I’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.
#3: The Finish Line
In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is one of the Church’s seven sacraments. Husband and wife are right up there with bread and wine, and water.
A sacrament, in case you didn’t know, is what St Augustine defined as an outward, visible sign of inward, invisible grace.
During the Reformation, Protestants pushed redact the sacraments according to their principle of sola scriptura. For Protestants only those sign-acts which were clearly instituted by Christ in the scriptures count as sacraments. Jesus told us to baptize and he spent the night he was betrayed making himself our Passover.
He didn’t marry anybody.
Therefore, in the Protestant Church, marriage hasn’t been considered a sacrament.
It’s a covenant.
A covenant, in case you didn’t know, is the term the Bible uses to convey a promise.
Sacrament vs. Covenant.
You may be wondering what difference it makes. Why quibble over arcane theological terms?
Here’s the deal.
Tragically, I know a lot of couples, whether they realize it or not, who have a ‘covenantal’ notion of marriage; namely, they think the goal of their marriage is to cross the finish line of life together. As long as they stay together ‘til death do us part’ then they’ve kept the covenant- they think. To divorce would be a breach of contract.
And/or a sin.
Of course, people’s lives and marriages are more nuanced than this suggests. Nevertheless, there’s a truth in the generalization that I see all the time.
Thinking of marriage in contractual terms leads to couples who define ‘success’ in their marriage by staying married. By remaining together. By crossing the finish line. By holding their breath and pinching their noses until the clock runs out.
You can imagine the sorts of marriages this produces.
Homes where couples pass by each other as ghosts.
Words- or rather, tones of voice- you’d never give a stranger spoken without second’s thought.
Children playing proxy or needing to fill what’s missing.
Couples determined to stick together even though they couldn’t be further apart, convinced they’d have too much to lose in a divorce but not realizing something more important has already been lost.
A sacramental notion of marriage couldn’t be more different.
If marriage is a sacrament, if the purpose of marriage is for husband and wife to love each other in a way that makes visible the way Jesus loves us, then just keeping the contract and sticking it out does not count as success. Theologically, it doesn’t even really count as marriage anymore.
Here’s what it boils down to.
If you regularly treat your spouse in a way Jesus never would or if you allow yourself to be treated in a way Jesus would never treat you, then your marriage is a far cry from being a sacrament.
And if you or your spouse can no longer muster the interest or energy to recover the sacramentality of marriage then you probably shouldn’t be married. Just like water stripped of its baptismal context or bread and wine on a shopping rack instead of on an altar, your marriage no longer signifies what it was intended to do. It’s lost its purpose and thus its meaning.
Sadly, that’s one of the things I’ve learned in life and in ministry. Some people shouldn’t stay together. Some marriages should come to an end. Because marriage is about so much more than crossing the finish line.