The Mysterion which is Marriage: A Vision for the Marital Life

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 4 »The Mysterion Which Is Marriage A Vision For The Marital Life

By José M. de Mesa

Jose de Mesa, a Filipino lay theologian, is professor of Applied Systematic Theology at De La Salle University and visiting professor at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI), both in Manila. He earned a PhD in Religious Studies from the Catholic University, Louvain, Belgium. A member of the Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs, he is also on the advisory board of Concilium. His publications include: In Solidarity with Culture: Studies in Theological Re-rooting. He has co-authored Doing Theology: Basic Realities and Processes and Doing Christology: the Re-Appropriation of a Tradition

Crisis, as the two Chinese characters represent it, stands for both danger (wei) and opportunity (ji). This is certainly true of marriage and family life for our times.2Assailed from many sides as allegedly outdated institutions, they nevertheless seem to remain important for human happiness and well-being, albeit expressed in changing forms and patterns. Breakdowns in marriage and brokenness of families notwithstanding, many people still seek marriage and family life. Even people who accept divorce do not marry to get divorced. Having an intact family (buo ang pamilya) as a promise is still considered worth hoping and striving for, despite the numerous instances of break-up of families. On the one hand, we encounter examples of their resiliency. There are marriages that work and last, families that are strong and intact. But on the other hand, the confusion surrounding particular expressions of this way of life cannot be denied.3

The customary manner by which marriage and family were lived seems to be in question. Contemporary changes in mentalities and attitudes challenge not only ways of being married and being family, but at times their very validity as social structures. For a Christian who is cognizant of the changed times and who realizes the need for relevant expressions of being married and being a family person, more fundamental considerations drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition need to be paid attention to. In attending to these issues lies an opportunity for Christians "ready to give an account of the hope that is in them" (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15) to offer once again Good News to the world.4

Looking at the contemporary challenges to the Asian churches as a whole, and considering the manner by which the gospel is to be proclaimed, the Fifth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) maintains that "‘the proclamation of Jesus Christ, is the center and primary element of evangelization.’ This proclamation means, first of all, the witness of Christians and Christian communities to the values of the Kingdom of God" (emphasis mine) and is done through "Christlike deeds."5 The reality of the Kingdom of God is the very core of Jesus’ experiential message and that which every follower of his must seek above all. Given the dynamics of theologizing, today’s challenges to marriage and family life can bring to the fore of our theological consciousness the witness married life can give to the Kingdom. Married couples need to be pro-active, not just reactive to what is happening. They need to become aware of the richness their way of life embodies and represents. But accustomed to a passive way of being Christian, receiving the sacraments and complying with the usual Church obligations, married people have little sense of mission. And the little that is there is often expressed in terms of helping out in the clergy-centered institutional church rather than in categories of the Christian marital life.

The Need for a Vision of Marriage

What does it mean to be married and be a family person today? No doubt an engaging question in itself. But for the Christian, a further inquiry needs to be undertaken in conjunction with this question: How does one live as a married Christian at the present time? How are they to witness to the Kingdom? Answering these questions, or at least in trying to do so, to my mind, represents an opportunity to better understand the meaning of marriage and family life as Christians for our times or, at least, understanding it relevantly. An opportunity, in other words, to formulate a vision of marriage. I am convinced that having a vision of marriage in life (as a married person, particularly) is of supreme importance, with or without a crisis, but perhaps even more so in critical times. In this limited presentation I hope to clarify how marriage is a witness to the Kingdom of God and how the letter to the Ephesians, chapter five, understands the witness as the unconditional and abiding love of God, sacramentalized in Jesus, and, by extension, in marriage. In other words, divine fidelity in historical everydayness.

The Importance of Having a Vision

Vision is a way of perceiving reality. Without being exclusively so, a vision is more about what reality ought to be than how it presently is. It is an ideal derived from experience rather than just a contrived thought. A vision, in general, is important because it stirs the imagination and provides both inspiration and direction. It encourages exploration to realize what is imagined to be possible. It has been pointed out that "every social movement or political experiment begins with a vision which animates it and draws it forward. It is a vision which compels the response of those who share it. A common social vision is something which people aspire to, are exhilarated by, and are willing to make sacrifices for. It transforms present action and interprets it in terms of future possibilities."6

Fundamentally illustrative of the indispensability of a vision in and for life among Christians in general is the very person of Jesus himself. To begin with, one of the strengths of Jesus was his being a person with a vision, one which inspired and guided him all throughout his life: the Kingdom of God. Expressed as a metaphor, it indicated the way God relates with us for our happiness and well-being. It expresses God’s unconditional offer of life and love in and through ordinary human experiences and which aims at inclusion and communion. Jesus’ vision was one that arose from his own experiences of an unbelievably gracious God who wills life for the whole of humankind. Gripped by this experience, he lived from it, and in accord with it. No wonder he was passionate about this vision which he described as fire with which he would like the whole world to be ablaze (cf. Lk 12:49). His commitment to this vision was made manifest both in life and in death. No matter what challenges arose in his path, he was unswerving in living out his passion, his vision which enabled him to thwart the power of temptations to deviate from it. He lived by it and for it, ministering as a servant because of it. And when circumstances demanded it, he willingly laid down his life for it.

This has also been true for the Church as a whole in Vatican II. Perceived as a response to a crisis of its times by its convenor, John XXIII, 7 the Council’s rethinking of ecclesiology has been referred to as "a vision of a community of faith, hope and love that answers to [people’s] deep and unsatisfied hungers for a truly human, truly meaningful existence" (Outler 1989:105). One can easily surmise that this was the conviction underlying its reinterpretation of what the Church is (mission ad intra) and what the Church is for (mission ad extra) [Fuellenbach 1989:300-01], what it can be in the direction of what it ought to be.

