“Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and to bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony…” The brief exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer (page 423) given by the priest at the beginning of the service offers a succinct outline of the theology that underlies our Christian understanding of marriage. It speaks of what we are witnessing as “holy matrimony”. Underlying that is the conviction that what is taking place is not merely a contractual arrangement between two people, but a covenant, where God is the key player.
The service goes on to inform us that marriage is not a human invention. It was God who established it at the dawn of creation, when he brought together the first man and the first woman in Eden. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” the man cried aloud as he first set eyes on his newly created partner. And the author of Genesis comments, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
So it is that the wedding service begins with the principle that marriage was God’s idea. That point is driven home further by the reminder that our Lord’s first recorded miracle took place in the context of a marriage ceremony. I believe that teaches us the high value that Jesus himself set on marriage.
Thirdly, the exhortation speaks of marriage as signifying “the mystical union between Christ and his Church”. The reference here is to the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
In other words, at its best, marriage is a window that helps reveal the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for us, his church.
This theology of marriage was a revolutionary thought in the sixteenth century, when the wedding service was first written. In those days it had been assumed that God’s highest calling to men and women was to be celibate, as a priest or a nun. The reformers turned that around, to affirm that marriage is every bit as much a response to God’s calling, and therefore “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God”.
This approach to marriage may be equally revolutionary in our society today, when so many see it as a legal agreement, a creation of the state, or a purely human device. May we not be swept along by this tide, but continue to see marriage—and live it out—as a holy gift, a sacred trust, from our gracious and loving God.