Wednesday, June 12, 2013

All About Love (thoughts on Romantic Theology)

"He that has seen Me has seen the Father...." John 14:9

"He is the image of the invisible God...." Col. 1:15

In the Divine Comedy, Dante reaches the end of his journey in the last cantos of "Purgatory". I say it's the end of his journey because he finally reaches his true love, Beatrice. However, he will soon discover that this "ending" is only another beginning. He meets her at the top of Mt. Purgatory where she comes at the end of strange pageant: a train of creatures and people, all representing the books of the Bible, theological and cardinal virtues, and even Christ Himself (represented by a Griffin). Every element of the pageant is meant to symbolize a different sacrament, i.e., a means and point of contact with God, whether it be divine revelation, "the law written on our hearts," or Christ (who is the Sacrament).

Beatrice belongs to this train. She symbolizes how romantic love (when done properly) is yet another sacrament, a doorway to the divine, a means of ascension higher and higher into the love of God. This is not only the central conceit of the entire Comedy, but also a key component in the Christian view of marriage. Christianity has always viewed marriage as a sacrament, a means of contact with God where He administers and ministers grace to us. This is what Charles Williams called "Romantic Theology," though he never claimed the idea to be novel. Christian orthodoxy has always believed and taught that romance, though it can go awry like anything else, was always meant to be an avenue of communion with God through another person, which was the entire point of marriage: two people brought together by God to be used of God to sanctify each other. The grace of God given to us through each other---that is the essence of Christian romance, and it is a sacramental essence.

The Bible reveals the sacramental essence of marriage in some surprising ways. One of those ways can be found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Now, First Corinthians is all about love (and not just the 13th chapter). "Let all things be done out of love" (16:14) is the summation and theme of the whole book; furthermore, if we love each other, then we will seek each others "well-being" (10:24) and do all things "for edification" (15:26). In other words, love should lead us to be a means of grace (i.e., a sacrament) to other Christians. If you belong to God, then you have been made a sacrament to others, especially those inside the Church.

What does this have to do with marriage? Well, in chapter 7, Paul explains how men and women can "avoid fornication": "let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband" (vs. 2), i.e., get married and have sex. That's right. Paul (that cranky old curmudgeon) is telling Christian spouses to have sex, and (get this) it's not just a matter of practical morality: "Let the husband render unto his wife due benevolence, and likewise also the wife unto her husband" (vs. 3). This is not just about keeping yourself sexually pure (and faithful) in marriage; this is also about showing "benevolence" to your spouse by not withholding sex (vs. 5). Thus, in marriage, sex is tied directly to edification. It is one of the ways a husband is a sacramental means of grace to his wife (and vice versa).

Is your mind blown yet? It should be. Who views sex like this? Not our culture. Whether inside or outside of marriage, sex is merely a means of domination: two individuals mutually working their will on the other. It has nothing to do with grace at all. Furthermore, I daresay that the Church in America does little better. Marriage is important, at least politically and socially, but what about theologically and sacramentally? All of marriage (whether it be sex or something else) is meant to be sacramental, i.e., about grace, about meeting God. That is why wives "submit" themselves to their husbands and husbands "lay down" themselves for their wives: it is a mutual sacrifice on behalf of the other, and into that loving matrix the presence of God comes into our midst.

That, of course, is the whole point: of the Divine Comedy, of Christian marriage, of Christianity and Christ Himself. God is a sacramental God. He meets us in the midst of our moments, especially (as Dante showed us) in our darkest moments. Love reaches out to us in the dark wood, and it will lead us home, even through Hell itself. It is what T.S. Eliot meant by "mid-winter spring": those moments of light and life in the midst of the cold, dead lands, the intersection of our time with God's eternity. This is not about abstractions; this is about love, about Christ, who is the fullest proof of God's love (Rom. 5:8; I John 4:9-10), a love that manifested itself in our midst, that was made flesh and blood and bones and veins and fat and walked into our winter with all the glories and colors of spring. The point of the story, of all good stories (whether Dante's, Christ's, your marriage, or your walk with God), is love, love manifested in our midst with all its surprises and its unapologetic, relentless and reckless sacrifice for its beloved.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

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