After being engaged for six months, Sarah and I were asked to speak to about 30 undergraduates in a class on spirituality and sexuality. The professor asked us to speak on our relationship and how we navigate various issues. Then the students were invited to candidly ask us questions. The first question was from a male student who asked, “Why marriage?” It’s a good question in an age of high divorce rates and decreasing marriage rates. Also, many young people cohabit and even share finances. A recent study found that 62 percent of American women aged 25-29 had cohabited by the age of 25.
So, why marriage? Sarah and I have done a great deal of reflecting on what marriage means to us. My initial response to that student was that, regardless of my religious convictions, what made marriage different than just dating and living together was the solemn public commitment one makes to one’s partner in the presence of one’s community. Our marriage is not just about us — it transforms the community of which we are a part. It affects the lives not only of our friends and family, but of everyone we encounter. From that point on, I am not just Andy Otto; I am Andy Otto, husband of Sarah. The world sees us now as a unit, and that changes things.
At our wedding Mass, we opted for a little-used addition to the marriage ritual. After the priest asked us about our free consent to get married, he turned to our friends and family and asked them if they will love and support us and do whatever they can to uphold and encourage our marriage. This small addition emphasized the important role of the community in our married life.
The role of the community has been an integral part of marriage through the ages. A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals that marriage covenants brought communities together and ensured the continuation of blood lines and rights to property. It was important to the life of the community! Marriage also contributed to the divinely intended order of the nations. Things have changed quite a bit since then, but the community and covenant nature of marriage in the Christian tradition still remains. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about prenups or legal marriage contracts. A covenant is a solemn commitment between two parties made in the context of a religious ritual. Even when you attend a wedding that’s not in a church or synagogue, often you’ll notice there are rituals and symbols that “solemnize” — or mark as formal — the marriage; perhaps the lighting of a candle, the exchanging of rings, or even a kiss. But the covenant extends outward, touching the community in which the couple moves and lives. The bride and groom do not just vow their love and fidelity to each other, but implicitly promise to give themselves in a new way to the community, and the community has a stake in the couple’s marriage.
Let’s translate this into more modern language. As a married couple, Sarah and I feel we have a number of obligations to our community. First is being a model to others of love and commitment. Second is hospitality and welcoming people into our home. Another is to our own families: caring for our parents as they age, and eventually continuing our family line through children. Though we may call them “obligations,” these are some of the exciting joys of married life! The community has a stake in us and benefits from our hospitality and our model of love, and our family and future children depend on us!
So, why marriage? It may seem an antiquated concept, but in my first few weeks of married life I’ve discovered that marriage is something deeper than a public commitment and living with your best friend. Marriage carries with it an invisible bond, a thread that runs through us and into our community, that somehow tells Sarah and me that there’s a divine purpose to our meeting and marrying. It may take our lifetimes to discover it, but we know it’s worth seeking together.