While marriage—properly speaking—ends in this life, the noblest aspiration of the married couple is achieved in the next.
Having spent many happy and holy years together en route to their silver and gold anniversaries, married couples may ponder the question of what their lives together will be like in Heaven. Or, will they have any relationship at all?
They might, with some trepidation and sadness, read Our Lord’s words in Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” They might interpret these words to mean that their relationship together, so vibrant and beautiful in life, will come to an eternal close at death, even beyond the clear separation at the death of one spouse. Is that how it works? Upon death, do we part?
Saint John Chrysostom—who has the ecclesiastical trifecta of being a saint, Church Father, and Church Doctor—sought to address this question almost seventeen centuries ago. A friend of John’s had lost her husband after only five, but very happy, years of marriage. To console her, John wrote her a letter, which is known to history as “Letter to a Young Widow.”
Chrysostom begins by assuring her that God wills her to see her husband again in Heaven, and that she must remain steadfast in her faith so that she may achieve this destiny. He writes: “But if you wish to behold him face to face…do your best to manifest a life like his, and then assuredly you shall depart one day to join the same company with him, not to dwell with him for five years as you did here, nor for 20, or 100, nor for a thousand or twice that number but for infinite and endless ages.”
Beautiful words, for sure, but doesn’t this contradict Our Lord’s teaching? When I hear others analyzing this Scriptural passage, I am often surprised how much weight they give to the first clause (“they neither marry…”) and how little attention they pay to the second (“…like angels in heaven.”). While the primary purpose of marriage of fruitful multiplication no longer applies in Heaven, our Lord’s answer in no way precludes the friendship of marriage from enduring. And if this is the case, it endures no longer in its fallen and flawed form; it is now like that of the angels. The angels in Heaven have a friendship—a spiritual love and intimacy for each other borne of the presence of God—that we humans on Earth cannot fathom. And it is endless. “Goodbye” is a word never uttered in Heaven.
Saint John goes on to counsel the young widow to store up her treasures in Heaven, and that her husband is a treasure. He writes: “Send away your possessions to that good husband of yours and neither thief, nor schemer, nor any other destructive thing will be able to pounce upon them. … And if you do this, see what blessings you will enjoy, in the first place eternal life and the things promised to those who love God…, and in the second place perpetual connection with your good husband…”
It is natural—and often very healthy—for Christians to wonder what Heaven will be like. Maybe most of us wonder about different things: Will there be dogs in Heaven? Will there be food? How fast will I be able to fly? What we know for sure is this: all man needs for eternal and perfect happiness is the vision of the Divine Essence, or what we sometimes call the Beatific Vision in Heaven. Our happiness is not contingent on men or angels; in other words, we do not need friends for complete, total, and perfect happiness in Heaven. Thus, we might wonder why Saint John Chrysostom is mentioning the widow’s husband at all. If her happiness in Heaven is perfect, what difference does it make if her husband is even there, much less whether they will have a relationship?
Saint Thomas Aquinas provides an answer to this question in the Summa Theologiae in the section on happiness. Thomas says that love of others in Heaven “results from perfect love of God.” While our perfect happiness is not contingent on the presence of others, Thomas writes that “friendship is, as it were, concomitant with perfect Happiness.” Thus, rather than an indifference to the others in Heaven, the friendship among and between all those in Heaven, including those who received the sacrament of Matrimony together, accompanies perfect Happiness.
Saint John concludes his letter: “Wherefore desisting from mourning and lamentation do thou hold on to the same way of life as his, yea even let it be more exact, that having speedily attained an equal standard of virtue with him, you may inhabit the same abode and be united to him again through the everlasting ages, not in this union of marriage but another far better. For this is only a bodily kind of intercourse, but then there will be a union of soul with soul more perfect, and of a far more delightful and far nobler kind.”
As the discussion of marriage is so prominent today, it would be a wonderful exercise to focus on the words of Saint John Chrysostom. Like every sacrament, marriage was instituted by Christ to help us achieve eternal life. And while marriage—properly speaking—ends in this life, the noblest aspiration of the married couple is achieved in the next. It is in Heaven in which couples, joined by God on earth, experience the indissolubility of love.