This belief in the importance of having a vision has also been recognized and concretized in many institutions like a university or a business company. Here the making of a vision-mission statement is regarded as "a must." Business relations strategies author, Stephen Covey, in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, points out how vision is important in anything we do. He thinks that a vision is "the moving power behind the successful individuals and organizations in every walk of life." Using contemporary imagery, Covey likens a vision of a person or a group to a flight plan of an airplane which serves a steady guide for the pilots in the midst of factors that may make the plane deviate from the flight path. It is the flight plan that helps the pilots to get back on track and ultimately helps them to reach their destination. What is hopeful about having a vision, he concludes, deviations notwithstanding, is the ability to get back on track, precisely because of the vision.8

Applying this insight into marriage and family life, he states that "with regard to our families, it doesn’t make any difference if we are off target or even if our family is a mess. The hope lies in the vision and in the plan and in the courage to keep coming back time and time again" (Covey 1997:10). Covey further suggests that "vision is greater than ‘baggage’—greater than the negative baggage of the past and even the accumulated baggage of the present. Tapping into the sense of vision gives you the power and the purpose to rise above the baggage and act based on what really matters most" (Covey, 71). Paul’s reminder to the Philippians to "(forget) what lies behind and [to strain] forward to what lies ahead" as he presses "toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13) clearly parallels this same sentiment. For Covey, so powerful is a vision that it enables prisoners of war to survive (Frankl 1959:98) and provides successful children the drive to succeed. For him the practical application of having a vision is to "begin with the end in mind," while recalling the proverb "without a vision, people perish" (Covey, 72).

The Need to Re-vision Marriage

One way, among others, of responding to the crisis being experienced is to look at the more foundational reality played by a vision of marriage and family life in the Church, a vision that can uplift the spirits and provide guidance. In a situation of increasing number of breakdown of marriages and of broken families, not to mention the growing cynicism—if not doubt—regarding marriage, a re-statement of the tradition’s vision for marriage is imperative. A vision is intended to give inspiration and direction so that we can grasp the significance of what we do and why we do it.9 Along the same line of thought is the reminder of the Eighth Plenary Assembly of the FABC that the family live up to the vision of being a sign of the Kingdom as Church: "Family, become what you are!"10

To do this is not to deny the many problems surrounding this divinely human institution. But a problem-centered approach to marriage easily gives the impression that marriage is like a territory filled with hidden land mines just waiting to explode rather than a journey replete with promises of a truly meaning-filled life together. I am reminded, at this juncture, of the course on the theology of marriage I took during my basic theological training where, perhaps in the hope that the course would be practical, married life was regarded as a bundle of problems awaiting solutions. Underscoring the need for a vision of marriage also emphasizes the promise of a happy and meaningful life together which God intended. In this regard couples can have recourse to the Tradition and harness the strength arising from the central vision of Jesus for the Christian life—the Kingdom of God—and its specification in the context of marriage, this Kingdom as a great mystery.

Obstacles from the Past in the Re-visioning of Marriage

Two inherited but related theological views regarding marriage may become a hindrance to think of marriage positively. Undoubtedly influenced heavily by Greek philosophical (cultural) dualism, which generally regarded material things and specifically the body as tendentious toward evil, these had at least two negative effects on our theological understanding of marriage. First, not marrying was regarded as a supreme sacrifice for the sake of dedicating oneself totally to God’s service. Because of worldly concerns, married Christians were seen as distracted from pursuing wholeheartedly superior spiritual matters which led to a supposedly half-hearted giving of themselves to God. Thus, virginity or celibacy (was) more excellent than marriage was regarded as a dogma of faith. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (7:31-34) was often quoted to state how a married person was "divided" between attention to the things of the Lord and the concerns of married life. In short marriage was a distraction to total commitment to God.11

But this was not the only reason for considering marriage inferior. After all, Paul, whom the Church father, Clement of Alexandria believed to be married, 12 is an exemplar of total dedication to "the things of Jesus Christ" as an apostle. It was particularly the dim view that dualism had of the body and its role in sexual intercourse that really led to the depreciation of marriage when compared to virginity or celibacy. Jerome held that "all intercourse is unclean." Another Church father, Origen, convinced that praying and having sexual intercourse were incompatible, had himself castrated to ensure a prayerful life. Somehow, even in the best of circumstances, marital intercourse was at least venially sinful, if Augustine is to be believed. The belief about the inferiority of marriage, however, stopped short of saying that "marriage was an evil" (Schleck 1964).

The second negative effect of dualism was the devaluation of the earthly and historical everyday life. Within the spiritual-material dualistic divide, what were considered spiritual places, times, and activities were privileged when it was a question of being close to God, while involvement in material things drew us away from intimacy with God. Thus, "loving God and despising the world" made much sense within this view. The net effect of this was the belittling of the ordinary and the exaltation of the special. God, after all, could more easily be found and encountered in the special places, times, and activities designated by the Church. This theological view assumed that grace was especially available and to be found in the realm of the spiritual or the supernatural. Following an Augustinian theological assumption that we begin life ungraced, it was sacraments entrusted to the Church that initiated "sanctifying grace" in us (baptism) and restored it when lost (penance or reconciliation) and sacraments that gave us particular graces during our lifetime (confirmation, eucharist, orders, matrimony, and anointing). The everyday and ordinary experience, although not completely bereft of grace, was not the privileged location of such spiritual gift. The ordinary everyday experiences were simply seen as the setting in which grace given in the sacraments were to be made operative. Sacramental theologian Bernard Cooke names this development as "the distancing of God."13 Not that God distanced Self from people and the world, but that Christians gradually, though unwittingly perhaps, perceived God as distant. Affecting our sense of sacramentality, sacrament was relegated to the domain of the special to the detriment of what is ordinary.

