Matrimony and the Paschal Mystery

Douglas P. McManaman
May 22, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

The Paschal Mystery is really the central concept of the Christian faith. It refers to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. But to get a better handle on this mystery and how it relates to marriage, I'd like to go back to the Old Testament to the event that foreshadowed it, namely, the period of the Exodus, when Israel was under Egyptian slavery, and God called Moses to go before the Pharaoh and convey a message, in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to let his people go. The Pharaoh's heart was stubborn, and he would not let them go, even as Egypt underwent great hardships brought on by the plagues. What saved the Israelites from the final plague, the death of the first born, was the blood of the Passover lamb. God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and mark the sides and tops of their door frames with its blood, so that when the angel of death sees the blood, he will pass over that house, sparing its first born.

The tenth plague finally convinced the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and so they left Egypt, leaving behind its pantheon of false gods. They enter the desert and spend 40 years there before entering the promised land. Just as Abraham, the father of Israel, was called by God to leave the land of Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land to which He would direct him (the land of Canaan, or contemporary Israel), so too his descendants, the Israelites, leave Egypt behind in order to return to the land of Canaan. But the life they left behind, the life of slavery, was not complete misery for the Jews. Moses had to deal with all sorts of complaints and expressions of ingratitude during their time in the desert: "It would have been better if the Lord had just killed us in the land of Egypt. At least there we had plenty to eat. We had all the food we needed. But now you have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger" (Ex 16, 2-15).

All this foreshadows the Paschal Mystery in the New Testament, the true lamb of God, whose "leaving" this world in the immolation of Good Friday delivers us from the slavery of sin and eternal death. A key text for this mystery is John 17, the high priestly prayer of Jesus, which he prays at the start of his "hour of glory".

Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began. I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are. When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you. I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth (emphases mine). I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.

This is the most powerful prayer in the entire New Testament, worth reading over and over again, and concentrating on every line. But there is one line I'd like to call attention to. He says: "I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth." To consecrate is to make holy; but to be made holy is to be "set apart". However, Christ does not need to be made holy, because he is the fount and source of all holiness--for he is God the Son. So what does he mean "I consecrate myself for them"? He means that he is setting himself apart; he is going to the Father, and leaving something behind, just as Abraham was called to leave behind the life he knew in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, and even as the Israelites left behind their life of slavery in Egypt, which was not entirely miserable. The call to holiness is always a call to move forward and in doing so leave behind what might be familiar and comfortable. Christ is setting himself apart in that he is going to the Father, but in doing so, he leaves something behind: "For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God" (2 Cor 5, 20). In other words, he carries the sins of humanity upon himself, in his own flesh (Is 53, 6), and brings them to the altar of the cross, to offer himself, to immolate sin, and thus purify humanity, to glorify his body and in doing so, destroy death and restore life, eternal life: " sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit" (Rm 8, 3-4).

Christ's resurrection is precisely that new life of glory; for they did not recognize him on the road to Emmaus. He had a glorified body, no longer subject to sickness and death. And in baptism we enter into his death, and in doing so we enter into his glorified life. The glory of heaven begins now, but it achieves its fullness after our own death, after we have died with him and in him.

According to the Fathers, Christ's mystical body, the Church, is born in that very hour, the moment that blood and water flowed from his side. Just as God made Adam fall into a deep sleep, and while he slept, removed the rib from his side and formed woman out of it, who was his bride, "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" (Gn 2, 21-23), so too it is when Jesus is in the sleep of death on the cross, his side pierced by the centurion from which flows blood and water, that his bride, the Church is born; for blood and water are of course symbols of the Eucharist and baptism, the two sacraments that constitute the Church.

The Paschal Mystery reveals the true significance of the mystery of marriage. It is not that marriage is primarily something natural and only later is given an added and secondary sacramental significance. Rather, just as it is the final Adam who fully reveals "man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (GS, 22), so too does matrimony, as an aspect of the Paschal Mystery, disclose the ultimate meaning of marriage. For in matrimony, two people leave behind a world closed in upon itself. They are consecrated, that is, set apart, for they are called to leave behind their comfortable world of independence and self-sufficiency, to be given over to another, to belong completely to one another, in order to become part of something larger than their own individual selves, namely, the one flesh institution that is their marriage. The couple relinquish their individual lives; they are no longer two individuals with their own independent existence; rather, they have become one body; their lives are directed towards a common end, and the ultimate end is to be a sign of the love that Christ has for his bride, the Church, and a witness of the Church's response to that love, in their sacrificial love for one another. In giving themselves irrevocably and exclusively to one another, without knowing what lies ahead, they die to their own individual plans, they die to a life directed by their own individual wills. In doing so, they find life; for they have become a larger reality.

The life of a mystic is typically filled with moments of darkness, and the deeper that darkness, the deeper are those moments of mystic joy and consolation, brought on by the intensity of a divine touch, directly touching the soul and thus transporting such a person out of himself (ex-stace, or ecstasy). Such is the reward for sharing so deeply in the passion of Christ. Similarly, in matrimony, it is the sexual embrace that is akin to the mystical touch of the one who gives up everything for Christ. The sexual embrace is the fitting "reward" for their decision to give up their own individual and independent existence for the sake of a larger reality that only God can bring into existence ("What God has joined together...). Outside of the mutual self-giving of the covenant of marriage, that embrace is not rightfully theirs.

Matrimony is an aspect of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery in which Christ's bride is born from his pierced side. It is this mystery that uncovers the original meaning of marriage, a mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to us (Col 1, 26). Holy Matrimony is an icon of the Pasch. Infidelity as well as the free decision to revert back to a life of independent and solitary self-governance is a contradiction of that testimony; it is a counter witness. In marriage, the two grow together through stages. In the married state, there are moments of darkness and drab, difficulties, and glorious moments; it is a constant dying and rising, always moving towards the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints. Married love is hesed, a perpetual and steadfast love, as is the love of Yahweh for His bride, Israel. Matrimony is a profoundly religious vocation precisely because it is a living instance of the reality of Christ and his bride that arises out of the Easter Pasch.