Friday, 18 April 2008

Patricians talk: marriage in the ancient world

In the book of Genesis we have the view of marriage that was created and intended by God before the fall of man, where both man and woman are 'flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.' The narrative presents the couple as naked and knowing no shame. Why? Because they were in a state whereby the passions of the body where totally subordinate and under the control of reason.

And later in Genesis we are given dramatic imagery of the consequences of the fall and of original sin. Adam and Eve were driven out of the state of paradise and forced to live in a hostile world. Relations between them become one of suspicion, jealousy and mistrust, and they become ashamed of each other: the reality of the human condition.

This is pretty much an allegory of the ancient pre - christian world where man existed in a state in need of redemption. Nevertheless despite the fall much of the original sanctity of marriage still remained. In pagan cultures it was a sacred rite of passage and a participation in a great unknown mystery of existence and procreation. Marriage remained an institution that united two in a full union of body and soul, a full religious participation in a great order of the unknown.

Christianity did not reject this pagan view of marriage: far from it, it exalted it. The great unknown order of life and existence became revealed in the mystery of the three persons of the Trinity. Marriage was no longer a participation in the great unknown, but instead a participation in the revealed life of the God himself, who had become flesh, and subjected himself to human parents. It was exalted from a pagan mystery to a sacrament, and a full participation in the life of grace.

Nevertheless what the ancient pagan and Christian views of marriage share in common is that marriage is an enfactically religious union and a sharing in the life of the divine, of such profundity that it was a union that only death could break. Also it is a holistic union in which the components of love, procreation, and union of two persons are inseparable from each other. It was completely foreign to the ancient world to conceive of marriage as a contractual union of convenience that could be broken at will: the view that has become very prevalent today. How this came about I shall try to tackle next.

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