A few years ago, I attended a family wedding and watched an amazing sight. The groom’s grandmother was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s and was confined to a wheelchair. She was utterly dependent on her husband.
As a part of the ceremony, the minister invited the congregation to come forward and take communion. Everyone else filed toward the altar to partake, but the grandparents waited until the end. When they reached the altar, the grandfather helped to administer the elements to his bride of some fifty years, serving as her hands where hers were now useless. It was tender and moving, an incredible testimony to the power of marriage that was particularly appropriate for a wedding. There was nary a dry eye in the room.
Because I teach college, I am around students who are about to be married, many of whom ask me lots of questions about marriage. I still remember that nervous feeling of impending matrimony. It’s an incredibly “now,” or “almost now”-focused time of life. The excitement about adulthood, shared time together, and, especially, sex, are all but overwhelming. “In sickness and in health” are abstractions at that point: they are unreal in the heady moment of youth and exuberance. They are preoccupied with the whole “two will become one flesh” thing found in several places in Scripture (Matthew 19:5 and parallels).
This year my wife and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary; this week my parents will celebrate their fiftieth. The longer I am married, though, I find that I have a different understanding of that passage. Certainly it is a portrait of sexual intimacy, but it’s much more than that. “Flesh” here is a synecdoche that uses a part to express the whole; marital intimacy means learning to become one in will, in mind, and one in heart. It means becoming so united that we forget, in some ways, that we ever were apart.
One time I told a humorous story to a group of people and attributed the incident to my uncle. On the way home, my wife corrected me that the story came from her Uncle Ray. In all honesty, I had forgotten the distinction. Even now, I have a hard time saying “in-law” after I introduce my sister Tina; I’ve been her brother(in-law) for two-thirds of her life. My mother(in-law), father(in-law), and grandmother(in-law) are integral parts of my life, some of my greatest cheerleaders.
Funny how we shortchange a biblical view of marriage at every turn, don’t we? Where we see “sex,” God sees a kind of intimacy that transcends our clunky old bodies. It’s a kind of intimacy that teaches us about the kind of love that God has for us: self-sacrificing and transcendent to the circumstances of this world.