When I was a lad I acquired a rather unfortunate funeral-to-wedding ratio, so I have spent this summer trying to fix it. While in the rest of the country, the newspapers tell us, the average marriage age creeps closer to 30, the people in my circles are marrying in their early 20s, sometimes straight out of college.
This sort of behavior has been known to cause consternation in observers—not too much, of course, for even weddings that seem inopportune still have an insuppressible excitement, but the countercultural import is enough to tug on eyebrows. The objection is generally that the young lovers are in fact too young, too inexperienced, too naïve to take a step that has such a high risk of failure. Likewise the increasing elderliness of newlyweds is explained by an extreme caution for fear of divorce, not to mention unsurety of finances, greater focus on career, &c.
This sort of young marriage, however, is not the impetuous sort verging on and including elopement. My friends didn’t meet each other five weeks ago and decide amid adolescent palpitation that they were soulmates, society be damned. Quite the contrary: they were in fact uncommonly deliberate and conscientious about marrying, preparing themselves to a degree most people would think unnecessary.
The great difference between these couples and their skeptical observers is the understandings they have of marriage. It may seem temerarious for me to lecture older, married people on their ideas about their own state of life, but the dreary record of recent generations—the same record used to dissuade the young from marrying while still so—warrants an infusion of new thinking. The paradox is that the new thinking we need is actually quite old: that of the Church and of Christian civilization going back millennia.
Our generation, or at least the religiously minded of our generation, has been chiefly concerned with the rediscovery of a patrimony that we were prevented from inheriting by all the distressing events of the last century. Liturgical solemnity and a truly Christian politics, to take two examples, became obscured by fads and fits of narrow-mindedness; that which had passed from father to son and from mother to daughter for hundreds of years vanished as if its usefulness had finally and suddenly expired. Now we twentysomethings have found out about the loss and want to recover the treasure, not out of a sentimental nostalgia but out of a desire to meet our ancestors’ high standards, which served pretty well until their decommissioning.
The weddings I’ve attended this summer and last are another example of this restoration. My friends, somehow or other, heard about Christian marriage—not the Hollywood knock-off combination of fantasy and cynicism, but real Christian marriage, an inseparable bond for growing in holiness and producing new citizens for the kingdom of God.
The present cultural condition of marriage—deformed, degraded, sometimes ignored—resembles that of Christ’s time. Our first parents, despite their first sin, were joined in marriage as God intended, as one flesh for life. “This form of marriage, however,” writes Pope Leo XIII in his 1880 encyclical Arcanum divinae, “so excellent and so pre-eminent, began to be corrupted by degrees, and to disappear among the heathen; and became even among the Jewish race clouded in a measure and obscured.”
So manifold being the vices and so great the ignominies with which marriage was defiled, an alleviation and a remedy were at length bestowed from on high. Jesus Christ, who restored our human dignity and who perfected the Mosaic law,…brought back matrimony to the nobility of its primeval origin by condemning the customs of the Jews in their abuse of the plurality of wives and of the power of giving bills of divorce; and still more by commanding most strictly that no one should dare to dissolve that union which God Himself had sanctioned by a bond perpetual.
Christ came to earth to re-establish all things in Himself (Eph. 1:10), and there is no better instance than marriage. Not only did He restore it to its original dignity, but He raised it higher than it ever had been, to the order of a sacrament, and made it an image of His love for His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:22-32). And He more than lifted a finger to bear the burden of indissolubility that He imposed: He made the union itself a conduit of grace for husband and wife to fulfill their vocation together.
This is not fashionable now, and neither was it when Christ announced it. His audience protested that in that case it would be better not to marry (Matt. 19:10). He responded with another invitation, this time to celibacy, the state of life He Himself observed and the better of the two vocations, as St. Paul also attests (I Cor. 7:38). But far from denigrating marriage, celibacy complements it, and Christ offers both vocations as paths out of the corrupted practices of the time.
Likewise now, when so many people are giving up on marriage, He offers it to my friends, who despite being on average 23 are more prepared than their seniors to accept the call because they mean to cooperate with Christ’s invitation. They say freshly those hackneyed words: “For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Certainly a mad thing for two mere human beings to undertake. The pagans couldn’t do it, and few people today can, either. But my friends approach the altar not two at a time, but three, to get married, and with this Third’s grace they can fulfill a mission which by themselves they could never manage.
Liam Warner ’20 is a rising senior in Adams House studying Classics.