Saturday, January 17, 2009

The sacrament of marriage

Recently I spent some time chatting with a few of my male friends in Hope and we got onto the topic of marriage. My question to them (and to myself) was, 'why is the line of "you can't have sex until ..." right after the officiator says "I now pronounce you man and wife!"'? Which led to some very interesting discussion. But it was difficult to have an answer to this question. It has been ingrained in me that sex is only morally 'right' in the context of marriage. Which I believe wholeheartedly. But marriage now, consider this thought:

Marriage is an extremely old covenant or arrangement. In the Bible, the first woman is called Adam's wife. Interesting that this is her first title and there's no ceremony (that's recorded). It's simply a truth of her relationship with this man. We aren't given another detailed glimpse into marriage or courtship (apart from reading that, say, Noah has a wife) really, until Isaac and Rebekah get together. And even then we're only told "... and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her;" Gen. 24:67. The first marriage celebration we're invited to learn about is Jacob's marriage to Rachel & Leah.

What is interesting to me about marriage, is it's this cultural phenomenon that has been around for as long as man has lived on the planet. It is accepted as the natural and good event that binds a man and woman together. Nearly EVERY culture has this observance in it. Marriage is a universal relationship within the human race - and by extension, the family unit. And though God gives strict moral laws regarding marriage in the old testament, he does it to solidify and purify the accepted observance that has already been going on for millenia. So, people are married and given in marriage all the time ... and the church has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT! Until ... the church forms. Then, in the first few centuries of christendom the catholic church recognizes a few of the things that Jesus commands us to observe and remember (and a few others that Jesus does not ask us to remember) and calls them sacrements. These 'holy' and sacred events that all believers now should participate in. Here are some definitions of what these sacrements are: "a rite in which God is uniquely active." , "a visible sign of an invisible reality." and "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." . The seven sacrements of the Catholic church are: Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, The Eucharist, Confession, Extreme Unction and Matrimony.

Matrimony, of all these actions (aside from perhaps confession) is the only event listed that was instituted by God before the church came to exist as it does today. Now as the church grew in prominence and power it also used that power to change and create a culture around itself. A 'spiritual' or 'church' culture that all Christians are a part of. This language and rituals and traditions that are unique to the church. What the Catholic church continued to do was limit the view of marriage solely to the authority of the church. So, marriage now loses, over time, it's former cultural context. It now is something condoned only in and through the catholic church. Marriage in any other context is not considered legitimate. Then the reformation happens and the Protestants toss aside a great deal of the values and traditions and cultural ideals and icons that were once associated with the sacrement of Matrimony. But the church does not relinquish its authority over the observance of marriage. So now, I would argue, today, especially in our relatively young and forming North American culture, we have this recognized relationship, honoured and serviced by the churches but with almost NO cultural significance along with it. Marriage is DEPENDANT now on how it is defined by the church in our culture.

Perhaps this is why people are sometimes disallusioned by the idea of marriage (or perhaps the church's way of instituting it). I have a particular relative who chose, against the wishes of his parents, to 'shack up' with the woman he loved. It has been many a year since then and they have exhibited all the positive aspects of a loving marriage from what I can see. They have a young daughter now as well. A number of years after their joining, they decided to go through with a marriage ceremony (more for their parents sakes it seemed to me). Were they any less married before they stood before the officiator? Were they 'living in sin' before they stood to bear witness of their mutual love and commitment to each other?

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not arguing against marraige - but I'm questioning the FORM through which this holy union has changed and become to be in our day and age and region of the world. I have often remarked, with friends nodding accent, that we seem to have lost some of the meaning of marriage when I witness a wedding feast or celebration that is not tied to the western church. Maybe because there is so much culture attached to marriage in places that it seems to have more substance as an observance. I'm not sure. But I've had these thoughts lately. Your thoughts?