Every year April Fool’s day holds special significance for me. It is my official “half birthday” landmark. This year I mark my halfway point to my 41st birthday. I have already survived the dreaded “over-the-hill” birthday and I am debating whether I should keep celebrating half birthdays since the once a year birthdays seem to come too fast already. With each birthday that rolls around, I am reminded of other life landmarks I still have never celebrated. Like never having picked out a wedding dress or worn a wedding ring, never purchasing my own car or owning my own home, and never having to shop for maternity clothes or have a baby shower hosted in my honor. This April Fool’s half-birthday I wonder if it is foolish to still want some of these things. They stand as symbols of a yearning I cannot quite place. It is a desire for something deeper than the individual attainment of any one of those things.
This year, April Fool’s birthday was special for a different reason – it was also Easter Sunday. Jesus’ resurrection day! The best April Fool’s joke God ever played on the Devil. Death and sin defeated and undone! But Easter is also the time we remember the cross – and what took place there – with holy and awe-full reverence. From that first Easter, the picture of the cross has taken on special significance for the Christian faith. But I have to admit that it has always struck me as an odd choice for a faith’s centerpiece symbol. In the natural realm, the cross is used as an instrument of torture and death by callous and cruel men. Yet when God chooses it for His purposes, the cross is transformed into a symbol of hope and life for all mankind.
The Apostle Paul calls the picture of the cross “foolishness” to the Gentiles and a “stumbling block” to the Jews who do not believe in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. The cross is now found in almost every church and millions of Christian homes and organizations around the world symbolizing Jesus’ work accomplished for us. The cross of execution stands as a startling reminder that the everlasting life we are offered is only secured through undergoing death of our old life and receiving a new source of life.
What does this have to do with my 40-and-a-half-birthday? A lot, actually. As much as I have wrestled with the picture of the cross as a symbol in the Christian faith, I have also wrestled with the symbolism of marriage used throughout the Christian faith – especially as one who has never been married myself.
As I see it, marriage is another “foolish” picture that shows up unexpectedly at the center of the Christian story. As a single woman in the church, I confess I have felt out of place more often than not. Or perhaps better expressed as being “without a place of legitimacy”. Not being a card-carrying member of the “married” club, I have felt at times like a second-class citizen pushed to one side. The church bears some responsibility for this overemphasizing of marriage to the point of becoming a blinding beam in its own eye – distorting its view and distracting its focus away from the centrality of Christ and the cross. Among my other single friends, I often railed against the church’s obsession with marriage as being a pre-requisite to full church membership and leadership. Wasn’t Paul unmarried? And what about Jesus? From reading New Testament scriptures, I knew I was on good ground to say that single women were no less qualified (and perhaps better qualified in some cases) to be used by God in the church mission and kingdom ministry.
I still believe this to be the case, but recently I have wrestled with why this picture of marriage shows up so often throughout the Biblical story of God’s love for His people. When you think about it, marriage too is an odd picture. A mutual agreement that seems fraught with risk and peril when considered rationally. Why would I voluntarily devote my life to another person when I don’t know all the ways that person could hurt me, betray my trust, could change over the years, grow distant or controlling and keep me from following my own hopes and dreams?
And then there are the more practical things to consider – why would I want to exchange my pancakes and syrup in the morning for his granola and yogurt because he is on a health kick? Why would I want to spend my evening watching a war movie because I had suggested spending a date night out? Why would I bother shivering through 5 layers of sweaters because he wants to save on the electric bill?
I remember seeing a meme posted on social media which pictured a man down on one knee before a girl holding out an engagement ring with the words under it: “Will you make me miserable until I die?”
Based solely on pragmatic rationale, I would not counsel another single woman in my similar position to get married. From the multitude of conversations I have had with married women it is fairly easy to deduce that marriage is not the ticket to happiness or security or improved self worth or even the satisfaction of deep heart desires. Contrary to Hollywood’s “happily-ever-after”, marriage seems to come up empty on all of these hoped-for guarantees.
And yet… And yet for all its imperfections and frailties, this is the main symbol of covenant love we are given right at the start in the Garden of Eden in Genesis and remains constant right through the last chapter of Revelation.
The foolish picture of marriage between a man and a woman remains a very present picture throughout the story of the Scriptures. In fact, one whole book is dedicated to the picture of a newly married couple’s love relationship! Of all the imagery God could use to picture His relationship with His people, Israel, He chooses the allegory of a husband and a wife.
Of all the imagery that could be used to describe Jesus’ relationship with His church, the mysterious symbol is again that of a groom and expectant bride. It does not seem to be a coincidence that Jesus’ first miracle is performed at a wedding or that the final words given us in the Bible is Jesus’ promise to return for His bride.
Am I missing something? As a single person, am I disqualified from relating to any of this imagery because I am not married? Is this just another reason for me to become cynical and bitter? I was mystified by the foolishness of God’s choice of symbols. Did God really prefer married people to single ones? Or was there something much deeper here…
Could it be that the same God who touched an instrument of execution and made it a holy and beautiful symbol of comfort down through the ages takes the same redeeming hands and touches my understanding of marriage with all of its foibles and brokenness and molds it into it a holy image of enduring covenant love and pursuing, transforming grace?
The more I thought about it, the more I saw the very image of the cross in God’s symbol of marriage. The cross is a physical intersection of opposite directions nailed together as one piece. Marriage is often a psychological intersection of opposite perspectives fused together in unity. The cross is a symbol of costly forgiveness and marriage shows us every day a very real need for costly forgiveness. The cross beckons us to come and lay down our lives that we might truly live. Marriage also extends an invitation to come and die to your own desires and put someone else’s concerns ahead of your own. And finally, very similar to a marriage proposal, the cross is a symbol of Jesus’ forever personal love for me that I must accept or reject.
Understood in these terms, no one who comes to Christ can really be described as a “single” person anymore. For He said, “Never will I leave you, Never will I forsake you.” Suddenly I felt free from the need to rail against marriage as an outsider. I was an insider. I too had received a costly proposal of marriage and was bound to my husband with covenant love. It may be a foolish picture riddled with flaws (as we see it lived out here in front of us every day), but just like the foolish picture of the cross, it offers us a rich picture of suffering and sacrifice, of grace and forgiveness, of patient and enduring love that cannot be dismissed easily. May it not be a stumbling block to me all the days I walk this journey of faith as a “single woman”.
One day there will be no more “single women” or “single men” in the church, for all will be joined to their Bridegroom who has gone ahead to prepare a place for them and is returning someday soon!