I began Great Lent with a post on the Fast as an opportunity to challenge the danger of selfishness.
I end it with the same theme.
I also spent Friday leading a retreat for Jr and Sr High students on the subject of the Crucifixion as an act of love. I shared that love will transform us regardless of how we use it. But how we use it is precisely the point. We can either allow it to work through us, assenting our wills and choices and decisions to holiness, and find that the transformation turns us into a sacrificial, irrefutable, and contagious force for good. Or we can put our own unguarded wishes and desires and hopes and dreams and thoughts at the forefront, our selfishness, and risk distorting love into a maelstrom that consumes and controls and captivates those around us with hurt and wounds so deep that it ultimately (at its worst) destroys them and swallows us right into the dark gravitational well with it.
And it all got me to thinking.
The hours concluding Saturday evening and Sunday morning afforded me the opportunity to take part in two Sacraments, which are Confession and Communion. But before we delve too deeply into either (which is, actually, not the subject of this post), we need a common understanding of just what a "sacrament" is, really.
I actually just learned in the past few days that it is somewhat of an inaccuracy to claim that the Orthodox Church has a certain set of Sacraments. In actuality, any event or action is sacramental if God's power works in, on, or through it, and offers to us the presence of transforming Grace. The Sacraments are those things or actions or events in which God is present. (In truth, it is never the thing itself, but the *use* of the thing, the active verb, in which the dynamic presence is made manifest.) Let's ponder one of the ones that always makes the list, recognized by the Church.
Marriage is the crucible in which those of us who are married are afforded the opportunity to find sanctification, or reach damnation. Grace is poured out in the activity of marriage. We learn to set aside our own wills for the sake of loving another, unabashedly, unashamedly, unselfishly. We are refined and melted down and reworked into something new, beautiful, regenerated, restored. Or, if we are acting on our own terms, without concern for God's activity, we love with a distorted love, twisted, deranged, and one which ultimately destroys us and the relationship.
One of the priests who married my wife and me made the point in his sermonette that marriage is a bit like cenobitic monasticism. The partners in marriage support each other in Christian growth, encouraging and supporting, rejoicing and intervening where appropriate, ever increasing in godliness. This is indeed sacramental.
Marriage unites two souls mystically together in a symbolic mimicry of the intimacy of the Trinity, a mystery we can never fully understand because of its impossible complexity, but one which by marriage we can nonetheless partly experience. Marriage is also unique in that it is an ongoing sacrament. The Eucharist is a repeated event. Baptism and Ordination (and, we expect, a funeral) are one-time events. Grace in marriage is in a state of constant outpouring, in both the activities that bring happiness and the ones that bring stress and disillusionment. Both serve sacramental purpose. All in the milieu work to bring the Christian growth, in hope, through love, towards a better understanding of God's love, towards perfection.
In the act of sacrificing the unholy "I want" for the sake of my wife, I find that I am renewed, restored to my purpose, reoriented back on the path to sanctification, to restoration to the original intent of the human being (that is, saintliness). Regardless of the current state of the relationship, grace is outpoured, and the two of us together are brought closer to the presence of God, closer to ideal love.
When I can learn to love even when, because of my distortions, I do not feel like loving, then I am getting closer to acting as God does. Until then, I remain in the training ground, trying and failing, sometimes succeeding, and trying again.
It's good to be married. It's challenging, to be sure. But it's good. The Great Fast is over, but the quest for humility and holiness continues.