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A Father’s Musings on the Marriage of His Daughter

By Regis Martin/National Catholic Register

It isn’t every day that a father gets to give away his own daughter. And tell me, why would he want to do that? Why surrender a beloved child to someone who could not possibly have known or loved her as he has?

Because he has hope. He is hoping that a certain man will not betray the promise made before God to love and cherish her forever. That’s why.

“Pretty thin ice,” says the skeptic. “See that it doesn’t crack wide open, plunging you and all your high-sounding words into the icy waters below.” And yet it has happened to me again and again. As recently as the week before Christmas, in fact. And with two more waiting in the wings, that makes five before I die.

It is never easy, let me tell you. Nor am I alone in saying so. Others have told me the same thing — that it’s the most wrenching reminder a father can have of a relationship that will never be the same again. Which is why St. Paul writes as he does to the Church in Ephesus, in words so riveting that they have long since found their way into every covenant of Christian marriage:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

What a mystery this is! Only the transformative wonders of divine grace can account for it. There is no other explanation. Because here is God himself reaching into the hearts of two disparate beings in order to create a union so sublime as to exceed every expectation, every promise of nature and experience. Mere human love lifted onto the plane of divine glory — baptized unto beatitude — who can imagine such a thing? And to think that we really had very little to do with it! An act of transmutative surgery so profound that, all at once, two bodies become one, never to be separated until death.

But not, we must never forget, at the expense of nature herself. A consummation, yes, but there is no cancellation cost. Grace may perfect, but it does not abolish nature. The child I give away to another does not thereby cease being my daughter, any more than I cease being her father. The order of ontology given to us by God, placed in being by God, will be respected. When from the loins of honest human love new life springs forth into being, that is a good thing.

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How does the Church herself put it in the Collect for the Mass on Christmas Day?

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

It is in that singular exchange transacted by Christ while hanging lifeless upon the cross that we locate the whole meaning of Christian marriage. And every other sacrament. What happens, therefore, on the day of my daughter’s marriage is that, in becoming the wife of another, she now belongs to him, the sacrament which they themselves administer having joined them so indissolubly that nothing on earth has the power to undo the knot. Not even the couple themselves can dissolve a union thus ratified by God.

This is why, as the Apostle to the Gentiles makes clear, it is now up to him, her husband, to love her,

even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

A tall order, to be sure. Impossibly demanding, some would say. I mean, does anyone actually expect husbands to live up to so lofty an ideal? To subject all that they have and are to what Chesterton, in his stirring “Defense of Rash Vows,” has called, “this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing”? Who is equal to an act of such complete self-emptying, of a consecration to another so totalizing as to define his entire life and relationship to her and to the children whom God may bring forth? And yet how can the obligation laid upon husbands be less exacting than the one Christ himself took on in going up to Calvary to suffer and die? As the poet Robert Haydon writes in words applicable to every husband and father:

What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices …?

Marriage will be the school in which husbands find out, where each must learn how to love the woman he married. To prolong that first Beatrician moment in which, as Dante tells it, “something like the glory of God was seen walking down the street towards him.” The memory of she who first shone like the sun must now be carried, gladly, right to the very end. We are, each of us, to love one another, or die. “To bear the beams of love,” is how the poet Blake put it.

Now, then, unless St. Paul is lying, which the Church cannot very well countenance without betraying herself and God, he means every word of it. Along with the entire tradition of the Christian West on whose teaching it depends. We are thus obliged, each of us every day, to try and imitate Christ in every way, not shirking for a second the job of carrying the cross for those we have promised to love. “Live in love,” Paul urges us, “as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us.” And as regards husbands and wives most particularly, Paul admonishes them:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Without that necessary note, that catalyzing act of free and mutual subordination to Christ, the temptation of the husband to lord it over his wife would surely become an obstacle well-nigh impossible to overcome. No marriage could survive so relentless an attack of the self-centered self. It would very quickly sink beneath the tyranny of the one and the bitterness and sorrow of the other.

If that’s where we start, the baseline on which we ground our understanding of marriage, we will surely need all the grace we can get. But then, why else does Christ break himself to become our bread, our food for the journey, if not to enrich and fortify us along the way? Let Christ’s own formula for consecration, then, be the place where all good things begin:


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