1621 words, 8 min read
Last Saturday I attended a wedding during which the priest conducting the ceremony started his sermon by addressing the bride and groom with: “Today is the greatest day of your lives.” While this was undoubtedly well intentioned and said in the spirit of underlining the goodness of marriage and the joy of the occasion, my mind - and I am not proud of this - immediately transformed itself into a hatchet and shredded that statement to smithereens. “Do you mean that it is downhill from here?” “They haven’t even gotten married yet and you are telling them that any attempt at growth and development is doomed?”
Thankfully I then turned to one of my favorite kōans that I reached for with the intention of weaponizing it (not a nice thing to do to a kōan), but whose memory derailed my rage as I remembered it’s beautiful twist.
The kōan in question is about a famous general, who went to see a zen master to ask him for a nice piece of calligraphy to use as interior decoration. The zen master happily agreed and, when the general returned a week later, presented him with a beautifully executed inscription that read: “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The general exploded with rage, drew his sword and, before cleaving the zen master in half, gave him an opportunity to explain himself. The zen master, all surprised, looked at the general and said: “What don’t you like about the inscription? Would you prefer to see your son die and for your father to see both his and your death? What I have written for you is the natural progression of life, which is true happiness and prosperity.” The general, ashamed about his hasty rage, left with his sword unused and grateful for the master’s good wishes.
Suitably calmed, and recognizing a fellowship with the kōanic general, I asked myself what I would have wished the couple to be their greatest day - if I had to, although that is not something that would have come to me naturally. And I arrived at: “May the greatest day of your marriage be the day one of you dies.” Thankfully I wasn’t asked for my opinion and, even if I had been and if I had said what I thought, the bride and groom are, to the best of my knowledge, not versed in martial arts or marksmanship. Nonetheless, if I had been asked and if there had been the inevitable, outraged call for an explanation, I would have pointed to my wish being one for maximum greatness. Wishing for the last day of a marriage to be its greatest is both a wish for continuous growth in greatness and, at the same time, a suggestion that every day of a marriage contains the greatness of all the days that preceded it and that the last day is therefore going to be the greatest by definition.
This lead me to thinking about the end of marriage, which the Catholic Church teaches comes with the death of one of the spouses,1 and to wondering about what that meant. How do I, a married person, relate to my spouse once they or I die? Is that it? In the next life, will we, who are one flesh now, be strangers? If I survive my spouse, will they, who have already passed into life everlasting, be there without being one with me? Somehow that did not seem right at all, since it violates the central Christian understanding of who God is. The God who is Love and who is Three and One. How could the God of Love dissolve the bond of love that marriage effects? How could the God of unity wish for the oneness of husband and wife to be annulled at the point of unity with Him? No, that didn’t seem right at all.
The obvious thing to do was to go back to where Jesus spoke about marriage to the Sadducees, who tried to set him a trap by running a hypothetical scenario past him and asking him a question designed to undermine the idea of the resurrection:
“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died. Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” (Matthew 22:24-28)What a nice, little trap! If Jesus says that she is the wife of all of the brothers, he says that in the next life there is polyandry, which, like polygamy, was against the Law, and he therefore undermines the credibility of the resurrection that the Sadducees denied. Alternatively, if he says that she isn’t anyone’s wife (or only the wife of one of the brothers) then he puts the solidity of marriage into question, which is also enshrined in the Law, and the Sadducees win again.
So, let’s see what Jesus said to them in reply:
“You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:29-30)Now, the way this is typically read is to say that there is no marriage in Paradise, however, I would like to argue, that such an interpretation is not a particularly close reading of Jesus’ words. Jesus didn’t say “At the resurrection she won’t be anyone’s wife.” Instead, he said: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In other words, no marriage is contracted in the next life. And, let’s not forget his admonition: “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.” I.e., the way you are looking at marriage is not from God’s point of view.
I believe that there is another reading of what Jesus’ words about marriage mean, which we can get to by the light of St. Paul saying:
“For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:29-32)Notice how St. Paul parallels first, a person’s love for their own flesh, second, Christ’s love for the Church, who is His flesh (body), made up by us, and, third, husband and wife becoming one flesh in marriage. This, indeed is the sacrament of marriage, that the “one flesh” of married spouses is sacrament (“efficacious sign of grace”2) of the “one body” of Christ and us, His Church.
Therefore, I believe that what happens at the death of one of the spouses is that the unity of flesh that previously resided in the created, passes, with the now ever-alive spouse, into the uncreated, where the unity of Christ’s Body dwells. Instead of suggesting that the bond, which ontologically makes the spouses one, breaks at the point of one of their deaths, I believe that Jesus’ and St. Paul’s words point to another reading: that this bond persists; no longer only as a bond between the spouses, but now also as an eternal constituent of the Body of Christ. The bond of marriage, contracted on Earth, remains both the force that made the spouses one here and, at the same time, becomes like the bonds of unity that in Paradise will bind us to Christ and to all other members of his body.
Finally, I also believe that the above reading is consistent with what the Church teaches, since it does not argue for a multiplicity of marriage bonds on Earth, but only for a recognition of their persistence in and subsummation into the bonds that make up the Body of Christ in Paradise. What ends with death is the exclusivity of the bond of one man and one woman, but not the bond itself, which now becomes one with the oneness of Christ and His Church.
So, maybe a better wish for newlyweds would be: “May every day be the greatest day of your lives.” The sequential days of chronos now, and the eternal day of kairos then.
1 “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.” (Can. 1141) This is also related to St. Paul saying the following about death ending the bond of marriage: “Thus a married woman is bound by law to her living husband; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law in respect to her husband. Consequently, while her husband is alive she will be called an adulteress if she consorts with another man. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and she is not an adulteress if she consorts with another man.” (Romans 7:2-3).
2 “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1131)