Priests and religious were at an advantage because of their virtual immersion in these spiritually charged domains. The grace-bestowing reception of the sacraments in Catholic life is a prime example, particularly because sacraments are special spiritual rituals (activities), administered and received in the holy church (place) at designated sacred moments of a Catholic’s life (time). While the married laity might try to frequent the sacraments, priests and religious reckon this as part of their way of life. The ordinary activities of married persons such as working for their livelihood, relating to one another and with their children, marketing, cooking, taking their meals, looking after each other, or recreating pale in importance when compared to the amount of spiritual engagement that priests and religious enter into.

Recent Theological Developments

Vatican II, a theological breakthrough in Catholic theology, counters the alleged superiority of virginity or celibacy by affirming one universal vocation (Lumen Gentium, chapter V), that of seeking the Kingdom of God above all (Gaudium et Spes, art. 45), formulated in terms of a universal call to holiness. This has been reaffirmed recently by the FABC during their Eighth Plenary Assembly on the theme of family in Daejon, South Korea. It stated that "every Christian is called to seek above all else the Reign of God" and that "married couples have responded to this call by way of marriage and family life. They have embraced the Reign of God by becoming married."14 Instead of remaining in the theological paradigm of seeing marriage as one of the four major vocations which sees priesthood and religious life as higher vocations, it has shifted to a model of regarding the four as forms of responses to the one and same call. In this way it honors marriage as a genuine way of following Jesus on par with other forms of Christian discipleship.

Vatican II also does away with the dichotomy between spiritual and material concerns by saying that faith and ordinary human experiences are not divorced from one another. It makes clear in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that "there [can] be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other." To be sure, a "split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age" (GS 43). Here, to my mind, is Vatican II’s answer to dualism’s compartmentalization of life into spiritual and material. Just as there was a theological presupposition regarding grace in the dualistic framework, the Council speaks out from a belief that grace is at work in the world. It first suggests that the offer of salvation is available outside the Church and that the grace of God is already at work in the world (cf. Lumen Gentium, art. 16).15 Then it states that "grace works in an unseen way" and discernible in people of good will (GS, art. 22).

This presupposition about the ubiquitousness of grace may be one of the reasons why Gaudium et Spes affirms that the living out of the Christian faith is realized mainly in the ordinary, rather than in special places, times, and activities. The love of God "is not something to be reserved for important matters, but must be pursued chiefly in the ordinary circumstances of life" (GS 38). It insists the Christian faith makes us "more than ever obliged to measure up to [earthly] duties." Spoken of by Gaudium et Spes, art. 40 as the interpenetration of "the earthly and the heavenly city," it expresses what the Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, has referred to aptly as "extra mundum nulla salus,"—outside the world there is no salvation. This world is "the very web" from which "their [Christian] existence is woven" (LG 31) and, one might add, the very setting and occasion of their witness to Jesus.16

Mysterion: The Particularization of the Vision of the Kingdom in Marriage

In Ephesians Christian marriage is considered as a most precious relationship in life, whose only parallel is the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-33): "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery (mega mysterion) and I am applying it to Christ and the Church; each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." Just how great or profound a mystery is marriage? And how is it related to the Kingdom of God? How is it a form of Christian witness? Let me begin answering these questions by narrating a couple’s experience.


A Couple’s Experience (Mercado 2001)

When Mila gave birth to their first-born child, a baby girl, the whole world, as it were, lit up for the couple. How wonderful life was. "Ang sarap ng may baby!"("Having a baby is truly amazing!") was her way of putting it. About twenty minutes later, however, embolism occurred and Mila was in a coma, hovering between life and death. She survived and woke up but complications set in, leading to the total paralysis. In the words of Wawel, the husband,

Although her neurologist declared her out of the coma, she was a far cry from her normal self. She was blind as a bat, mute, and had no purposeful movement in any of her limbs. The only part of her body she could move deliberately was her neck. That fateful episode at the DR had made my beautiful bride a quadriplegic who now suffers from ‘spastic paralysis due to severe brain damage and irreversible profound neurological defects.’ Simply put, Mila has lost the most basic functions like speaking, eating, walking, going to the bathroom, and grooming among others.


Rejoicing turned into sorrow and grief into bitterness. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Little by little, but relentlessly, it dawned on the husband that his wife of ten months was going to be completely dependent on others for care, starting with himself. In terms of usefulness in the family, she would just be a deficit. In short, an overwhelming burden, one that would demand far too much physical, emotional, temporal, and financial resources. Instead of being able to look forward to the many years of happy and fulfilling married and family life with their newborn child, he could only foresee so much time, money, and energy spent on caring for his wife. Allow me to let Wawel speak for himself: "My heart was literally torn to pieces at the sight of my wife reduced to a helpless and unresponsive state, just a shell of what she used to be. I was dejected, angry, disillusioned, grieving, desperate, anguished!"

One can imagine the thoughts that would have run through his mind: How can he possibly cope with the demands of caring for his wife both physically and financially, not to mention the time to be dedicated to caring for her and her needs? And what about his own life? He was, after all, still young. Would it not make a lot of sense to just run away from it all and start anew? Why not find a new partner and create the future he wanted? This would entail much blame and shame as well as leave bad memories, but at least it would not become a nightmare that it was starting to look like. People would understand and eventually forget.

After much thought in the midst of very trying moments, he decided that he would be true to his word: to be her husband in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. It happened to be in time of sickness and on the side of the "for worse." He had given his word and he would not renege on it. He also remembered how deep his wife’s love was for him before this affliction happened. That decision enabled him (together with their little daughter) to break through the gloom and misery hovering over their life as a family. It loosened the grip of sadness and self-pity on his psyche. Today, he goes around with his wife on a wheelchair, grateful that she understands and can console those who take care of her with her infectious smile and laughter. But he clearly has no regrets. He exudes deep joy, even when he shares with others the tragedy that had befallen them so early in their married life. People sense the deep love that is being witnessed to when he looks at his wife, and, most likely, when the wife looks at him and their child. The happiness that he thought was gone when misfortune hit them has become a resident in the family.

