Decades ago the movie “the Princess Bride” came out. The movie provided a wealth of quotes to my generation; such as when Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal, said to the trio of heroes as they set out on a seemingly hopeless task, “Have fun storming the castle.” But my personal favorite came during the marriage scene between the evil prince Humperdinck and his princess bride. The audience knew that the prince planned to murder the princess just after the wedding in order to start a war with another nation. A priest dressed in heavy robes begins the service, “Mare-widge.”
I love the line because it captures the dangerous folly of priests and ministers pontificating on marriage. Too many religious leaders sound out of touch or irrelevant when talking about marriage. The wisest characters in the film care about true love, but the priest blathers on about “mare-widge.”
I understand I head into troubled territory in speaking about marriage today. And yet it’s become an unavoidable topic this year. From the legalization of same-sex marriage in Wisconsin - alleluia - to the back-in-forth debates in the Roman Catholic Church - yeah Francis: marriage is the topic. Beyond this year, debates about marriage are the only theological issue driving churches apart. We might differ with other Christians on a number of spiritual questions, but marriage is the only one causing denominations to break apart. When the United Church of Christ came out in favor of same-sex marriage in 2005, the whole Conference of Puerto Rico broke away from us. Marriage is the big question in Christianity today.
But I’m also thinking more about marriage for personal reasons. It became a point of reflection among my closest clergy friends because a pastor we consider a mentor and a role model recently admitted publicly an adulterous affair. So for lots of reasons - cultural and personal - I find myself thinking about the meaning of marriage as I stand between joy at my ability to legally marry my spouse and deep awareness of the messiness and pain we can cause in marriage.
Most of our conversations in the church and in the wider culture concern same-sex marriage. We debate: can two women marry? Can two men? The answer matters deeply to me, of course. But, too often, we slip into thinking the gay question is what changed the definition of marriage. In reality, the definition of marriage started changing a long time ago; and perhaps, it’s always changing.
Over the breadth of our tradition, Christians focused on two reasons for marriage. Some Christians held procreation to be the purpose of marriage - God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, that’s why we marry. Other Christians viewed marriage as a way to grow in virtue - God realized Adam needed a companion, Eve, to share life. It’s worth thinking more deeply of these two purposes of marriage - procreation and virtue.
I think we’ve all heard of procreation as the point of marriage. People opposed to same-sex marriage talk about it all the time; marriage is for making babies. The procreation definition even gave us a name for marriage: matrimony. It comes from the word matron, mother - matrimony transforms a girl into a matron, a woman into a mother; it’s a ritual of holy mother making. How did Freud miss that?
This defense of marriage perhaps first arose with St. Augustine, a fifth century Bishop from Africa whose writings on spirituality deeply shape our tradition. Sex troubled Augustine. He worried the passion of sex would distract people from devotion to God. It bothered him in his own life. He believed celibacy to be the best way to live, but as a young adult he prayed, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”
Sex represented a problem for Augustine. He thought it rather dangerous and bothersome. And so he imagined God only allowed sex as a necessary evil for making a baby. We ought to be clear about Augustine’s motivation: he wanted to keep sex morally safe by keeping it wrapped in the protection of a marriage dedicated to making babies. Therefore, we might think of procreation as a philosophical prophylactic pulled over a relationship to keep it safe from the dangers of sex.
We hear a lot about procreation from those who say they’re defending traditional marriage. One of the funnier and more pointed responses to this idea of marriage came from Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism. The Czech legislature approved the recognition of same-sex couples in 2006. Havel commented on the debate, saying, “I was most intrigued in the debate by the absurd ideology advocated by [conservative Christian politicians] who argue that family should have advantages since, unlike homosexual couples, it brings children to life. This is the concept of family as a sort of calf shed in which bulls can inseminate cows so that calves are born. … This is nothing spiritual, nothing intellectual. This is a purely material concept of family.”
And that’s the problem of reducing the meaning of marriage to procreation; it squeezes out the joy, beauty, and passion of marriage. It also forces out all the hard stuff too - the arguments over nothing, the silences, the hurts. Procreation as the purpose of marriage understands neither the wonder nor the disappointments of marriage.
Procreation, as the purpose of marriage, only makes sense if we find sex icky. But if sex is not our hang up then we want something more in our marriages.
Now I want to be clear - I love babies. I want people in our congregation to make babies and adopt babies, because I really love baptizing babies. But your marriage is about more than my need to baptize babies.
Throughout our tradition another understanding of marriage co-existed with the procreation definition. Many have long seen marriage as a relationship which teaches us virtue.
