Understanding and Wonder image

Understanding and Wonder

Naomi Wolf ends her classic denunciation of porn with an encounter with, “A boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes” at Northwestern University.

“Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”

“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”

“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

Last Saturday I officiated a wedding and chose as the text Proverbs 30:18-19

Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a virgin.

The wife of one of our elders, who had been asked to read by the couple getting married, was not especially happy with me: Are you really going to make me read that? Do I have to say ‘virgin’ at a wedding?!

Granted, this wasn’t the normal choice of wedding text, but I wanted to say something about mystery, because there is a mystery to marriage – and to sex.

Some things are mysterious, even if we can understand them in terms of science or history. I think the enigmatic Agur of Proverbs 30 wants us to see this, and to help us see that part of being wise is the ability to recognise mystery for what it is. Mysterious things are things so wonderful they make you hold your breath, and point you to God. The birth of a baby definitely comes into this category. I will never forget the sense of mystery when my children were born: I understood well enough the process by which this child had been conceived, grown in the womb, and was now held in my arms – the biology of reproduction is clear enough. Yet it felt beyond understanding that somehow my wife and I had been able to do this.

Agur chooses four other examples of wonders we might be able to ‘understand’ but which are too wonderful to understand.

An eagle in the sky is beyond understanding in its size, power, and gravity defying flight over the earth. A serpent on a rock is a mystery in the way it exhibits such power and poise, but can disappear without leaving a trace. A ship on the high seas defies hidden depths, and can circle the globe, and that is wonderful. And then there is the way of a man with a virgin: Agur here is describing the act of marriage – and he intends for us to see the mystery of it.

We live in an age which thinks it understands things, but in our lack of appreciation of mystery we display our folly. We think that romance is just about hormones, and that marriage is just a romantic choice – but that provides marriage with only a very shallow foundation. It reduces marriage to a thing merely personal, and temporary. It loses the mystery, and dispenses with wonder.

A more common wedding text than Proverbs 30 is Paul’s instruction about marriage in Ephesians 5: A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound…

What is it about marriage that is a mystery? The answer is given in how Paul continues the sentence: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. It is a mystery that Christ – God himself – should be united with people like us! And this is the model for marriage: that two people as different and distinct as a man and a woman are from one another can be united as one flesh.

The student at Northwestern was wrong, and Agur is right. There is something too wonderful to understand about sex, and about marriage (and without sex there is no marriage). It is, and is meant to be, something of a mystery. And for the wise, this helps explain why, as we state in the marriage service, “Marriage is the only honourable and moral basis for sexual love.”

Proverbs 30:18-19 might look somewhat mysterious, but it is a great text for a wedding!


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