This couple’s experience and story, to my mind, certainly illustrates and somewhat explains why the Deutero-Pauline letter to the Ephesians, chapter five, refers to the coming together of husband and wife into one flesh as "a great mystery." Great mystery, indeed! For it is puzzling and, perhaps, even beyond reason that a young man should keep his word of commitment to his wife and live out his promise of solidarity and fidelity under very trying circumstances. As Filipinos put it, "Walang iwanan!" ("No one abandons anyone!) But, more importantly for our discussion, a great mystery it is too because it bears and communicates a deeper reality experienced by and revealed to others precisely in this communion of husband and wife with each other. In connection to this, I shall deal with the trait so distinctive of Catholicism; namely, sacramentality. In addition to my sense of awe at what such commitment is able to accomplish, I also regard the story of this couple as a genuine Christian witness to the central message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God by making it visible and palpable in their life as a couple.

Mysterion and Mystery Religions

The term "mystery" is significant in the Ephesians text we are citing. Rendering the term mysterion in English as "mystery" does not do justice to its Greek connotations. For while "mystery" suggests something baffling, puzzling, hidden, incomprehensible, mysterion was a familiar reality to people where it existed.Mysterion, which can be regarded as an inculturated interpretative model for "sacrament," arises from the language of mystery religions existent since the seventh century B.C.E and whose rituals were kept secret17 from the uninitiated. It highlighted, for its loyal followers, salvation (soteria) as participation in the world of the deities. These secret cults were, moreover, individualistic in character, where social interests and common good were secondary.18 Restricted to those individuals who were initiated, the means to such "deification" was involvement in the religious rituals which made "visible" what was "invisible." Hence, what was "secret" became "revealed." As we shall see, this thought structure of invisible become visible, secret becoming revealed would become important in explaining the Christian mysterion. While the visible had its value, it must be remembered that in its philosophical counterparts, as in Platonic thought, only those "who take leave of the sphere of the profane" are able to attain to wisdom and understand "the Real" (Ganoczy 1984:10). The many mysteria or mystery religions proliferating within the empire made such phenomenon a familiar, everyday experience19 and, eventually, a situation which the early Church had to deal with.

Kingdom Reinterpreted in Terms of the Christian Mysterion

Entering into this cultural thought world, the Church began to speak of God’s action, particularly in Jesus Christ as mysteria.20 The "hidden" or "secret" plan of God for the salvation of the world was "revealed," that is, made visible and palpable in the person, life, and ministry of Jesus in history. The gospel of Mark describes God’s intention for humankind as a mysterion : "To you the mystery of the reign of God has been confided" (Mk 4:11). For Paul mysterion is none other than the Christ-event itself. For Christ himself is "God’s mystery…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:2). It is the understanding and clarity that is gained through the mysterion rather than the ultimate incomprehensibility of depth of divine reality that, I think, is being accented here.

In and through Jesus’ actions, God’s Self-initiated actions were made visible and experienced. In other words, Jesus was the mysterion himself, the very visibility and palpability of the God’s invisible presence in the world (cf. Col 1:15). The Greek word mysterion, which was first rendered in Latin by the African Church Father Tertullian as sacramentum, makes the vision of the Kingdom, the way God relates with us, incarnate in Christ. Coming graciously to us without our meriting it "for God so loved the world" and "lavished upon us," the mysterion who is Jesus is regarded as grace (Eph 1:6-8)21 for grace is but a word to indicate God’s manner of relating with us. Jesus thus "sacramentalizes" (makes visible and palpable) the Kingdom and, for this reason, Jesus has been referred to as the "fundamental sacrament" (Osborne 1995:29-30, 42) in contemporary theology.

Catholicism cherishes the sacramental manner of feeling, thinking, and acting within the Christian praxis of the faith. This sacramental principle and attitude, the belief that God is present in and through the realities of our human world, is rather distinctive for the Catholic tradition of Christianity. It identifies and characterizes Catholicism (McBrien 1980:731-34). The sacramentality of the person and life of Jesus the Christ was a given in the beginning of Christianity: Jesus was the transparent embodiment of the immanence and transcendence of God, a confession also found in the Christological formula saying he is human and divine. He is, indeed, the immanence of the transcendent God and the transcendence of immanent humanity.22 To use the terminology of contemporary sacramentology, Jesus is the primordial sacrament (or mysterion), the visibility and palpability, of the Kingdom of God in the world. That the notion of mysterion is intimately related to sacramentality can also be gleaned from its use in Vatican II. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the very first chapter which speaks of the "Mystery of the Church" states that "by her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or a sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all humankind. She is also an instrument for the achievement of such union and unity" (LG 1).

Critical Christian use of Mysterion

No doubt mysterion, when seen in the wider context of the Graeco-Roman world, serves as an inculturation of the meaning of the Kingdom of God. In usingmysterion we see a comparison. Just as the Kingdom is a metaphor of the way God relates with us, so was mysterion the manner by which the gods related with human beings in the mystery religions of the time. The phenomenon, experience, and concept of mysterion is not, however, employed without Christian qualification. Overall, one sees a critical use of the notion, mysterion. This is all the more true when one considers that the reality of God in relation to us, though humanly comprehensible, ultimately transcends human grasp. We need to be aware, then, that anything we say about God remains inadequate. The sense of mystery as baffling or incomprehensible remains valid in this aspect. Our articulations about God as the tradition of apophatic theology attests to. God remains a "mystery" in the sense that we are in the end unable to know fully who God is. So bothmysterion translated as "sacrament" and as "mystery" have something to contribute in understanding the Kingdom.

