Sooner or later every Christian preacher has to preach on the Trinitarian God. They muddle their way through the mysteries of the Trinity, and their congregations leave as unenlightened as they entered. Modern Christians regularly profess in the Nicene Creed their belief in three persons in one God, but the vast majority recite it without any theological understanding of its content or its relevance to their lives. The great Karl Rahner even suggested that for most Christians the doctrine of the three persons in one God could be erased from their belief system without their noticing any loss. Recent popes have sought to elaborate on the doctrine, both to demonstrate its relevance for modern marriages and to show what a loss it would be to have it vanish from Christian belief. Following the lead of Pope Francis, we seek in this article to present the life of the divine Trinity as the “ideal” of a Christian marriage and Christian marriage as the “true and living icon” of the life and love of the divine Trinity.
One important theological fact that needs emphasis is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit name not only individual divine persons but also intimate divine relations. “Father” immediately connotes relationship to a “Son,” “Son” immediately connotes relationship to a “Father.” Similarly, “husband” immediately connotes relationship to a “wife” and “wife” immediately connotes relationship to a “husband.” Early church fathers made up a Greek word to describe the intimate relations in God, perichoresis, and understood it to mean each divine person making room for the others in and around his own person in loving communion. It can be best understood today to mean an all-embracing mutuality in relationship. In our day, perichoresis names the dynamic process of making room for another person in and around one’s own person, an all-embracing mutuality—not only in the divine Trinity but also in the human duality that is marriage. There are differences in God: The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. There are differences between the divine persons, but there is no inequality; each person makes room for the other two as equal persons. So it ought also to be, we argue, in marriages between Christian spouses.
Marriage as Trinitarian Analogy
In his writings on the family, “Familiaris Consortio”(1981) and “Letter to Families”(1994), St. John Paul II appropriated the ancient doctrine of perichoresis and explained it as a loving communion of persons. The communion of equal persons in the divine Trinity results from and enhances the love that Christians believe God is (1 Jn 4:8). They believe also what their sacred Scripture teaches, that the Lord God created adam in the image of God: “male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam.”We humans—in English “humankind,” in Hebrew ‘adam—are created in the image of God. We image, therefore, the process of perichoresis in God, the image of Father, Son, Holy Spirit each mutually making room for the other two in loving communion. That imageis to be lived out throughout ‘adam-humankind; men and women everywhere are to make room around themselves for an all-embracing mutuality and communion with other equal men and women everywhere. There are to be no divisions in humankind, no racism, no sexism, no hierarchy, no exclusionary “us” and “them,” only one undivided human communion. While marriage is not necessary for that universal communion, centuries of experience have taught us that in the bodily/personal communion that it makes possible, marriage offers the most intense experienceof human communion, imaging the divine communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As in the divine communion, the communion between woman and man in marriage is to be a communion of thoroughly equal persons. That, at least, is the message of the Scriptures.
Genesis speaks not only of the creation of ‘adam but also of the creation of woman from man’s rib. The U.S. Catholic bishops teach in their response to the concerns of women in the church that this Hebrew metaphor is not intended to underscore the separate creation of man and woman but their human equality. Since “in the divine image…male and female [God] created them,” woman and man are equal in human dignity and favor in God’s eyes. They are “bone of bone and flesh of flesh.” It is because they are equal, Genesis says, that they may marry and become transformed from two individual bodies into “one body.”
Just as western Christians have throughout history seriously misread the Hebrew story of God’s creation of man and woman as equals, so too have they seriously misread the Hebrew notion of becoming one body. They have restricted it much too exclusively to one facet of becoming one in marriage: namely, the uniting of bodies in sexual union.
Persons, Not Just Bodies
While to “make love,” to unite bodies to express and enhance spousal love, is an important factor in becoming one body in marriage, it is far from all there is to becoming one. In the Hebrew story, bodyrefers not only to the physical body but also to the whole bodily person. Marriage is for the good of persons, not just the good of bodies. In marriage, a woman and a man are to unite not only their different bodies but also, indeed particularly, their different but equal persons. A Christian woman and a Christian man marry to make room around each other, to enter into an all-embracing mutual communion, with another different but thoroughly equal person, in imitation of the three-personed God in whom they believe. As Father, Son, Holy Spirit share equally in the one nature of God while still remaining distinct as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, so do a wife and a husband share equally in the one nature of their marriage while still remaining distinct as wife and husband. Their spousal mutuality/communion is lived out and signaled in what Pope Francis calls the “simple, ordinary things” of their married lives, not only in their sexual union but also in their eating together, talking together, taking care together of one another, their children and their home, managing their money together, protecting together each other’s physical, psychological and spiritual health, and in the hundred and one other simple and ordinary ways in which they shape their lives together. It is precisely in this simple, ordinary, and all-embracing mutuality/communion that Christian couples are a “true, living icon” revealing the mystery of God’s life and love.
