Ever have one of those moments where things just kind of ‘click’? Like, when you finally see the answer to a brainteaser you’ve been puzzling over for a half-an-hour and were just about to toss down the disposal. I had a moment like that the Sunday before last while listening to the Gospel reading.
It was the passage where Jesus is debating with the Sadducees, and they pose Him the hypothetical problem of a woman who has had seven equally legitimate husbands, none of whom have produced children, and whose wife will she be at the resurrection?
In answer, Jesus replies that, “The children of this world marry and give in marriage, but those who are found worthy to attain that other world and the resurrection neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in Heaven.” (Luke 20: 27-36).
Hearing that, we’d be tempted to see it as a slur against marriage: that marriage will no longer exist in Heaven, so it can’t be that important. Actually it’s quite the other way around: marriage, as we know it, won’t exist in Heaven, but that’s precisely why it’s so important here on Earth.
To explain this, I have to touch on a larger subject; Christians sometimes have trouble knowing what to think of this world. We know this is the “Valley of Tears” and the domain of the Evil One, but at the same time we’ve been told that our actions here are of paramount importance and that what happens here matters, and we know by natural law that we have to act as if the temporal things of this world were important. On one hand, we know that our eternal fate is infinitely more important than any temporal suffering, but on the other we know that we have a duty to defend ourselves and those we are responsible for. We know that God is the only true power and the only one deserving of our loyalty, yet we know that we have a duty to our country. We know that God will care for us, yet we have a duty to work for our own well-being.
Christians throughout history have treated the temporal as if it mattered, even if it mattered less than the eternal. How are we to reconcile this?
The answer is really very simple. Anyone who has studied drawing, for instance, knows that you begin with a rough sketch or foundation; you block out the shapes of the scene you want to draw, not filling the details and often with the knowledge that it’s really very different from what you have in mind. Then, once you get that right, you take a heavier pencil and begin drawing the real shapes over it; the lumpy oval is overlaid with hair, eyes, brow line, mouth, and so on to form the head; the cylinders are given muscular definition and clothing to form the arms, and the sort-of-square-type-things with circles are connected and drawn over to form the torso. Eventually, you have the complete drawing of a lovely young woman, which completely obscures your foundation lines. But if you hadn’t made those lines, or had done them badly, the picture would have turned out much differently, or not have been done at all.
Our life in this world consists of making foundation lines; the rough geometric shapes that will eventually be covered over by the true image of Himself that God wishes to created in each one of us. But we must get the lines right and the kinds of lines we draw will determine what kind of image is produced. This world is only the first phase; the rough sketch, the basic training. It is here we lay the foundation for who and what we will be in eternity.
That is why marriage, work, art, war, country, and so on are all so important, even though they will all fall away in the end; they are the shapes that will help to make up the image that God wishes to create. They will all come to nothing, not because they’re unimportant, but because they are only the rough outline of something infinitely more important, and the true thing that they are just an echo of will overlay them. Thus a courageous and loyal soldier won’t simply lay aside his arms and be free of war: he will take up new arms, ones that are far more awful than any on Earth, and enter into something that is more awesome and more glorious than any earthly war and stripped of the squalor, blood, and absurdity that make up the wars we know. The married couple will not abandon each other, but their relationship will become something new, more intense, and more glorious than any wedded bliss, and stripped of the selfishness and friction that may mar even the most perfect earthly marriage.
This is also one reason why our conduct in such things matters so much to God: if we can’t even do the basic shapes right, how is He supposed to turn us into the masterpieces He has in mind? With unfathomable generosity, He has allowed us to partake in our own creation, to make the rough sketches that He will turn into works of art, yet we constantly screw up even this small part, sometimes so badly that we ruin the picture entirely. If we can’t be trusted to manage even such small things as businesses and nations and battles and marriages, whose going to trust us with the unimaginable things of which these are nothing but faint, ill-done sketches?
We work for the good things in this present world, not because they are good in themselves, but because they are what we have been given to practice on, like the training dummies that martial artists use. If you can’t even stand up to a dummy with bits of wood sticking out of it, no one’s going to rely on you in an actual fight. Likewise, the things of this world are given us to practice on, and to manage them well is the task of our current life. So we love our country and defend it, not that it may replace God, but that by so doing we may learn to love God better and to defend His honor as Jesus did in the temple. We work, not that we don’t need God to take care of us, but that we may learn to participate in the great labor of creation. We marry and are given in marriage, not that such love may eclipse God, but that in loving our families so completely and unconditionally we may practice something akin to the love we will have for all in Heaven.