The unity of will between a husband and wife that God establishes is realized also through a life that is fully shared. A marriage is contracted as a result of the consent of the spouses, and this consent needs to be renewed each day.
“Go and call your husband,” said Jesus to her, “and come back here.” The woman answered, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right to say, ‘I have no husband’; for although you have had five, the one you now have is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.” (Jn 4: 16-18)
What is real in life? What is true? The Greek word for truth that St. John places on Jesus’ lips here, alethes, literally means “not hidden.” This is the truth to which an eyewitness attests. Jesus indicates that the reality of the situation was that this Samaritan woman was now living with someone who was not her husband.
Divorce and remarriage have certainly been in the spotlight with the upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome later this year. The words of Jesus in Matthew 19 have received most of the attention:
Some Pharisees approached him, and to put him to the test 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 leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh?’ They are no longer two, therefore, but one flesh. So then, what God has united, human beings must not divide.”
The text indicates that God is the one who joins a husband and wife together. Perhaps, though, by invoking the action of God, the Church just adds respectability to an essentially human institution. If a marriage is primarily something that we ourselves determine and contract, then it will seem quite reasonable to divorce and remarry. It can be unbearable to live with someone who continually antagonizes or dominates you, and it is surely unreasonable to expect the estranged parties to see out their years in loneliness.
If we are to offer a merciful response to the heartbreak that hits such a large proportion of marriages, then we need insight into the ways that God acts. One important source of insight is St. John Paul’s teaching on the theology of the body, grounded as it was on this text from Matthew’s Gospel. St. John Paul taught that it was through God’s creative initiative that solitary man finds again his double unity as male and female. 1 Genesis 2:23 tells us that God put the man to sleep, and recreated man as male and female. St. John Paul speaks of the “complete and definitive creation” of man as given in the communion of persons that a man and a woman form (ibid, p. 46). The beginning that Christ refers to in Matthew 19 is not simply a beginning to be considered in relation to time, but also with regard to the action of God.
Many people getting married in Catholic churches, though, might still think that this is all very well, but that it has little connection to their actual lives. After all, the marriage rite doesn’t create a Siamese couple. If there is no apparent connection between the notion that God has created something new and the actual experience of a couple, then this teaching that God is the one who unites a married couple will appear esoteric and unreal. Is the creative action of God in a marriage something you can actually see?
Think for a moment of the heartbreak that accompanies divorce and remarriage in today’s world. Even after the initial trauma has faded, there is no guarantee that a second marriage will work where an initial marriage has failed. The statistics clearly indicate that the odds of making another marriage stick after a divorce are significantly lower than the first time around. What of the children who always suffer deeply when their father and mother separate, or when a parent splits again with another partner? How many relationships are severed with more distant family members, reducing social cohesion in wider society? While any one couple’s situation is unique, it is clear that almost whatever indicator you look at, whether it pertains to health, fidelity, depression, alcoholism, abuse, and so on, then something is clearly awry. Would we say that this sort of world is “very good”? There are ways to close our eyes and ears to this suffering, but it, nonetheless, remains.
And, then, by contrast, what do you think when you see a married couple who are fully united with each other? Imagine a married life where one spouse does not seek to dominate the other. “Any bitterness or bad temper or anger or shouting or abuse must be far removed from you—as must every kind of malice” (Eph 4:31). These are words that St. Paul addressed to all of the Christians in Ephesus. He expected each of them to “put on the New Man” that had been “created on God’s principles” (Eph 4:24). The words of the Gregorian chant “Ubi caritas” are equally compelling: “cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites”—“let spite, quarrelling, and strife cease among us.” Would you think that a couple for whom such language is actually the case are lucky, that they had a fortunate upbringing, and didn’t encounter any difficult circumstances? Does your experience suggest that good and evil is a lottery?
There is an alternative explanation, and it is that the difference is down to the creative action of God, rather than chance or “fate.” It is entirely reasonable to conclude that only the work of some outside creative agent can account for a quarrel-free marriage. “Faith” is the word we use to refer to the conclusion that God is at work. It is possible to dismiss the action of God as a fiction, but what if one then misses out on a new life?
St. John Paul highlights how Christ, in these words from Matthew 19, pointed towards a hardness of heart in bringing about what was contrary to the original plan of God. 2 If we are to understand how it might be possible for God to establish a marital bond, then we need to look to the heart. The unity between a husband and wife is realized in the heart of each spouse. In biblical terms, the heart is the seat of desire in the human person. God unites in the depths of the heart, even as this unity is also expressed through sexuality and the fabric of one’s life. We need to understand this for all marriages, and not just for those in which the marital relationship has become strained. Is it true that God can move two hearts, so that each person longs for the same thing?