For one, it has become focused on and, therefore, oriented by the gracious, abiding, and transformative presence of God in Jesus (the Kingdom of God). It is not through human effort that this mysterion becomes a reality for human beings. Salvation is a gift. God alone, according to the witness of the letter to the Ephesians, can initiate people into the mystery of divine salvation (cf. Eph 3:9). Here we are confronted with a fundamental conviction of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: the primacy of God’s action.23 God takes the initiative and we respond. If we shift to the alternative theological vocabulary of grace, we will say that people do not exist and live without grace. From the very beginning, life is graced. "The world," to use the words of Karl Rahner, "is permeated by the grace of God" (Rahner 1976:166-67). We may not be aware of this, but it does not make the reality less real or less present. The Judaeo-Christian Tradition has spoken of this reality mainly in relational terms like love, mercy, compassion, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, fidelity. If grace then is universally available, "a sacrament can no longer be viewed as a ‘spiritual syringe’ that is used to inject grace into a graceless people" (Gaillardetz 2000:99).

Secondly, salvation came in through ordinary human experiences, not through special rituals. In the mystery religions it is by participation in special rituals that salvation is obtained. Greek philosophical distrust of matter, particularly of the body, shied away from history. In other words, salvation was spiritualized. One wonders whether this is a factor in the present attitude and practice of the Church that people living together as husband and wife without having received the sacrament of matrimony in church are considered to be living in sin, i.e., bereft of spiritual grace. In contrast, the Christian mysterion had been enfleshed in the very material and historical person of Jesus who gave committed mutual loving as the only sign of identification as disciple (cf. Jn 13:35) and whose criteria for entrance into the Kingdom was by way of responding to the earthly needs of others (Mt 25:31-46). Following this logic of the incarnation of Jesus in history from birth to death, it is not surprising if the Church regarded the dedicated love of husband and wife on earth as a mysterion of the very love of Christ for people.

Finally, unlike the restriction of salvation to mystically initiated, or the philosophically wise, a decisive break has also been made by with all tendencies to elitism. The Christian mysterion is not just for the select few; it is meant for all. This implies two things. First, that the offer of a humanly happy and fulfilling life is intended for all, not just for some. And second, that the witness which is the marital mysterion is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom both in the Church and in the world.

Kingdom Particularized and Sacramentalized by the Mysterion which Is Marriage

We sense a further application of the term mysterion in the Ephesians text. "For the author of Ephesians, the true meaning of the mystery of the two becoming one flesh that lies hidden in Gen 2:24 is the union of Christ and the Church, which in the household code is the model for the union in one flesh between husbands and wives" (Kobelski 1990:890). Following the structure of God’s action made visible in Jesus is the couple making visible Jesus’ action in and through them. As Jesus "sacramentalizes" (makes visible and palpable) the Kingdom, so does the couple "sacramentalize" the Kingdom in Jesus. As Jesus is the mysterion of the Kingdom, so is the couple the mysterion of the Kingdom personified in Jesus. Using the termmysterion in the context of understanding married life is interesting to note, given the way "sacrament" is popularly understood in the Church today as something to be received.

Marriage as Mysterion: Cue and Clue to God’s Unconditional and Abiding Love in History

In and through the love of husband and wife for each other, in and through the ordinary rhythms of life in the everyday living out of their lives, they make visible, palpable, and known the invisible, hidden, and unknown love of Christ for people in the world. But this is not to be seen as if the married couple is merely a conduit of God’s care and concern for humanity. Like the Church as a mysterion, a point mentioned earlier, marriage is "sign of intimate union of humankind" as well as "an instrument for the achievement of such union and unity" (cf. LG, art. 1). It is precisely because the couple have experienced this themselves that they are able to make this very love experience-able by others. Their relational dedication to each other’s happiness and well-being, their becoming one, witnesses to the God who is concerned with the well-being of all. Bearing such experience of God’s love in their committed love for one another, they have been drawn and impelled by this very love of God which has become incarnate in and through their persons and relationship.

Put simply, marriage as sacrament says that if you want to understand and gain an insight into how Christ truly cares for people, look at a married couple truly loving one another day in and day out, in the everyday processes and routine of married and family life. If you want to know the extent of God’s dependability no matter what, look at a married couple. All aspects of everyday living provide occasions to encounter God in life. And it is precisely this dedicated loving of one another in and through the everyday events of life, in their marital form of discipleship, that God’s love for people is experienced and revealed (Preston 1997:145-46)—a reminder that God fulfills His/Her promise to give us "our daily bread," that which gives life, every single day. They are indications of how passionate and committed this love of Christ is for the whole of humanity. Marriage is sacrament, or rather the couple constitutes the sacrament for they experientially reveal God’s unconditional offer of life and love to all, including the bodily expressions of love and union.

In this mysterion the body which was detested and depreciated in dualistic thought is embraced and appreciated because of the way Jesus loved and loves: through his body then, through his body now. Note how committed love is spoken of in terms of loving the body in our Ephesians text. "For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ, because we are members of his body." And the great mysterion is described as "the two [becoming] one flesh." In terms of attitude towards the body in dualism, this is quite a contrast. As mysterion, the couple witnesses as a whole to the unbelievable gracious goodness of Jesus for the whole of humanity. Theirs is a sacramental witness. The Eighth Plenary Assembly of the FABC describes this sacramentality of marriage that we have been speaking about thus:

For the Church, communion in marriage is sacramental. It makes visible and palpable the invisible and hidden love of Christ for people. At the same time "Christ’s own union with the Church" is the model of conjugal communion. The sacramental bond of communion between husband and wife reflects the profound reality of the bond of love between Christ and the Church….Husband and wife are a sacrament of Christ’s love as well as sacrament of Christ’s love for the Church….If then we want to know concretely what this love of Christ is all about, all we need to do is to look at a loving married couple. This is the "great mystery" of love and life…24


The couple’s intention, like any other baptized Christian, is "that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass" (GS45). One can, of course, have recourse to the vocabulary of imperatives and demand to speak of a commitment. But if we take into account what is being suggested by the Ephesians text, it may be better to speak of a love that is impelled by the love of Christ himself.

