It seems to me that, for the most part, in God’s plan, the institution of marriage is the natural way for the developing and intensifying of human love. To move from selfishness to an awareness of the needs of others – first the loved one, then the children – must be impossible without the experience of marriage. How else can the soul’s desires be purified and intensified if not in the cauldron of learning to trust, to forgive, to love?
I am reasonably aware of the agony as well as the ecstasy of married life. In fact, I often think that little else really exists for many people, apart from the network of relationships that are woven around their spouses, their children, and other significant persons in their lives. It must be here, surely, that the raw material of redemption, salvation and the human experience of God happens.
Around 1995 I was called, during the night, to the Children’s Ward at Leeds General Infirmary. A baby had just died. When I walked into the ward the young parents stared at me, and angrily asked, “Where is this loving God of yours now?” I remember saying that God was probably crying like they were. But what has stayed with me so clearly is that, ignoring me then, the father took his wife in his arms and said, “You know I love you.” That stunning moment, when a man or a woman has done this unforgettable gesture, at the point of their tragedy, has been my privilege to experience many times in my pastoral work. It is unforgettable because it is so real, so true, and therefore, so sacred.
What I’m struggling to come to terms with, what I glimpse at certain moments of emotion and grace, is that such experiences are the only way in which God can touch and hold us, redeem and save us, renew and empower us. The healing and completing implications of the Word becoming flesh, the here-and-now meaning of a Love that has desired to be audible, visible and tangible, can happen in no other place, situation, or condition, than in the human interplay of senses, emotions and physical relationships.
The moment that our Christian theology and spirituality move away from the sobs and smiles of things, the tension and tears of things, the plights and pleasures of things, then we lose the vital, radical and shocking meaning of the Incarnation. In our deadly dualism, we find it so difficult to accept the revelation that it is God’s delight to be worshipped in the way we touch and look at each other, in the way we listen and talk to each other, in the way we forgive and make love to each other.
Why is this so? We seem to have erected a separate holy edifice, created another, different institution, for God’s encounter with us to happen, for the divine intimacy to take place. Is it possible that we have truly lost the plot of Creation and Incarnation? Where else can we touch, hear and smell God if not in the skin, whispers and sweat of each other? Where else is there to experience the abundant life promised by Jesus if not in the trust and encouragement of those who love us, in the almost impossible words of forgiveness from whose we have hurt, in the pain of the sacrifices we make to stay faithful to our partners and so, to God?
Think of the things that put the lift and life in you, that stirs the excitement and wonder in you. Our senses and emotions, our most intimate feelings both positive and negative, our passions for the possible and our deepest despair, our sins and our failures – such are the only moments in time and space in which our incarnate God can be intimate with us. It is only here, that resurrection can ever have any meaning.
By virtue of creation and incarnation, all relationships offer the potential for feeling the reality of God each day. The senses have rightly been called the thresholds of the soul. There is simply no other way for God to be embraced. In marriage, where human love is revealed to be divine love in disguise, we have such a shining example of the sacredness of our humanity. It is where people set each other free, release the creativity in every human heart, give permission to each other to come out and be truly themselves. Nothing is lost, as St Augustine reminded us a long time ago, by raising the dignity and beauty of human love to its supreme place. Me and marriage at beg. “With my body I thee worship” is, at the very same time, both a human promise and a divine prayer.
The mystery of pain, crucifixion and death that we tend to apply only to the Christ of Good Friday and of the Eucharist is played out every moment of every day of every marriage across the entire world. Only there have our doctrines and liturgies any real meaning. As Karl Rahner kept repeating, “The sacraments celebrate what is already there in human experience.” Nothing is lost and everything is gained once we make this shift in our understanding of Incarnation. It is too shocking and too simple to be easily believed. It is shocking because most people do not understand the Fleshing of the Word to mean that now the experience of God has to do with married life as well as celibate, with the kitchen as well as the cathedral, with the body as well as the soul, with physical pleasure as well as spiritual pain, with human passion as well as contemplative prayer.
