Sermon XVII 98

The Marriage Ring; or,

the Mysteriousness and Duties of Marriage

Jeremy Taylor

 

 

EPH. V. 32, 33

This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless, let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself, and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

 

The first blessing God gave to man was society, and that society was a marriage, and that marriage was confederate by God himself, and hallowed by a blessing: and at the same time, and for very many descending ages, not only by the instinct of nature, but by a superadded forwardness, God himself inspiring the desire, the world was most desirous of children, impatient of barrenness, accounting single life a curse, and a childless person hated by God. The world was rich and empty, and able to provide for a more numerous posterity than it had. . . .

 

Poor men are not so fond of children, but when a family could drive their herds, and set their children upon camels, and lead them till they saw a fat soil watered with rivers, and there sit down without paying rent, they thought of nothing but to have great families, that their own relations might swell up to a patriarchate, and their children be enough to possess all the regions that they saw, and their grandchildren become princes, and themselves build cities and call them by the name of a child, and become the fountain of a nation. This was the consequent of the first blessing, "increase and multiply." The next blessing was the promise of the Messias, and that also increased in men and women a wonderful desire of marriage: for as soon as God had chosen the family of Abraham to be the blessed line from whence the world's Redeemer should descend according to the flesh, every of his daughters hoped to have the honour to be His mother or His grand- mother or something of His kindred: and to be childless in Israel was a sorrow to the Hebrew women great as the slavery of Egypt or their dishonours in the land of their captivity.

 

But when the Messias was come, and the doctrine was published, and His ministers but few, and His disciples were to suffer persecution and to be of an unsettled dwelling, and the nation of the Jews, in the bosom and society of which the church especially did dwell, were to be scattered and broken all in pieces with fierce calamities, and the world was apt to calumniate and to suspect and dishonour Christians upon pretences and unreasonable jealousies, and that to all these purposes the state of marriage brought many inconveniences; it pleased God in this new creation to inspire into the hearts of His servants a disposition and strong desires to live a single life, lest the state of marriage should in that conjunction of things become an accidental impediment to the dissemination of the gospel, which called men from a confinement in their domestic charges to travel, and flight, and poverty, and difficulty, and martyrdom: upon this necessity the apostles and apostolical men published doctrines declaring the advantages of single life, not by any commandment of the Lord, but by the spirit of prudence. . . and in order to the advantages which did accrue to the public ministries and private piety. "There are some," said our blessed Lord,99 "who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," that is, for the advantages and the ministry of the gospel; non ad vita' bona' meritum, as St. Austin in the like case; 100 not that it is a better service of God in itself, but that it is useful to the first circumstances of the gospel and the infancy of the kingdom, because the unmarried person. . . "is apt to spiritual and ecclesiastical employments": first HAGIOS, and then HAGIAZOMENOS, holy in his own person, and then sanctified to public ministries; and it was also of ease to the Christians themselves, because as then it was, when they were to flee, and to flee for aught they knew in winter, and they were persecuted to the four winds of heaven, and the nurses and the women with child were to suffer a heavier load of sorrow because of the imminent persecutions, and above all because of the great fatality of ruin upon the whole nation of the Jews, well it might be said by St. Paul,101 "such shall have trouble in the flesh," that is, they that are married shall, and so at that time they had: and therefore it was an act of charity to the Christians to give that counsel, "I do this to spare you," and, THELO HYMAS AMERIMNOYS EINAI102: for when the case was altered, and that storm was over, and the first necessities of the gospel served, and "the sound was gone out into all nations";103 in very many persons it was wholly changed, and not the married but the unmarried had "trouble in the flesh"; and the state of marriage returned to its first blessing, et non erat bonum homini esse solitarium,104 "and it was not good for man to be alone."

 

But in this first interval, the public necessity and the private zeal mingling together did sometimes overact their love of single life, even to the disparagement of marriage, and to the scandal of religion: which was increased by the occasion of some pious persons renouncing their contract of marriage, not consummate, with unbelievers. For when Flavia Domitilla being converted by Nereus and Achilleus the eunuchs, refused to marry Aurelianus to whom she was contracted, if there were not some little envy and too sharp hostility in the eunuchs to a married state, yet Aurelianus thought himself an injured person, and caused St. Clemens, who veiled her, and his spouse both, to die in the quarrel.105 St. Thecla106 being converted by St. Paul grew so in love with virginity, that she leaped back from the marriage of Tamyris where she was lately engaged. St. Iphigenia107 denied to marry king Hyrtacus, and it is said to be done by the advice of St. Matthew. And Susanna108 the niece of Dioclesian refused the love of Maximianus the emperor; and these all had been betrothed; and so did St. Agnes,109 and St. Felicula, and divers others then and afterwards: insomuch that it was reported among the gentiles, that the Christians did not only hate all that were not of their persuasion, but were enemies of the chaste laws of marriage; and indeed some that were called Christians were so, "forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats."110 Upon this occasion it grew necessary for the apostle to state the question right, and to do honour to the holy rite of marriage, and to snatch the mystery from the hands of zeal and folly, and to place it in Christ's right hand, that all its beauties might appear, and a present convenience might not bring in a false doctrine and a perpetual sin and an intolerable mischief. The apostle therefore, who himself had been a married man, but was now a widower, does explicate the mysteriousness of it, and describes its honours, and adorns it with rules and provisions of religion, that as it begins with honour, so it may proceed with piety and end with glory.