Such sacramentality, as with all forms of sacramentality in history, implies both the potential to reveal and express as well as the limitation to conceal and to obscure. The mysterion that is marriage, then, both reveals and hides. For one, this is because marriage may bring out the best in people, but it has also been known to have brought out the beast in them. Even in positive normal situations, the marital life includes "the sense of absence, longing, and the embrace of the limits of the relationship" (Gaillardetz 2002a:69) as well as traces of selfishness instead of selflessness, of destructive behaviors in place of constructive ones. This dedicated love of husband and wife is clear-eyed about the efforts demanded by the relationship to make it work and to make it work towards the relational well-being of the couple and their family. One theology professor of marriage, who wanted to impress on his students the need to actively build a nurturing relationship, was in the habit of beginning his class on the subject by stating that "it is a fundamental axiom of marriage that we always marry the wrong person." Recognizing and accepting the fact that they, because of differing backgrounds, experiences, attitudes and values, are "incompatible," prepares them for growing into marriage and in becoming "one flesh" through purposeful efforts (Gaillardetz 2002a:73-74).

To be sure, a more comprehensive treatment of the topic would be beneficial. This, however, is not the intent of this discussion. Here, we just focus on the positive gain of having a vision that is the mysterion rather than investigating the limitations.25

In this connection we can proceed to speak of married life as a specific and concrete cue and clue to the Kingdom of God. In this sense Ephesians not only particularizes the vision of the Kingdom in and through marriage and for it,26 it also indicates how marriage witnesses to the Kingdom and what it stands for: God’s unconditional and faithful love in and through the ordinary human experiences.

Mysterion as Cue

A cue is a "signal" prompting another to do what is expected to follow.27 It calls our attention to something other than itself. Marriage, from a faith perspective, is a cue because it alerts us that there is something behind such kind of loving for life. Such marital dedication sensitizes us and draws our attention to the God who cares for us. It is an invitation to look deeper into this human reality. This cue functions as a "hint" as to what others, seeing such mutual love of the couple, might do in their own lives. The couple’s witness prompts them to ask about the dynamic force that undergirds such a great human risk.

After all, this self-giving means solidarity and fidelity, being with each other no matter what happens. They solemnly promise that they will be sharers of joy with each other when all is wonderful and happy, that they will be the eyes for one another should one become blind, companion in times of weakness and vulnerability, source of valuing when feelings of being "useless" in society become overpowering, and active support for each other in times of scarce resources and when extra income is needed. They commit to work at the quality of their marriage, believing it can work, even when they are angry with each other and argue forcefully, when they seem to be totally at odds with one another or even when the relationship seems utterly sterile (Achtemeier 1976:41). This is faithful loving made manifest every single day in the rhythm and routine of married life. This is the wonder that is the Kingdom made visible and palpable through ordinary human existence and relationships. Although meant in the context of meditation, what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn said is equally applicable to the "miracle" couples witness to in their daily life together: "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Everyday we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize…" (Hahn1987:12). Married lay theologian R. Gaillardetz, in recognizing the boldness inherent in embracing the marital commitment for the sake of the Kingdom, is prompted to describe it as "a most perilous undertaking, a journey fraught with risk." Marriage for him means "the daring proposition that two people might unconditionally bind themselves together for life into an unknown future without destroying each other and/or their offspring in the process." If this is what marriage is, and I think it is so, then it is indeed "one of the most radical things we do as Christians" (Gaillardetz 2002a:9-10). We are prodded on to ask about forces and realities operative in the couple’s relationship to one another. What strength, inspiration or motivation is behind such daring? Where do they get the strength to plod through the routine of the everyday and see in it opportunities for a happy and meaningful life together?

Witnessing and the Filipino Paramdam

This witnessing through Christlike deeds is also congenial to the Filipino’s primary way of experiencing and communicating. It is the way of pandama, the way of "feeling." In the Filipino hermeneutics of experience, it has been noted that Filipinos have a predisposition towards "what is felt" over "what is cognitively grasped" in their interpretation and communication of reality. The interpretative element known as pagdama can be translated either as sensuous cognition or integrated sensing where feeling is part of thinking, and thinking, part of feeling. Although pagdama combines both the elements of the affective-intuitive (damdamin) and the rational-cognitive (isip), Filipinos demonstrate a propensity towards the former rather than the latter. What is nadama (experientially felt) is real. We spontaneously speak of a "felt love" (damang pagmamahal) which the younger generation would most likely refer to as a love that is "feel na feel" (very much felt). The possibility, state or quality of relationships—or witness, for that matter —are gauged in terms of feelings (pakiramdaman).28

Conveying what one wants to communicate is more often than not done so through a message which can be felt (nararamdaman) and thus taken personally. The witnessing of married couples then implies that the proclamation of the Kingdom will be by way of felt experience. Ang buhay nila ng pagmamahalan at pagmamalasakit sa isa’t isa ay paramdam ng Paghahari ng Diyos. (Their life of love for and commitment to each other makes the Kingdom of God feel-able by others). The married life would be a trace of God in a world where we are confronted with so much evil. On the basis of their own experience of God, they would enable others to experience this reality of the Kingdom too. In this manner the married couple’s love will spill over not only to the rest of the family, but to the wider society as well.