Relational and Procreative
Sexuality is, of course, an important property or quality of all animals; they are classified as either male or female on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions. Throughout their history human animals have asked the question about the meaning of their sexuality; what is it for? Genesis answers that question. The earlier Yahwist creation account in Chapter Two situates sexuality in a relational context. “It is not good for the male to be alone,” God judges, and so God made “a helper fit for him.” The text immediately affirms the equality of the partners in their relationship. They are “bone of bone and flesh of flesh,” they each have human strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths of one make up for the weaknesses of the other. It is precisely because they are equal that a man and a woman may marry.
The later creation account from the priestly tradition, also found in Chapter One of Genesis, offers a different meaning for sexuality, situating it in a procreative context. In it God creates ‘adam male and female,and enjoins them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
The biblical tradition, therefore, provides two answers to the question of the meaning of human sexuality: one relational, the other procreative. These two answers have had a convoluted history in the postbiblical Christian tradition. For centuries the procreative meaning was held to be primary and the relational meaning secondary. Augustine, for example, argued that marital sex undertaken “beyond what is necessary for begetting children” was in most cases sinful. In the 1960s, however, the Second Vatican Council declared magisterially for Catholics that they were equal meanings with no priority between them. The vast majority of Catholic spouses follow that conciliar doctrine, but the two meanings of sexuality continue to be hotly disputed in the church. What is not disputed is that just, loving and mutually equal sexuality is one reality that must be part of marital perichoresis.
We are suggesting here, we know, a high ideal, as did Pope Francis in “The Joy of Love,” but it is not an impossible ideal. Nor do we suggest that a wife and a husband should agree about everything in their lives or that each should do everything equally. We are suggesting that in a Christian, one-body marriage, each spouse must make room for both her/his own feelings, needs, desires and capabilities and also for those of the spouse, and that each should use their marital communion only for ends in which the other is a full and equal partner.
Making Room for One Another
In any marriage there will be differences between the spouses. In a marriage between Christians, those differences will be dealt with not by the power of one spouse bludgeoning the powerlessness of the other, but by a just and loving talking out of the differences between equals. All exclusive self-love is debarred, which is not to debar all self-love, for there is a necessary and wholly legitimate self-love, as Jesus makes clear in his command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 19:19). In this command Jesus encodes two commands, first love yourself and then love your neighbor. This is an essential requirement if spouses are ever to grow together as one body-person: you must love yourself and love your spouse, care for yourself and care as well for your spouse. The not-uncommon inability of a wife or a husband to love and care for herself/himself adequately, to stand up for herself/himself we might say, frequently leads to problems in a marriage and even to divorce. Becoming one in marriage is, of course, not reached in or immediately after a wedding ceremony. It is reached only gradually as the spouses intentionally, justly and lovingly explore together their individual and mutual possibilities and grow into their marriage and into communion with the divine Trinity that is its ideal.
The 15-century Council of Florence, seeking to end the divisions between the Eastern and Western Churches, taught that in God all things are one except when an “opposition of relation” makes this impossible. An example of an opposition of relation is that between Father and Son. There is no Father without a Son, but the Father alone is Father and the Son alone is Son. Similarly, there is no wife without a husband and vice versa, but the wife alone is wife and the husband alone is husband. In creating this perichoretic partnership-communion, they also create a human icon of the perichoretic partnership-communions between the persons of the divine Trinity, as well of that between Christ and his church.
Through intentional, mutual and equal perichoresis, in Christian marriage spouses retain their identity while bringing all else together as one. In this mutual making room for one another in loving communion, spouses not only imitate the divine love of the Trinity, they co-create the reality that Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”taught us each marriage can and should be: “the intimate partnership of life and love.”