Fr David Ranson
Unlike other societies, in the West love and marriage seem to go together. The idea of marrying someone chosen for us by our parents, or marrying someone we have never met, or marrying someone irrespective of our feelings towards them, is quite foreign to our own way of thinking. We would not think of marrying someone we did not love. The usual story is we meet someone, we fall in love, we decide to marry, and we work at staying in love for a very long time. We equate marriage with love, even though this is a relatively recent understanding of marriage.
We can go on to think of the ideal marriage as one in which two people feel loving towards one another all the time. However, we know that the romance of marriage is not easy to maintain. Marriage is a relationship that requires a constant decision, and even though it may have been love that led us into marriage, it is not love – at least as a feeling – that keeps us married. Life changes, we change, pressures arise . . . to stay together can be hard work. And of course, in many instances we know it can’t work, and a marriage dissolves – and there can be many different reasons for this, and it is very difficult to make a judgement about this.
Yet, one of the things that we recognize in a marriage is that it is not just about the two people whom life has brought together. When two people come together they do so as individuals yes, but their union together acts as almost a third entity. They commit themselves to each other but they also commit themselves to the union they have created, the marriage relationship itself. The self-giving of each other, the reception of one by the other, creates this entity that cannot be thought of apart from the two people, but that is, in fact, more than the two people. This is why, when difficulties arise in a marriage it’s not sufficient for each partner in the relationship to examine themselves. Together, the couple need to commit to exploring the relationship itself. And if the couple together will not explore the relationship itself, as this third entity in their life together, things can become very difficult indeed.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that it is “not your love that will save your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Earlier in the same passage he wrote “As you gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love.” In other words, the bond of marriage is something that is actually bigger than the two people involved and for a marriage to work each has to work, not just for the other person, but for the relationship itself. And as each works for the relationship, each can discover what love is all about, both its delight and its cost. Sometimes we have to forget the question of whether I still love this other person or not, and ask the question, “Do I want this relationship to work?” It is “not love that will save your marriage, but marriage that will save your love.” This takes us beyond our feelings which rise and fall, and come in and out of season.
In all this struggle and opportunity, we say marriage is a living icon of the Divine Life, the Trinity itself. In other words, if we want to understand God we need to look at a couple given to one another in marriage. They are our best teachers about God. Their self-giving and mutual reception exercised in such a way as to create a relationship of its own nature and life, mirrors what happens between the Father and Son which itself generates its own living entity, the Spirit of God. For this reason, we understand marriage as a sacrament: the means by which God’s very being and life become manifest in our world.
Family life is a primary revelation of God’s life in our midst. For this reason, the first feast we celebrate after Christmas, is that of the Holy Family. It is not simply a celebration of the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. It is also importantly, a celebration of our family as that by which God’s very life becomes manifest in the world.
Well, when we look at our family we may not be inclined to think of things too divine. No family is perfect, every family has its struggles. Ironically, at Christmas time we become only too conscious of the vulnerabilities and fragility of our family experience. When we look around we may not be dazzled by a divine glow emanating from the midst of our nearest and dearest. As I have often remarked, we are never so close, nor so distant, to others as with the members of our own family.
Yet, I think there is something critically important precisely in this. If it is by a family that God has chosen to reveal in the world the nature of his very being, then it is by the complex struggles of family life that we come to God. We can only touch the living God – I’m not talking here about a God of our fantasy, or a God of our projections, but the true, living God – other than in the to and fro of our family life just as it is – with all its possibility and all its hurts, in the hope for love that it represents and in the failure of love that can be experienced. It is through our families, complex though they may be, that we learn of our need for love, our hunger for love, the possibility of love, the gift of love, the fear of love, the hope for love, the hurt of love. Families, precisely in their complexity, till the soil of our hearts and make them aware of love’s power – even in the absence of that love. And if God is love, then families – for better or for worse - become the very school that prepares us for all that God is.
This is why families are holy. The fact that they are not perfect does not make them less holy. They are holy because of the way they teach us that we can never not be son or daughter, that is someone defined by relationship and made for relationship.
Yes, the experience of our family life may be quite ambiguous. But we would not be here with hearts open to the Lord of life without them. So today let us offer a simply word of thanks for this mysterious but wonderful way by which God reveals himself to us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from