The Minister, receiving the Woman at her father’s or friend’s hands, shall cause the Man with his right hand to take the Woman by her right hand, and to say after him as followeth.
I, M. take thee, N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth. –Solemnization of Holy Matrimony, Book of Common Prayer
When I first came to OBI, we had two widowers on staff. We had several widows, but two widowers. Both were older men, teachers, who had come to our school with their wives, and never thought they would lose them to cancer while here.
I can say that safely because I don’t know of a man anywhere who seriously believes his wife will die before he does. Yet, it happens often. In this case, it happened over months and years of the slow battle and loss to cancer. I would hear stories about both men: their faithfulness, their grief, their service to the wives in the last months, their devastation.
I know both well. (One is still here, retired and remarried, and a mentor to us all. I did the wedding on the snowiest day I can recall.) I’ve heard them talk about the loss of their wives. It doesn’t register. I don’t want it to register.
My Uncle Bill just buried his wife. They were, as retired couples go, relatively young, just in their sixties. She had never been in outstanding health, but they had a good life, with grandchildren, travel, church and much more. Then one day she went to the hospital very sick, and nine days later she was gone. I did the funeral. It was surreal, particularly as all the men in the room were forced to put themselves in Bill’s place, and it simply isn’t something you can think about very long.
When you read old books, as reformation types tend to do, you read about men who lost their wives a lot. It was a common thing a hundred years ago. Lots of men said good-bye to wives, remarried and started again. Some outstanding Christian meditations on death come from men like Richard Baxter, C.S. Lewis and Martin Marty- all men who lost their wives.
For all their pride in being self-sufficient, and for all our frequent desires to be alone in the woods or elsewhere, those of us called to marriage make miserable single creatures. The thought of the loss of your beloved wife is not just terrifying, it is primal chaos come lapping at your door, mocking your very sanity. (If you want to consider the possibilities, watch Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, and stay around for all of Robin William’s performance.)
When Denise first came home with the anomaly in her mammogram, we both started going nuts. I spent all my time thinking of one of the two widowers, and what a lost soul he was much of the time. How he became more and more of a recluse. How, for all his intelligence and wit and humor, he never felt or acted whole again. It was as if, though he was still the same person, some great inner strength had been mysteriously removed, and now he was a little boy who wanted to run home, but home was gone.
I did not want to become this person. I have no pretenses of “getting on with life,” and watching my uncle Bill “get on with life” bravely is of little consolation. My other widowed friend has enjoyed many blessed years of a new marriage, but his good blessing from the Lord doesn’t enable me to say, “It will be OK.” It isn’t, and it won’t be.
Throughout surgery today, various medical personnel would come in and remind us of the risks of surgery, including death. “One of the possible side effects of surgery is death. Would you like to learn more?” said one computer presentation. No.
I stayed with Denise until time for her to go to surgery. I kissed her and told her I loved her. And considered for a moment that this might be the moment when Jesus said “It is finished” to our time together. I stood at the edge of the black abyss and thought, “Is it now?”
Of course it wasn’t, but let’s remember something, my married friends. You promised, in those wedding vows, that one of you would be faithful to the end, including saying good-bye, and giving your spouse to God. Yes…one of you will get there first, and the other will stand by and watch. Perhaps over months, or as happened to the assistant pastor of a former church a few months ago when he awoke to find his young wife dead in the bed from a mysterious heart ailment, in a horrible, single, unannounced moment.
I bring all this unpleasantness up for two reasons:
First, Our brains are hard-wired for survival. They accept the fact of death, but they fight against accepting the personal experience of death. We fight the notion of our own death, and in a much more complex comprehension, we fight against the notion that our families will die, as if there is some doubt of this fact.
Be honest. Much of what we do in life is magically related to the denial of death. Ministers believe their calling and ministry to the dying will keep their number low in the lottery. People with some notion of being essential to their work or relationships believe that God is smart enough to keep death away. People who pray, take casseroles to the sick and go to church assume that, somehow, the dark angels are farther away from them than from others. Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children…all think, secretly, “not me, or mine, or now.” We are magical thinkers. Superstitous and silly.
This is irrational. Just as irrational as thinking that God picks out who will die based on something they said or did in the past week. Death is an inevitability. We are mortal. Throughout life, we circle the event, we learn more facts, we play chess with the moves of grim reaper, but we always get there. Scripture engages in no fantasies about this. It faces it squarely, and talks of the greater, more ultimate hopes.
If we do not accept this memento mori, what kind of people will we be? The American idolatry of biological life at all costs and eternal earthly beauty is ugly for many reasons, but none is uglier than the notion that we are not going to let our lives be deeply affected by the truth that all of this is temporary, and its temporariness is essential to knowing what it is/what we are.
How will we value our days (Psalm 90:12) if we do not know they will end? How will we know that our families are gifts if we entertain the notion that our days as a family never end? Those of us who live in school years are frequently reminding our students that their days are numbered and that each class, every time at bat, each friendship, is a temporary gift. Make the most of them all to the glory of God.
The second reason is to remind us that Christ transforms this experience. Abraham buried Sarah, but he gave her to Christ. (Genesis 23) Christ raises the dead, not to marriage, but to himself. (Matthew 22:28-30) Jesus said he is gathering a family around himself (Mark 3:31-35), not preserving our families and marriages. That is his task, and he will complete it, to his glory and for our joy. Our earthly relations will give way to the Kingdom of Christ, and our earthly joys to his eternal ones.
The only person I could give my wife to forever is Jesus. And even then, it’s beyond scary. But since he loves her more than I do, and will raise her from the dead, and raise me as well, I think I could possibly do it. John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Yes. Well, I’m working on believing it.
Marriage is a temporary journey. It is a picture of eternal joy in Christ. It derives not only its shape, but its substance from the marriage of the Jesus to his beloved. It is Jesus who tells us, in the midst of our own marriages, John 14:1-3 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. This is the certain promise of Jesus to bring all of us to himself.
This is why marriage is, for the Christian, a giving of the other to Christ rather than a taking of the other for ourselves. It is why, when I was once at the deathbed of a Christian husband, it seemed so worshipful for his wife to simply give him over to the Lord, who takes us through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond. She was not losing him, and she was completing her promise to her husband, and experiencing Christ’s promise to her husband and herself.
I recall that Donald Barnhouse lost his wife, and the mother of his three young children, to cancer in her thirties. He- not someone else- HE preached her funeral on Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. I do not hold any notions that Barnhouse did not grieve, or did not have moments of doubt and discouragement. The human journey is a broken journey, but there is a place where the Christian realizes all things belong to Christ, and Christ is God’s, and all things will be in him, for him and recreated through him. Once we have answered the primal denial of death with the truth of the Gospel for ourselves and those we love, then we can live the days that we have for Christ and in gratitude.
Denise’s surgery is over. All is well for now. We can sleep…until the next time, and there will be a next time for one of us. Until then, we will keep our promise to one another, live in his promises to us both and find the joy offered here and beyond. The greater joy, however, lies in the present giving way to the future, in Christ, and my heart’s desire is that Jesus be our treasure now, that we might simply trust him completely when He says, “Now.”
In most weddings, the father gives the bride to the groom. In Christian marriage, we then prepare our beloved for another moment of “giving away:” to Jesus Christ, the true groom whose claim far surpasses ours on one another. We will one day complete the vows. It will not, however, be a parting, but another wedding.