Interestingly, this sensitizing witness of married couples to God’s pervasive presence in the world of the ordinary dovetails with the suggestion that a new kind of mysticism is called for today, one where "a genuine experience of God emerges from the heart of existence" (K. Rahner). Gaillardetz believes that authentic Christian spirituality "invites us to see that it is the very ordinary activities, practices, and engagements that technology often strives to eliminate as burdensome and unnecessary that can become mediations of grace, occasions of divine blessing." It may even be that "the very future of Christianity depends on its ability to bring the ordinary believer to an appreciation of the presence of mystery in daily living" (2000:61, 63).

Mysterion as Clue

In answer to these questions married life becomes the clue to what we have been alerted to. As clue it indicates to us the reality of what we are being alerted about and serves as guide in a deeper inquiry of such a matter.29 Our attention is called to it and we are sensitized to a deeper reality underlying what we perceive. The reality, grasped in faith with the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, is that of the unbelievable unconditional and abiding love of God for humanity. To understand marriage as a mysterion is to understand the Kingdom as God’s unconditional and abiding love of people active in and through their ordinary human experiences. But this grasp, we must remember, is like seeing in a mirror dimly as Paul suggests (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).

In this marital use of the notion, it is assumed that it is God’s action which makes possible the mysterion in and through the committed love of the couple for each other.30 It is the very foundation of the marital relationship of lifelong commitment. The Kingdom, clearly a divine gift or grace, is present as God’s initiative. Because its presence is not dependent on us, it is utterly dependable. And how better to comprehend this love than in the person of Jesus, the Kingdom personified? If we substituted the word "Christ" for the word "love" in 1 Corinthians 13, as E. Achtemeier suggests, we would get the drift of the kind of love God has for us in and through Jesus:

Christ is patient and kind; Christ is not jealous or boastful; he is not arrogant or rude. Christ does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Christ never ends (1 Cor. 13:4-8) [1976:38].


It would be impossible to talk about the way Jesus loved without including fidelity. One can say that the primary characteristic of the love of Jesus is that He has poured out himself for us without reservation, a 100% commitment in our contemporary parlance. He has committed himself totally to us, to be with us in life and death (cf. Jn 15:13). This love is a love which continuously gives, a love that cares about what happens to us, a love that wills only our happiness and well-being, and a love that constantly works to bring about the "abundant life."

With that faithful commitment to be with and to work for the good of the other, married couples are to commit themselves in their marriages. In this sense, Christian marriage can be seen as a pursuit of fidelity in an exclusive relationship with another person. It means an unreserved dedication of one’s whole self to the relationship. When Christians marry, they say to each other, in effect: "We are going to maintain this marital union, no matter what." It is this unreserved dedication to the bond which the Christian vows set forth: to be in solidarity with one another "for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do us part" or, as others would like to put it, "until death unites us forever."

In caring for one another, as Christ had done and is doing for them, they make visible and palpable or sacramentalize that Kingdom. In their promise to be with each other, we discern a trace of Jesus’ own promise to be with us until the end of time. Their love for one another is inspired, defined, and empowered by the love of Jesus Christ. This is what gives the marital life its quality of being mysterion. This reiterates in the context of married life the basic conviction of Christianity that God initiates relationship with us. As John had put it in his letter, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). In the Greek marriage rite, couples are reminded of being witnesses to the Kingdom when crowns are held over their heads as bride and groom and continually criss-crossed throughout the ceremony (Preston 1997:146). In this sense the couple is the sacrament rather than the mandatory ritual which they need to undergo to gain the grace of matrimony. They, to use an alternate concept, are sacramental grace to their family, to the Church and to the world.

Conclusion: The Marital Mysterion as Arising from and Pointing to the Kingdom

To understand marriage as a mysterion is to understand the Kingdom as God’s unconditional and abiding love of people active in and through their ordinary human experiences. It is what gives the marital life its quality of being mysterion. This reiterates in the context of married life the basic conviction of Christianity that God initiates and continues faithfully a life-giving relationship with us in history. This is what gives foundation and sustaining power to love "as Jesus had loved us." As John had put it in his letter, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). In marital love after the Spirit of Jesus Christ the Kingdom is experienced and revealed.

It cannot be gainsaid that among the most important things that the world needs is love, in the sense of life-giving personal relationships. Perhaps, the most difficult thing for people to really believe today is the fact of God’s gracious providential love in the context of excessive and widespread human suffering in general and in situations of failure to love genuinely and faithfully. Surely, a supreme way of making this more credible is the experience of being important to and truly loved by another person. Committed, faithful and nurturing love (intimacy), not simply in the area of sexual fidelity, but also in the broader context of not betraying love by selfishness or exploitation, or pettiness or dishonesty, or disinterestedness or insensitivity, makes more credible the Christian trust in God’s gracious and unfailing concern. Marriage is saying that God’s unconditional and abiding love for us is real and incarnated. That makes our ordinary experiences valuable. This is not to be regarded as news which is too good to be true, but news that is "too good to be false" (H. de la Costa). Such is the witness of couples to the Kingdom of God in our midst. Rather than being a distraction to total dedication to God, their way of life is instead a mysterion, a witness. And what amysterion they are in and for the world!




1. Professional chair lecture delivered in De La Salle University, Manila, April 2006.

2. In the Final Statement of the fourth Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) Plenary Assembly in 1986, it was already acknowledged that "perhaps the greatest challenge to the Church in Asia is that posed by the Asian family. The Asian family is the cellular receptacle of all Asia’s problems, poverty, repression, exploitation and degradation, divisions, and conflicts. The family is directly affected by the religious, political, economic, social, and cultural problems of Asia, by the problems relating to women, work, business, education, etc." See Rosales and Arevalo, 184.

