December 28, 2014
1. Our Liturgy today brings center-stage two basic issues – marriage and the family: much discussed in contemporary culture; most essential for the well-being of society; most essential for the well-being of the Church.
2. What is a family? Who invented the family? Who has the authority to define the family? Pope Benedict XVI has noted – The family is the privileged setting where every person learns to give and receive love. The family is an intermediate institution between individuals and society, and nothing can completely take its place. The family is an indispensable foundation for society, a life-long treasure for married couples, a great good for children, and a school which enables all involved to grow to the full measure of their humanity.
3. What is marriage? Who invented marriage? Who has the authority to define the nature of marriage? With strangling brevity, I would like to share with you a few thoughts on Catholic sacramental marriage.
4. Every Christian, it strikes me, every follower of Christ receives a calling, a vocation, in and through the mystery of the Church. At the most basic level, followers of Christ pursue such a calling by participation in and by being authentic witnesses to the universal call of holiness of life. Do we not read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – “Praise be to God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens. God chose us in Christ, before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love.”? Did we not learn from our earliest days with the Catechism that the reason God made us was to know him, love him and serve him by following the Lord Jesus and by finding our ultimate and perfect happiness with God and his saints. More specifically, according to God’s eternal designs, some persons within the Church have been chosen for a particular state in life, married life, religious life, priestly life, and in and through these states of life they contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom in love. This divine choice for married couples becomes definitive and is made manifest to the world in the Church’s sacramental event of matrimony. The Lord Jesus said to his chosen twelve – “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” And so the Lord speaks to couples today. It is precisely through this married love that husband and wife bring each other to holiness. “The sacrament of marriage is the specific source and original means of sanctification for Christian married couples and families. A sacramental marriage is indeed a noble, high, and sacred calling.” (John Paul II)
5. Some writers think of the event of Holy Matrimony as a theo-drama, as God’s drama, in which human participants are moved by hidden forces and unseen energies which Catholic theology reflects on under the rubrics of divine grace and divine Providence. As one writer, Ladislas Orsy, reminds us – There are visible participants and invisible participants involved. St. Augustine calls a sacrament “an outward, visible sign of inward invisible reality, of invisible grace.” We can see what is visible and so we can know. We cannot see what is invisible, and so we can believe. The invisible actors which initiate and carry out this drama are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The visible actors – best supporting actor and actress, as Hollywood might suggest – are the man and woman in whom God’s plan is about to unfold. Many questions come to mind: We know what folks are saying these days about marriage, but what are God’s thoughts? What is God, who is “Three in One”, saying to couples at this sacramental moment when God is calling them to become “two in one” until death?
6. What does God have to say about marriage? God has much to say about marriage? God has much to say from the Book of Genesis to the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. But fear not – I will only make a brief reference to Genesis and a brief reference to one statement of St. Paul. The reading from Genesis underscores two truths. First, that men and women are created equal as persons. “Together, in their maleness and femaleness, they convey the full image of God.” A second significant truth stresses that God’s divine plan involves maleness and femaleness so that they can live for each other in the totality of their lives and truly be gifts to each other. St. Paul speaks to us in his Letter to the Colossians as he tells married couples to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God. Obvious to the reader of St. Paul, as he mentions various aspects of married love – kindness, humility, gentleness, patience – the priority goes to the virtue of love. In recent times no one has spoken so compellingly of love as has Pope Benedict XVI. He writes – “God’s love for us is fundamental for our lives and it raises important questions about who God is, and who we are, and what marriage is all about. Whenever we talk about love we are hampered by a problem of language – a vast semantic range makes love the most frequently used and most frequently misused of words.” Amidst this multiplicity of meanings, one meaning in particular stands out – the love of a man and a woman joined in marriage, where body and soul are inseparately joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. To love, then, means to give; to love means to will the good of the beloved; the highest form of human love is friendship and the highest form of human friendship is the married love of husband and wife.
7. In our present cultural context, it is good to remind ourselves that God himself has established marriage as an intimate partnership of life and love. This partnership is rooted in a covenant entered into freely by a man and woman, a covenant of irrevocable personal consent. The God-given benefits and purposes of this covenant have a decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the spouses and on the dignity, peace and prosperity of the family itself and, therefore, on human society as a whole. Accordingly, couples join their minds and hearts and affection as they say “I do” to three significant marital realities – unity, fruitfulness, faithfulness. Their “I do” to unity tells the world that their union seeks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between a man and a woman and that is nourished by their personal willingness to share their entire life project – what they have and who they are. Their “I do” to fruitfulness means that the service of life is entrusted to them. A married couple share in God’s creative love and become God’s co-workers in the world. Their “I do” to faithfulness echo the words of Jesus – “Let no one separate what God has joined”. This means that in a selfish, individualistic, secular, warring, terrorist world, their “I do” to fruitfulness is a sign of hope that calls out to all the world that self-giving love really works, that sexuality and love and marriage and the family really belong together, and that their marriage is the beginning of a new community, a partnership under the Holy Spirit which can tell all who witness their love and fidelity that the deep divisions that currently prevail in our world and sadly will always prevail because of sin, can in principle and by God’s grace be healed.
8. The Lord Jesus gives to all who intend to follow him in marriage this command – “Love one another as I have loved you”. Spouses, married in Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit must take this command to its heights. It is not just a question of living with or for each other; it truly involves a willingness to die for each other. Does not the Master tell us – “There is no greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friend”. The prevailing philosophy down through history tells us that every living being, every human being, strives for its own fulfillment, its own preservation. But this is not what the Gospel teaches us. The Gospel overturns this common teaching and teaches us that the way to happiness, the way to wholeness, is by way of self-abandonment and not by way of self-preservation. The Lord Jesus says to us in John’s Gospel – “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it’ll produce much fruit.” Jesus himself is the first instance of this truth. Spouses must follow his lead. Two roads lie open to you to couples married in Christ. One leads to self-preservation; the other to self-abandonment. Another name for self-abandonment is sacrifice. Does not the Gospel tell us that the wise folks build on solid rock? That rock for married couples is sacrificial love. Sacrifice is always irksome and difficult; only love can make it possible; perfect love can make it a joy.