I am reading Ancient Christian Commentaries for a project about Christian marriage. The purpose of reading these Commentaries is to review the Church’s understanding of the sacrament over the course of time. Tertullian makes an interesting read because of his own history with the faith. He exercised a Roman lifestyle in the latter decades of the second century A.D. from Carthage in North Africa. He converted to Christianity and studied to become a priest, ordained in the year 200. Most of the writings that have come down to us were accomplished while he was studying. He separated from Rome to join the Montanists and later developed his own sect of Christians that lasted into the fourth century (newadvent.org). The interest is in how the following develops a concept of a sacramental marriage. This is important to me in modern times due to the number of Christian denominations that do not recognize marriage as a sacrament.
The following text was written to his wife. The reader must recognize the cultural variances from our own time, and that Tertullian’s profession was that of a Roman arbiter if not a lawyer himself. The piece is titled in the Commentaries “Mutual Servants, Equally Serving”
“Where do we find language adequately to express the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, the oblation confirms, the benediction signs and seals, the angels celebrate, and the Father holds as approved? For all around the world young people do not rightly and lawfully wed without their parents’ consent. What kind of yoke is it, that two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, one service will take on in tandem? The enjoy kinship in spirit and flesh. They are mutual servants with no discrepancy of interests. Truly they are “two in one flesh”. Where the flesh is one, the spirit is one as well. Together they pray, together bow down, together perform their fasts, mutually teaching, mutually entreating, mutually upholding. In the Church of God, they hold an equal place. The stand equally at the banquet of God, equally in crisis, equally facing persecutions, and equally in refreshments. Neither hides anything from the other. Neither is troublesome to the other.”
(“Ancient Christian Commentaries: New Testament II, Mark.” Oden, Thomas GenEd. Downers Grove; Inter Varsity Press. 1998. Print. pp 128 – 9).
Tertullian gives the best word picture of the ideal of marriage I recall hearing or reading.
First, he offers what it means to be blessed in the Church. Beyond vows of man-to-woman-to-man, the two join in the Eucharistic sacrifice, their first joint ‘yes’ to God’s Word. This action of gift of selves receives the return gift of our Lord’s blessings and seal. Angels celebrating announce the spiritual celebration in heaven, for the binding of the vow on earth is also bound in heaven. Something greater than the two is beginning in our visible reality and something greater is growing in the spiritual realm. We are embodied spirits, participating in the kingdom. Their ‘yes’ to Divine law, to a participation in the creative process of a new entity to feed and nurture and bound to the promise to overflow the new and renewing love into the creation of more lives. Their ‘yes’ is approved of by the loving Creator.
Next, the image of a yoke invokes unity of movement and purpose. What does a yoke do? It binds the efforts, the skills, the strengths of one to the other. They now harness their hopes and desires, disciplined by the commitment they accepted together, driving each the other to the same service to the Creator and His creation. One may not ever move in a direction while the other must hold to course. One may not falter that the other will fail to carry the full load of the effort.
Thus, their prayers become one with the yoke. They will together bear each other in lean times, suffering deprivations. No lesson can be learned by one that the other cannot also learn and both then teach from. The will coach each other, encourage each the other, defend each other, sustain the efforts of the work along the journey. They can hide nothing from each other for the bindings hold them in such proximity that all things are shared. Should one bring trouble, the other will suffer it also. When one finds joy, the other will participate equally.
Together they vow at the altar. Together they stand in God’s grace at his table of plenty.