Being One Flesh

Wedding hands

What exactly does it mean to be one flesh? Okay, besides the obvious. I mean, when one is married, how exactly is it that your flesh is that of another person, and vice versa? I understand that you belong to each other, that your bodies belong to each other. And certainly, a couple consummates their marriage by sharing a bodily intimacy that beautifully manifests the literal reality of their unity. This love often brings forth a new human being, a symbol of and blessing on a couple’s union of body and life.

Yet, it’s not as if my husband lives in my skin, or that his brain waves can trigger responses in my own body (well, maybe through pheromones, but that’s another story). And it’s not like I can literally feel the headache pulsing in his temples or the chewed up carne asada tacos traveling down his esophagus. The limits of my bodily sensation are my own skin. Beyond that is another person, another body. A territory that as much as I claim in word and spirit, is still somewhat beyond my reach. Or is it?

As a result of my chronic ankle pain, Matt and I have gotten another view into what it might mean to be one flesh. When the pain was most grueling, I could barely move around the house, much less carry any kind of load or walk significant distances. While I lay helpless on the couch, Matt carried the laundry and groceries in, washed dishes, and picked up around the house. We joked that he was an extension of me, another set of arms and legs and back for me to use when my own were not functional. In an unexpected way, though pain, his body became my own.

A dear college professor once shared with us his interpretation of marriage. Marriage, Em said, compels you to draw the lines of your identity outside the bounds of your own skin, so that it encompasses another person. When something good happens to your spouse, it’s happening to you too.  And when one of you suffers, the other takes that suffering upon him or herself, even into his or her own body.

The lessons we learn through being one flesh in marriage don’t end there. Human marriage points to the greater mystery of Christ’s union with his bride, the church. As members of the church, I think it is God’s intention for each one of us not to draw the lines of our selfhood just around ourselves and our spouses, if we have one, but around the entire body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Human marriage is just a beginner’s lesson in preparation for the infinitely more glorious and endless communion we will partake in at the marriage banquet of the Lamb.

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