 

For although single life hath in it privacy and simplicity of affairs, such solitariness and sorrow, such leisure and unactive circumstances of living, that there are more spaces for religion if men would use them to these purposes; and because it may have in it much religion and prayers, and must have in it a perfect mortification of our strongest appetites, it is therefore a state of great excellency; yet concerning the state of marriage we are taught from scripture and the sayings of wise men great things and honourable. "Marriage is honourable in all men";111 so is not single life; for in some it is a snare and a PYROSIS, "a trouble in the flesh," a prison of unruly desires which is attempted daily to be broken. Celibate or single life is never commanded, but in some cases marriage is, and he that burns sins often if he marries not; he that cannot contain must marry, and he that can contain is not tied to a single life, but may marry and not sin. Marriage was ordained by God, instituted in paradise, was the relief of a natural necessity and the first blessing from the Lord; He gave to man not a friend, but a wife, that is, a friend and a wife too; for a good woman is in her soul the same that a man is, and she is a woman only in her body; that she may have the excellency of the one, and the usefulness of the other, and become amiable in both. It is the seminary of the church, and daily brings forth sons and daughters unto God; it was ministered to by angels, and Raphael112 waited upon a young man that he might have a blessed marriage, and that that marriage might repair two sad families, and bless all their relatives. Our blessed Lord though He was born of a maiden, yet she was veiled under the cover of marriage, and she was married to a widower: for Joseph the supposed father of our Lord had children by a former wife. The first miracle that ever Jesus did was to do honour to a wedding. Marriage was in the world before sin, and is in all ages of the world the greatest and most effective antidote against sin, in which all the world had perished if God had not made a remedy: and although sin hath soured marriage, and stuck the man's head with cares, and the woman's bed with sorrows in the production of children; yet these are but throes of life and glory, and "she shall be saved in child-bearing, if she be found in faith and righteousness."113  Marriage is a school and exercise of virtue; and though marriage hath cares, yet the single life hath desires which are more troublesome and more dangerous, and often end in sin, while the cares are but instances of duty and exercises of piety; and therefore if single life hath more privacy of devotion, yet marriage hath more necessities and more variety of it, and is an exercise of more graces. In two virtues celibate or single life may have the advantage of degrees ordinarily and commonly, that is, in chastity and devotion; but as in some persons this may fail, and it does in very many, and a married man may spend as much time in devotion as any virgins or widows do; yet as in marriage even those virtues of chastity and devotion are exercised, so in other instances this state hath proper exercises and trials for those graces for which single life can never be crowned. Here is the proper scene of piety and patience, of the duty of parents and the charity of relatives; here kindness is spread abroad, and love is united and made firm as a centre: marriage is the nursery of heaven; the virgin sends prayers to God, but she carries but one soul to Him; but the state of marriage fills up the numbers of the elect, and hath in it the labour of love, and the delicacies of friendship, the blessing of society, and the union of hands and hearts;114 it hath in it less of beauty, but more of safety, than the single life; it hath more care, but less danger; it is more merry, and more sad; is fuller of sorrows, and fuller of joys; it lies under more burdens, but it is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful. Marriage is the mother of the world, and preserves kingdoms, and fills cities, and churches, and heaven itself. Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower, and labours and unites into societies and republics, and sends out colonies, and feeds the world with delicacies, and obeys their king, and keeps order, and exercises many virtues, and promotes the interest of mankind, and is that state of good things to which God hath designed the present constitution of the world.

 

Single life makes men in one instance to be like angels, but marriage in very many things makes the chaste pair to be like to Christ. "This is a great mystery," but it is the symbolical and sacramental representment of the greatest mysteries of our religion. Christ descended from His Father's bosom, and contracted His divinity with flesh and blood, and married our nature, and we became a church, the spouse of the Bridegroom, which He cleansed with His blood, and gave her His holy spirit for a dowry, and heaven for a jointure, begetting children unto God by the gospel. This spouse He hath joined to Him- self by an excellent charity, He feeds her at His own table, and lodges her nigh His own heart, provides for all her necessities, relieves her sorrows, determines her doubts, guides her wanderings; He is become her head, and she as a signet upon His right hand; He first indeed was betrothed to the synagogue and had many children by her, but she forsook His love, and then He married the church of the gentiles, and by her as by a second venter had a more numerous issue, atque una domus est omnium fi/iorum ejus, "all the children dwell in the same house," and are heirs of the same promises, entitled to the same inheritance.  Here is the eternal conjunction, the indissoluble knot, the exceeding love of Christ, the obedience of the spouse, the communicating of goods, the uniting of interests, the fruit of marriage, a celestial generation, a new creature: Sacramentum hoc magnum est, "this is the sacramental mystery" represented by the holy rite of marriage; so that marriage is divine in its institution, sacred in its union, holy in the mystery, sacramental in its signification, honourable in its appellative, religious in its employments; it is advantage to the societies of men, and it is "holiness to the Lord."

 

Dico autem in Christo et ecclesia, it must be "in Christ and the church."  If this be not observed, marriage loses its mysteriousness; but because it is to effect much of that which it signifies, it concerns all that enter into those golden fetters to see that Christ and His church be in at every of its periods, and that it be entirely conducted and overruled by religion; for so the apostle passes from the sacramental rite to the real duty; "Nevertheless," that is, although the former discourse were wholly to explicate the conjunction of Christ and His church by this similitude, yet it hath in it this real duty, "that the man love his wife, and the wife reverence her husband. . . ."

 

 

98. Works 4:207ff.

99. Matt. 19:12.

100. Augustine, The Good Spouse, PL 40. 587.

101. 1 Cor. 7:28.

102. 1 Cor. 7:32.

103. Ps. 14:4.

104. Gen. 2:18.

105. D. Attwater, The Legends of the Saints (New York, 1962), p. 230.

106. Ibid.

107. Ibid.

108. Ibid.

109. Ibid.

110. Ibid. cr. 1 Tim. 4:3.

111. Heb.13:4.

112. Tob.5:1ff.

113. I Tim. 2:15.

114. Plato, The Laws, LCL, vol. 9, pp. 459ff.