I just had a conversation in which I was reminded of this beautiful passage in Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World:
In movies and magazines the ‘icon’ of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind—yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present—and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.
Marriage is typically discussed from a protological perspective, from the vantage point of the creational institution and its blessed vocation of filling and subduing the earth. The couple who marry are like Adam and Eve, standing at the beginning of a history. One of the things that I love about this passage is that it draws our attention to the neglected seam between this age and the next and presents us with an ‘icon’ of marriage from an eschatological perspective.
In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus answers the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection, arguing that there will be neither marriage nor giving of marriage in the resurrection. As N.T. Wright and others have recognized, Jesus’ argument here rests upon the assumption that procreation is essential to the purpose of marriage: once humanity has multiplied and filled the earth and death is no more, the purpose of marriage will be completed. This does, however, raise the question of what becomes of people’s marriages in the age to come.
Schmemann’s ‘icon’ can be helpful here. This is a marriage that has fulfilled its vocation and is ready to enter into its rest. At this point in a marriage, the couple is no longer presented with the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage principally as a prospective task, but increasingly as realized ends to be delighted in. Marriage has united the couple together, richly interweaving their lives over many decades, in their common history, legacy, and life. They will bear no more children of their own, but can now enjoy the fruit of their procreation, as they witness their grown children raising their grandchildren.
A frequent image of the eschaton is that of a great harvest. The present age is one of sowing, while the age to come is one of enjoying the harvested fruit of our current labours in Christ. The elderly married couple experience small foretastes of the reward of this harvest. As marriage enters into this stage, the distinctive character of the vocation of marriage starts to be less pronounced, its purpose largely complete. More prominent now is the dimension of friendship as the married couple—‘heirs together of the grace of life,’ both that given through procreation and the life of the eschaton—begin to enjoy their heritage together. As I’ve argued in the past, friendship has a peculiar eschatological significance. The vocations of marriage and family are passing, belonging to this period of development and maturation: it is friendship that endures.
It is in friendship that that we come into a realization of what it means to be peers, of what fellow-ship is. In friendship, different generations become contemporaries. In friendship, the force of sex—which holds men and women as poles apart, even as it draws them together—fades as companionship comes to the foreground. In friendship, the tribes, tongues, and nations can transcend the differences of their origins and stand alongside each other. The forces and histories of our origins and development are never effaced, but they are taken up into something greater. In the eschatological communion of the Spirit, all will become ‘fellows’ and contemporaries. Marriage will be no more, not because it is destroyed, but because it is fulfilled, its natural bonds elevated into the new bonds of glorious eternal fellowship in the Spirit. The practice of friendship in the Church can thus serve as a prophetic witness.
Held alongside common protologically oriented ‘icons’ of marriage, not only does Schmemann’s icon present us with a richer vision of what marriage is, it also offers us a means by which to recognize the mode of passage between the ages.