Perhaps, it is through the gift of a child that this appreciation of the action of God in the life of a married couple is keenest. A child is a gift from God, a gift that no one can demand for one’s own marriage. The gift of a new life is beyond our own powers. Children provide an actual basis for the unity of a couple. Any couple with children, who divorce quickly, realize that it is hard to disengage while still acting for the children’s good. Surely, every father and mother longs for their children to thrive in life? What desire held in common by a couple can be keener than this? And what unites more deeply than such a desire? St. Paul talks of charity as “the perfect bond” (Col 3:14). Indeed, if there is no readiness to receive children from God, then there is no marital bond.
Unity is also found in a mutual willingness to accept the other spouse’s desires. In Genesis 3:16, we are told that, as a result of the Fall, the man will “lord it” over the woman. While this phrase, in the first instance, applies to the man, St. John Paul was clear that the effects of the Fall are felt squarely by both parties. In such a situation, what results is death, as we are all well aware. This is our natural state, one in which a husband and wife try to dominate each other, so that their own will may prevail. It is this situation that St. Paul addresses in asking the husband and wife to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21).
If someone tries to lord it over you, is it at all easy to deal with the situation? The burden that comes to a marriage from the attempt of the spouses to dominate each other is real. Who has not experienced this burden? This is not something that wishful thinking can shrug away. There are many parallels between the life of Jacob in the book of Genesis, and the Garden of Eden. This is especially true in relation to the way that Jacob experienced work. It is with Jacob that we particularly see God beginning to restore what was lost by Adam and Eve, as in his relations with others. Jacob’s uncle, Laban, sought to dominate Jacob on a whole host of occasions, but the story tells how God was actually able to intervene in Jacob’s life in order to protect him. Jacob was saved, not by his scheming, but by the intervention of God. The only reasonable conclusion Jacob could have come to was that God had rescued him from the domination of another. We need to open our eyes and our hearts, and to beg God to act within our marriages. This sight, this desire, is called faith.
The unity of will between a husband and wife that God establishes is realized also through a life that is fully shared. A marriage is contracted as a result of the consent of the spouses, and this consent needs to be renewed each day. If the spouses do not share a single will, then a unity of life is hardly to be expected. Shared lives, though, are becoming rarer in our cultures, or why does it seem strange that a married couple would want to share social media, financial decision-making, a car and so on; or, the joint endeavour of raising a large family? One of the typical effects of living together before marriage is to habituate the couple to semi-independent lives. A shared existence is an aspect of the “one body” that a married couple possesses. St. John Paul proposes: “that unity which is realized through the body indicates not only the ‘body’ but also the ‘incarnate’ communion of persons—communio personarum—which calls for this communion.” 3
St. John Paul also reminded us that creation has a particular value in God’s eyes: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gn 1:31). 4 This vision of what is good was lost to the man and woman during the Fall. It is not something that we should automatically expect to possess. Can we see what is good in this creative action of God to join a man and wife together? This is life as it was intended in the beginning, that Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., eulogizes in his poem, Spring:
What is all this juice and all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden’s garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Is it not a cause for wonder when you see a married couple that is utterly united? Creating the world and moving the heart: it is the same Holy Spirit who is at work. Only God is able to establish what is true and good.
We see parallels in the story of the healing of the man who was born blind in John 9. Jesus made a paste out of the dust of the earth, and created something genuinely new. Ever since the beginning of the world, it has been unheard of for a man who was born blind to see. The blind man was able to recognize this, but the Pharisees had constructed their own ideas about how to organize life on the Sabbath. They prioritized their laws above this act of God’s creation. It is easy to despise the Pharisees, but much harder to value the creative action of God above our own ideas. Only God is able to establish what is truly good for us. We need to learn a reverence for Christ if life-long marriage is to make any sense at all. It is possible to enter into God’s original intentions for marriage. In interpreting the parable of the prodigal son, Pope Benedict stated:
In the parable, the father orders the servants to bring quickly “the first robe.” For the Fathers, this “first robe” is a reference to the lost robe of grace with which man had been originally clothed, but which he forfeited by sin. But now this “first robe” is given back to him—the robe of the son. 5
In Christ, we receive back the lost robe of grace, the original robe in which Adam and Eve were clothed. There is a substantial continuity between the life that Adam and Eve originally led in the Garden of Eden, and life in Christ, even if the continuity can never be complete.
It was only after the Samaritan woman had indicated her thirst for the living water that Jesus then spoke to her about the reality of her situation. At no point did Jesus condemn the Samaritan woman with her five husbands. But, equally, Jesus did not simply say to her, “You have desired this living water, drink freely.” Rather, he answered her desire for living water with a call to conversion. This woman had identified a burden in her life, and Christ spoke a word to her. Christ is ready, even now, to speak the words that are needed in the heart of every married person.
- Pope John Paul II, 1997, The Theology of the Body, Pauline Books and Media, Boston, p. 44. ↩
- Pope John Paul II, 1997, The Theology of the Body, Pauline Books and Media, Boston, p. 131. ↩
- Pope John Paul II, 1997, The Theology of the Body, Pauline Books and Media, Boston, p. 48. ↩
- Pope John Paul II, 1997, The Theology of the Body, Pauline Books and Media, Boston, p. 45. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Bloomsbury, London, p. 206. ↩