise life-long monogamous fidelity? From the church’s perspective the question is not whether you know what you are promising; rather, the question is whether you are the kind of person who can be held to a promise you made when you did not know what you were promising. We believe, of course, that baptism creates the condition that makes possible the presumption that we might just be such a people.

This put me in mind of a wonderful observation made by Dr. Owen Cummings in his still very relevant lecture "Images of the Diaconate"- "There is a tendency," Cummings insisted, "at least at the popular level, to think of the sacraments of marriage and orders as equivalent to the celebration of the rites. Thus, one hears people say, "I was married so many years ago...This way of understanding is most inadequate. The sacrament in both cases consists in the entire lives of the married and the ordained until death. The sacrament begins with the public celebration of the rite but does not end there. That is why for example getting married in church, that is, with the rite of Catholic marriage, means so very little unless being Church for the couple is an important priority. It is essentially being Church that makes the marriage fully sacramental, Church understood as the fundamental sacrament of Christ, Christ understood as the fundamental sacrament of God."

Indeed, this a very challenging understanding of marriage helps us to better grasp the sacramentality of matrimony. In light of Archbishop Sheehan's very straightforward pastoral letter earlier this year, it seems we have a lot of catechetical and pastoral heavy-lifting to do!

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