From beginning to end, the Bible is one great love story. The very first human words in Scripture are Adam’s outburst of joy at seeing Eve, his bride, for the first time: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gn 2:23). The last words quoted in Scripture express the church’s longing for the coming of Christ, her heavenly bridegroom: “The Spirit and the bride say, Come!” (Rv 22:17). In the middle of the Bible is the Song of Songs, a mystical poem about the romance between God and his people. From the Garden of Eden to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb, the story of salvation is a story of spousal love.
It is no wonder God takes marriage very seriously. The book of Genesis reveals that God established marriage from the beginning as an essential part of his plan for human beings. On the day he created man and woman, God gave them the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply” (Gn 1:28); that is, come together in a physical union that reflects a personal union on every level of their being — a union so potent that it will be the way new human life is generated.
Genesis 2 teaches the same truth in a different way. God first creates the man, then remarks, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” This affirms what we already know instinctively: Human beings are made for relationship. We cannot flourish without love.
God then forms a woman from Adam’s rib and brings her to him like the father of the bride. When Adam sees Eve, it is a moment of self-discovery. He recognizes that she is his equal, a personlike himself, to whom he can give himself as a gift. Yet she is not a mere replica; she and he have physical differences that are evidently designed for union. Anatomically, hormonally, emotionally and psychologically, they are perfectly complementary. The woman, unlike the animals, can receive and freely reciprocate Adam’s gift of himself, and they can form a covenant of love that is faithful, fruitful and lifelong.
Their covenant of self-giving love is expressed and enacted in their sexual union, when the two become “one body” (Gn 2:24).
So why is Eve called Adam’s “helper” — because she is supposed to cook and clean for him? In fact, the Bible uses the word “helper” most often for God himself (see, for example, Psalms 54:6). The woman is the man’s helper because she helps him fulfill the deepest purpose of his life: to give himself in love. They both helpeach other realize that the very meaning of their existence is to be a gift.
What went wrong?
But as we look at our own lives and the lives of those around us, we may well wonder: What went wrong? Why is the reality so different from this idealistic biblical vision? We all know marriages that don’t look like this ideal, but more like an ordeal. We all know marriages where “the two become one” — and then spend their time fighting over which one! Why is there so much brokenness in marriages and families?
Genesis 3 reveals that the answer lies in the sin of our first parents. Instead of trusting and obeying the God who created them, they gave in to the seduction of the serpent and foolishly chose to be their own gods. Immediately, they began to experience the tragic fallout from their sin, which continues among their descendants to this day.
The first consequence was a loss of sexual innocence: “They knew that they were naked.” They intuitively recognized that it was possible to look at a human body in isolation from the person — to see someone as a sexual object to be exploited, rather than a person to be loved. Sexuality could then be distorted as a means of self-gratification rather than self-gift: lovetwisted into lust. Sexual union, instead of being the bodily expression of a covenant of faithful spousal love, was then liable to be misused as simply a recreational activity. Sin also brought conflict into the relationship between husband and wife: Instead of mutual self-giving love, there would be tendencies toward distrust and disunity, exploitation and dominance (Gn 3:12, 16).
But God did not leave them in this terrible plight. Immediately he gave them a promise of salvation: One day, the “seed of the woman” would crush the head of the enemy (Gn 3:15). This promise was fulfilled in Jesus, the son of the new Eve, who broke the curse of sin by his cross and resurrection. Death has been destroyed, Satan conquered and human beings reconciled to God. We are no longer slaves to the hardness of heart, lust, anger, jealousy and other destructive effects of sin that lead to breakdown in marriage. In Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, there is a new power available to live and experience what God intended from the beginning.
The great mystery
Through the biblical prophets, God unveiled the deeper significance of marriage. Marriage is not just a social convention; it is a holy, God-given vocation, meant to be the earthly image of the love between God and his people. “For your husband is your Maker, the Lordof hosts is his name” (Is 54:5).God’s love is that of a faithful bridegroom passionately in love with his bride.
For this reason, God warns that the breakdown of the family has grave consequences. Those who experience divorce, especially children, often have great difficulty in believing in the faithful, unconditional love of God. Divorce also impairs a couple’s ability to raise the next generation as God’s holy people: “What does the One require? Godly offspring! You should be on guard, then, for your life, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Mal 2:15-16).
In the New Testament, Jesus showed his esteem for marriage by being present at the wedding at Cana and performing there his first miracle, turning water into wine (Jn 2:1-11). St. Paul explains the full significance that Christ has given to marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” (Eph 5:25–26). The ultimate model for spousal love is Jesus’ own death on the cross. In giving up his life for us, he espoused the church in an irrevocable bond. His gift is radical and total; it is all that God could give of himself to his people. This is why Paul calls marriage “the great mystery” — the visible sign of the invisible mystery of God’s love (Eph 5:32).
These passages are the foundation for the church’s teaching that marriage is a sacrament, a source of grace for the couple, as well as their children and friends. Some couples print this verse on their wedding program: “Jesus also was invited to the marriage” (Jn 2:2). What happens when Jesus is invited right into the center of a marriage? It will have strength from heaven to withstand the ups and downs, temptations and trials that are part of life in this world.