Friday, May 24, 2013

The Marriage of Jonathan and Grace 24 May 2013

When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, "Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us."

It is difficult to exaggerate the influence of the rather obscure little Book of Tobit (from which the first reading is taken)  has had on the Christian understanding of marriage, the rite of marriage itself and so on our notions of love and romance.  If you want to read it,  you will have to have a proper bible, namely one that includes the so-called Apocrypha or the deutero-canonical books.

For centuries the Book of Tobit was a prominent part of the Church’s theology of marriage. The Book of Tobit gives us something like a complete account of a Jewish wedding  and served as  the model of the nuptial blessing in many liturgical traditions. Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice and a number of other plays is often cited as the source of the axiom:

…love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit

But Shakespeare with his Catholic sensibilities likely got the notion from the blind father of Tobias.  We speak of ‘a marriage made in heaven’ only because Raguel, the father of the bride said so. And the prayer of Tobias on his wedding night is the source for the desire that bride and groom ‘may grow old together’.

The long distance romance of Jonathan and Grace may have been difficult but it was nothing compared to that of Tobias and Sarah.

These two, Tobias and Sarah had a rather bizarre courtship to say the least, although. I guess, appropriate enough for a St. Michael’s Conference romance since there is an archangel involved, Raphael.

The archangel Raphael, in disguise as a distant relative, has been employed by Tobias’ father to accompany the son on a mission to recover money set aside in a far land many years ago. During the journey, the angel speaks of a “beautiful and sensible” woman who, by rights, is Tobias’ to wed. (Tob 6:12ff) The very night the young man meets her, he practically demands Sarah be given him as his wife. (Tob 7:9ff) This, despite the knowledge that each of her seven previous husbands after the consummation of the marriage have been killed by a jealous demon on seven previous wedding nights. In fact Sarah’s father, resigned to the inevitable, has already dug the grave for Tobias.
With good reason, then, does Tobias pray “O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity.”

In any case marriage is dangerous business just because it involves the union of two wills. As the Prayer Book collect says our ‘wills and affections’  are ‘unruly’.  Left to themselves the wills of wife and husband will inevitably collide and sometimes with lethal consequences of an emotional and spiritual sort, if not of physical.

But Tobias and Sarah, Jonathan and Grace, are not left themselves.

Thanks to the advice and assistance of the angel, the young man heals Sarah of this demonic possession. Throwing fish liver and heart on the coals drive away the jealous demon. Raphael gives chase to the other end of the world and binds him. (Tob 8:2-3)

Jonathan and Grace, I cannot say for sure whether or not you will find burning fish liver and heart to be the key to marital bliss. But you will certainly find prayer to be.
When the door was shut and the two were alone.

So then we imagine the good part begins and so it does but it is not sex, at least not sex in the first place, it is prayer in the first place.

It is not that the Christian religion has qualms about married sexuality but that this part of married life like the whole is oriented towards a supernatural end, the salvation of the world.
The thing about prayer, St. Augustine tells us, is not that it changes God’s mind, but that it changes us.

Tobias prays, we may suppose, with hands open to God, for he prays a barukh prayer, Barukh atah Adonai, the most solemn of Jewish prayers, the prayer of open hands, the same sort of prayer by which the priest in the modern Eucharistic rites offer bread and wine to God:

Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers,
and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever.
Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee.

Only by blessing God can we be blessed:

And Tobias, in his prayer, sees marriage as at the very heart of God’s plan for creation:

Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife
as a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung.

His prayer recognizes that marriage is about not being alone, it is about providing help and support to each other, it is about ‘singleness of heart’.

Thou didst say, `It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.'

That beautiful prayer expresses the two purposes of marriage: creation (new human life) and intimate relationship and support - ‘singleness of heart ‘.

We find it difficult often to discern what God’s will is and just because we think we are doing God’s will does not mean that we are. But here there is no doubt. That there should be a new human life and that love supported by a community of love is God’s expressed will. And even if we were to hear it and see it a thousand times it is still a wonderful and marvelous and astonishing thing to witness a man and woman solemnly promising to do the will of God in full knowledge of the sacrifice and trouble and hardship as well as joy and happiness and blessing involved.

It is the best antidote I know of for the cynicism which so plagues us. The story of Tobit for all its strangeness is a familiar tale of death and defeat, all too familiar. The world going to hell in a hand basket, we say. But the coordination of God’s will and man’s assent to that will changes things completely and we learn to hope. The world is saved one marriage at a time.

Is that too much to expect? Well, the Savior of the world went to a marriage, adorned and beautified a marriage with his presence, as the Prayer Book says. Signifying the mystical union betwixt Christ and His Church. So St. Augustine: ‘is it any surprise that Christ attended a marriage when he came into the world for a marriage.”

The danger is not that we read too much into a wedding but that we might find too little in it.

When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, "Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us."

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