3. See FABC Final Statement on "Family" which enumerates the various types of families that have arisen in our times.

4. Although intended for a broader context, what J. Fuellenbach says is applicable to our more limited concern: "Our time is characterized by an almost desperate search for a new social political and economic order which could hold and reverse our march towards total destruction and alter the direction of history…Never before had we such a chance than today to offer to the whole human family ‘a global vision’ of a new order…"John Fuellenbach, "The Need for a Vision," Unpublished Manuscript, August 1990, 1.

5. "Journeying Together Toward the Third Millennium," Statement of the Fifth Plenary Assembly in Rosales and C.G. Arevalo 1992:281-82.

6. Fuellenbach, "The Need for a Vision," 1.

7. John XXIII, "Humanae Salutis," in Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, 703.

8. In an indirect way, Richard Gaillardetz also assumes the importance of a vision in calling for a revisioning of parenthood. See 2002a:119-28.

9. In the context of working out a vision of pastoral ministry, Richard Gaillardetz points out how, in our desire to be pragmatic, "our practice has tended to run ahead of our reflection. Because it can be dangerous to act without grasping the deep significance of our actions, it may be helpful to explore the theological and spiritual foundations for what we do as pastoral ministers." See 2002:5-6.

10. The Asian Family Toward a Culture of Integral Life (Hong Kong: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, 2004), 41-43.

11 See Gaillardetz 2002a:34-35 for his critique of distorted theologies of celibacy.

12. "Even Paul has no misgivings about addressing his wife in one of his letters (Phil 4:3)…" as "syzygos" meaning "yoke-fellow," "mate," or "companion." See Clement of Alexandia, Miscellanies III, 53.

13. Cooke 1990:42-46. The author provides a detailed explanation of the causes which weakened the sense of sacramentality in the ordinary.

14. The Asian Family Toward a Culture of Integral Life (Hong Kong: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, 2004), 41.

15. "Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience." See Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II, 35.

16. In this rediscovery of the ordinary Vatican II also reconnects with the Judeo component of our Tradition. In the words of Abraham Heschel: "The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. The Bible insists that God is concerned with the everydayness, with the trivialities of life. The great challenge does not lie in organizing solemn demonstrations, but in how we manage the commonplace. The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the market place. He addresses himself to those who trample upon the needy, who increase the price of grain, use dishonest scales, and sell the refuse of corn" (Amos 8:4-6). The predominant feature of the biblical pattern of life is unassuming, unheroic, unconspicuous piety, the sanctification of trifles, attentiveness to details. Cf. Heschel 1984:88-89.

17. "Disciplina arcani" is "Latin term for the discipline or (better) the rule of secrecy, that is, the belief that some elements of religion should not be made available to the uninitiated, a common practice among some pagan religions and from the second century a practice of Christianity, specifically, keeping the not-yet baptized from the Eucharist and even from discussion of the sacraments in their presence; the mass conversions of the fourth and fifth centuries made this practice necessary (Kelly 1992).

18. See "Mystery" in The New World Dictionary-Concordance to the New American Bible (U.S.A.: C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 1970), 468.

19. Mysteria primarily referred to a whole group of secret cults that had developed among the Greeks (Eleusis, Dionysius, Orpheus, Samothrace), and in the Hellenic Orient (Adonis, Attis and Cybele, Isis and Osiris, Mithras), usually on the periphery of the commonly practice religions (Ganoczy, 8).

20. Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian are considered the most prominent in using the mysterion interpretation. Ibid., 15.

21. Mysterion in Ephesians is also a rendering of the Hebrew word sod which denotes the meeting of a confidential in-group in which decisions are made in secret. The term also expresses a fully developed meaning of the early Jewish, inter-testamental concept of charis. Cf. Schillebeeckx 1983:214-15.

22. Edward Schillebeeckx’s personal explanation of Jesus being homoousios to God and to humanity.

23. In describing the "sacramental dispensation," K. Osborne underscores the primacy of God’s action (Osborne, 21).

24. Final Statement of the Eighth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Daejon, South Korea (September 2004), No. 68.

25. In terms of the Chinese characters of crisis, I would rather underscore the "opportunity" than dwell on the "dangers."

26. Just as Jesus embodies the Kingdom in his life, so does the Church embody Jesus; as Jesus was mysterion of the Kingdom, so is the Church themysterion of Jesus. It is worth recalling at this point that Vatican II, with deliberate reference to the understanding of the Church in Christian antiquity, described the Church as, first and foremost, a ‘mystery’ itself. According to Walter Kasper the notion serves as the interpretative key for all the other ecclesiological expressions used by the Council, a point to which the closing document of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, meeting in 1985 at Rome, drew attention (Cf. Preston, ix).

27. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Massachusetts: G & C Merriam Co., 1976).

28. Stereotyped often from a Western cultural perspective as an indirect way of communication, pakiramdaman (sensing what is going on) is, on the contrary, a very "direct" cultural way of bringing a message, feelings, content and context together, in an integral fashion. In a high- context culture like the Philippines, "the culture has a high degree of meaning shared by all participants. Verbal input, therefore, functions as a kind of short-hand: much is suggested and much is assumed. Pahiwatig, for instance, has a verbal component which, while plain to insiders, is always ambiguous to outsiders; what is heard is rarely what it is on the surface. Through pakiramdaman, one reads its subtle meanings in the various combinations of context and nonverbal cues that accompany the speech." See Maggay 1999:21.

29. A clue is "a fact or idea that serves as a guide, or suggests a line of inquiry, in a problem or investigation;" "a train of thought," "the thread of a story." See Allen 1990.

30. "The word refers to that which is incapable of being discovered by human nature but is revealed by God." See Rogers Jr. and Rogers III 1998:445.



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