When writing about Jordan Peterson and marriage as a case example of how Christians should have a different approach to life from the world, I made reference to an excellent article by Fr John Behr, ‘From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human‘, in the current issue of The Wheel. In this article, where Fr John discusses the basis of biblical anthropology and what maleness and femaleness have to do with this, he talks about the martyrdom of marriage, as well as the martyrdom of parenthood.
Here is a way of viewing marriage most of us are unused to.
Martyrdom was long regarded in the Christian tradition as the highest expression of faithfulness to Christ. From St Stephen to St Polycarp, St Perpetua, St Cyprian, St Alban, the martyrs were seen as the pinnacle of Christian devotion. Second only were the confessors, those imprisoned but not killed for the faith. Martyrs had a guarantee of heavenly glory, even those as yet unbaptised (these communities believed in baptismal regeneration, remember).
The lapsed, who buckled and gave in, were a problem. Could their post-persecution penitence avail them anything? The traditores, who handed over church property, were even worse. Traitors.
Martyrdom helped shape the church’s image and strength as a community (an unintended consequence).
When martyrdom went away, the monks became living martyrs. They abandoned all to gain everything. They moved to the desert. They suffered to come near to Christ.
The martyr dies on behalf of something bigger than him/herself. The martyr suffers out of love of something better than this present darkness. The martyr is (literally) a witness to the glory of Christ.
In marriage, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Christ died for the church. Wives are called (controversially) to submit to and respect their husbands.
Marriage is a living death.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?
Speaking as a happily married man with close to eleven years experience, I don’t know that it is. In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.
Jesus Christ was whipped, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross.
Out of love for His bride.
Marriage becomes a high calling, doesn’t it?
Out of love for God, I have to love my wife enormously. I have to die to myself for her. Every. Single. Day. What is best for her? What would make her happy? What would make her life easier? Can I care for our son in the morning so she can get some more sleep? (Yes.) Can I bathe him so she can have a break? (Yes.) Can I do some dishes? (Yes.) Can I watch chick flicks? (Yes.) Can I forego Star Trek to give her the quality time she needs? (I mean, I guess so.) Can I do our taxes on time? (Maybe. I mean: Yes.) Can I wash, hang up, and put away laundry? (Yes, but sometimes I forget step 3.)
Bachelor MJH would do dishes only when absolutely necessary. He would stay up late. He would eat too much ice cream. Drink too much beer. Vacuum only occasionally. Watch Star Trek every night. Avoid chick flicks. Marriage is a means of grace that can strip away this ego-centred life.
Instead, I put my wife before myself.
And, of course, two human persons living together are not exactly a binitarian model of the Trinity. Seeking to work out differences and difficulties with love, with humility, with patience. This is also a good place for ego to come and die, and for Christ to come and reign.
Marriage is a living death, but it is a good way to die.
And hopefully, by living this way, my marriage can witness to Christ. Like a martyr.