Martin Luther, whom we celebrate every year on Reformation Sunday, called marriage a “schoolhouse of charity.” Though at other times, perhaps after an argument with his wife, he called it a “hospital for incurables.” Schoolhouse, hospital, either way, Luther imagined marriage as something which could change us for the better. Viewed this way, marriage became a calling, a form of discipleship, an opportunity to experience God’s grace. Recently a group of theologians rearticulated this idea of marriage as a schoolhouse - “[by the discipline of marriage] God may transform longing into charity and [the emotions of] love into works for virtue.” The same theologians point to the prayer used in the Episcopal Church, that God may make the couple “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
Understanding marriage as a path to virtue obviously opens up possibilities for same-sex couples. But even more, I think, it provides a meaningful way for us all to understand marriage, whether gay or straight, whether with children or not. And even whether married or not, thinking about marriage as a path to virtue can help us think about our own journey toward virtue.
But if marriage is a schoolhouse of virtue, what do we learn?
Our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, provides a scriptural anchor to this view of marriage. Paul spoke of us “being transformed into the [image of the divine] from one degree of glory to another.” Discipleship - whether practiced in marriage, in friendship, in work, in solitude, in community - transforms us from one degree of glory to another, brings us closer to living as an image of the divine.
While every relationship will have its own virtues (and its own challenges), I think there are two broad categories that capture how marriage can transform us: the virtues of embodiment and equality.
At Christmas we read the opening lines of the Gospel of John, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.” The incarnation, by which God took on human life and lived among us as Jesus, is a cornerstone mystery of our faith. Too often religion leads us away from our lives in the flesh, but Christian spirituality truly understood leads us more deeply into the flesh. We follow our God into the flesh. And marriage can be a way in which we experience our own incarnation, our own carnality, our own flesh.
Remembering the marriage of Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora can help us see this virtue in action. Katherine started out as a nun. We may know that detail, but we’ve forgot what that meant in her time. Katherine was an extra daughter, surplus her family couldn’t support, and so she was given over to the church. How would that abandonment mark a person? Martin Luther, who was once a monk, had his own demons - moods of anxiety, periods of depression, stretches of myopic obsession. Marriage brought them together in all their brokenness.
But their struggle didn’t end there. They lived through the death of two children, one an infant and the other a teenager. Beyond this, they faced the dangers and deprivations that came with a movement of revolutionary ideas.
They also discovered great joys in each other. Luther once wrote of marriage in general in ways that reveal what he, in particular, felt. He said, “when a man looks at his wife as if she were the only woman on earth, and when a woman looks at her husband as if he were the only man on earth; yes, if no king or queen, not even the sun itself sparkles any more brightly and lights up your eyes more than your own husband or wife, then right there you are face to face with God speaking.”
Embodiment does not always end happily. I don’t know what my clergy friend and his wife will do in light of the revelation of his affair. But I believe the confrontation with our vulnerable humanity and that of our spouses is transforming.
Katherine and Martin lived an embodied marriage, a life both richer and poorer, a life both in sickness and in health, one in which they knew the beauty and amazement and the limitations of themselves. Like Katherine and Martin, marriage grounds us in our flesh, in the “wonderful, fearful” way we are made; and that’s a virtue.
If the incarnation of Jesus is one of the great mysteries of our faith, then the other great one is the Trinity, the idea of God existing in three ways. God the mother and father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present to us as the Holy Spirit. Equality marks the relationship between these three ways of knowing God. Just as marriage shapes us in an incarnational way, so too marriage becomes a way for us to develop in our own lives the equality in the heart of God.
It’s worth thinking through how equality differs from unity. Many people speak of the unity experienced in marriage, a unity first described with Adam’s marriage to Eve: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” One can sometimes hear this longing for unity in the expression, “this is my better half.”
But I find the “this is my better half” comment bothersome. Do we really think: I was not a whole person until marriage? Were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie incomplete before they became Brangelina?
Again, to look back at Martin and Katherine. Luther’s wife is always remembered by her maiden name: Katherine von Bora. She was a whole, complete, dignified person even without her marriage.
Marriage has changed significantly over the decades in terms of equality. There’s many ways to measure this, but one recent datapoint caught my attention. In the 1960’s, college educated women were more likely to be single than women who didn’t go to college; now its the opposite. As one researcher put it, “[Today] the women getting, and staying, married are the most economically independent in the history of the nation. Independence, rather than dependence, underpins the new marriage.” I see much the same in the strong married couples I know: a deep appreciation for the gifts and abilities of the other person. It’s not: you complete me. But rather, “this at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, my equal.”
Equality is not just a civil rights slogan, it’s the virtue to cultivate in our most intimate relationships.
Our culture and churches throughout our country debate and divide over the issue of marriage. And even in our personal lives, we celebrate and struggle with marriage. In the midst of this, we can claim again the insights of spiritual leaders like Martin Luther. The schoolhouse of marriage teaches virtues like embodiment and equality.
But whether we are married or not, we are “being transformed into the [image of the divine] from one degree of glory to another.” Alleluia and Amen.