Instead of relentlessly trying to drag the whole world of secular experiences in general, and of marriage in particular, into the territory of the Church, the Church’s role in truth, is to rejoice and embrace the divine love and meaning already within the magic and mystery of the way humans love, forgive and say sorry to each other. The meaning of the mystery is far more than bringing them together tangentially at Mass on a Sunday morning. No, among other meanings, the very bread and wine that is consecrated at the Eucharist is the sacrament of the most menial and most amazing, most routine and most unique moments that happen in marriage. The daily ordinariness and extraordinariness of married life IS ALREADY the human presence of God in every home. We go to Mass to be reminded of that most saving truth.
Bringing the lay person right into the heart of the Church. What a change this would make. We try so hard to find a place for the laity, to encourage collaborative ministry, to make parishioners feel more important, when in reality all along they are the very ones and their lives that form the only place in which God’s heart beats strongest and most delightedly of all!
It is not by placing the Church in any sense over against the world that any real evangelisation can ever take place. It is not by enticing people from a Godless world into our churches, that the Kingdom will ever be established. And it is certainly not by bemoaning the fact that we now live in a godless society, a post Christian desert that God’s reign will ever be established. How can it be? Is not God alive and well in every pulsing throb and breath of the human hearts and lungs in the very society that we reject? Is not God’s beautiful essence the very energy that enables countless millions to keep their marriages alive through incredible sacrifices of love and forgiveness. To be sure, these very people may well have left a Church that no longer nourishing them, or may belong to a different faith, but what a terrible mistake it is to judge them out of a deadly dualism that is blind to the freedom of the God of creation to live and sustain and nourish wherever that God wishes?
Jack Dominian is struggling towards a theology of creation when he writes in his recent Living Love, “We live in an age where relationships are considered the supreme expression of being human. Christianity has to recognize this reality by acknowledging that sanctification is to be found in the love present between people. . . .The world lives this truth in a shadowy, unclear way. Intuitively it knows that there is something sacred about relationships. . . .The world, and even the Churches’ own adherents may not trust the Churches, but everyone trusts genuine love because, however wounded we are in our personalities, we all have a sense of what it means, and we hunger for it.” (pp198,199,200)
God’s love is not lessened when human love is lifted. How could it be since Human love is God’s very way of being intimate with us, since the love we feel is, in itself, God’ own way of being present to us. Nor is the Church diminished when the table and bed of the marriage home are regarded as shrines to God’s glory, too. In fact, the Eucharist table serves only to guarantee, to purify and to celebrate the sacredness of all that happens within a week in the life of a family. And the definition of the family as the domestic church takes on a whole new depth and vibrancy.
Now the amazing thing is that this very human reality called loving relationships, from which all hearts and minds draw their strength and meaning, is none other than the very mode of existence chosen by God from the beginning of time. That is the supreme truth that the Incarnation, the Christian faith, the Eucharist and all the sacraments, the preaching and teaching, the praying and fasting, testifies to. No more, no less. And it is in the agony and ecstasy of marriage, in the infinite heights and depths of human minds, bodies and souls, that the mysterious potential of human love is played out. And there, and there only, is played out too, the incarnate tenderness and compassion of God. The winning of the world for God is there for the taking. It will not be a sudden capitulation by the powers of the original sinfulness that lives in every human heart. There will be no easy surrender without many crucifixions along the way. But at least the battle will be fought in a place where human passion is the common ground. There is a most beautiful theology of marriage waiting to be explored; a courageous conversation between creation and incarnation to be entered into. Karl Rahner is so clear about the need to celebrate the liturgy of life and marriage before we celebrate the sacraments in church. There is no competition between Sunday and Monday, between the parish church and the domestic church, between the eucharist and the family meal. They need each other forever. Sacred liturgy reveals, purifies and celebrates the divinity of every human act of love. There is no other place to be holy. It is all of a piece. Everything belongs. We have forgotten that the human heart is the sacred heart. The torn tapestry must be restored once more.