09 December 2019

No, Elijah was not reincarnated in John the Baptist

In my homily yesterday, I quoted these words of Jesus in regard to Saint John the Baptist:

All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15).

From these words, a few people received the impression that I implied that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah. This is, of course, not what I meant and is certainly not Jesus said.

This misinterpretation is not new to our day, and is one that Saint Jerome confronted in his Commentary on Matthew. He said:

So John the Baptist is called Elijah, not in accordance with foolish philosophers and certain heretics who introduce the topic of metempsychosis (transmigration of souls) but because, according to other evidence of the gospel, he came in the spirit and goodness of Elijah and had either the same grace or power of the Holy Spirit. The austerity of their life and firm resolve were equally strong in Elijah and in John. Both lived in the desert. The former girded himself with a belt of skins, and the latter had a similar belt. The former was forced to flee because he accused Ahab and Jezebel of the sin of impiety in their lives. John was beheaded because he accused Herod and Herodias of unlawful marriage. There are those who think therefore that John is called Elijah because, just as Elijah would lead the way in the second coming of our Savior (according to Malachi) and would announce that the judge is coming, so John acted at the first coming and because each was a messenger of the first or second coming of our Lord (2.11.15).

This is why the Lord said to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that his son would go before the Lord “in the power and spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteousness, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

08 December 2019

Homily - Camel's hair is a sign of, and a call to, repentance

The Second Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a rare moment in the Scriptures when we are told what someone wears, but two of the four Evangelists - Matthew and Mark – take the time to tell us Saint John the Baptist “wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4; cf. Mark 1:6). If both Evangelists make explicit reference to John’s clothing, there must be something significant about it; but what? What is noteworthy about a tunic made of camel’s hair?

Saint John Chrysostom tells us, “John’s clothing itself was symbolic of nothing less than the coming kingdom and of repentance.”[1] We know this is true become there is another man who wore similar clothing in the Scriptures, one who lived many centuries before John’s birth. To this man the angel of the Lord said:

Go, intercept the messengers of Samaria’s king, and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron?’ For this, the Lord says: ‘You shall not leave the bed upon which you lie; instead, you shall die’” (II Kings 1:3-4).

This man warned of impending death for the grave sin of idolatry, of turning to false gods for help.

Hearing these words, the king’s messengers returned to him. King Ahaziah asked them, “What was the man like who came up to you and said these things to you” (II Kings 1:7). “‘Wearing a hairy garment,’ they replied, ‘with a leather girdle about his loins’” (II Kings 1:8). Hearing this description, the king knew at once the name of this man and cried out, “It is Elijah the Tishbite” (II Kings 1:8)!

By donning a garment made of camel’s hair and securing it with a belt of leather, John the Baptist demonstrated in a clear way his prophetic calling. We learn through the prophet Zechariah that this form of dress was customary for the prophets: “On that day, every prophet shall be ashamed to prophesy his vision, neither shall he assume the hairy mantle” (Zechariah 13:4). But more than this, John showed through the use of his clothing, that he was Elijah.

That Elijah would return was foretold by the Lord God through the Prophet Malachi:
Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom (Malachi 3:24).

The mission of John the Baptist was the same as that of Elijah, to turn back hearts. This is why he cried out in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)! Because John the Baptist’s life so clearly reflected that of Elijah, Jesus said of John, “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15). What are we to hear? His call to repentance, for John came “to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

Regrettably, too many people have accepted the lie that sin is unimportant; too many people say something like, “I’m a good person; that’s all God wants.” This is simply not true; God desires – and even commands – that we be holy, that our lives look like that of Christ Jesus.

To sin is – in Greek – “to miss the mark,” hamartia. It is an archery term used by Saint Paul to describe our offense against the law of God, our failures to love by God and neighbor. Put simply, to sin is to miss the mark. What is the mark for which we are aiming if not the life of Jesus? We our lives fail to reflect his, we miss the mark; we sin.

As I said, lots of people today refuse to acknowledge their sins. They think because they have not committed physical murder or adultery, or because they have not robbed a bank, that they have not sinned. This is only because they fail to realize the reality of sin; every sin is a failure to love, and each of us fails to love several times each day. Saint Augustine put it this way:

So long as a person bears flesh, he cannot but have some at least slight sins. But don’t belittle what we are referring to as these slight sins. If you belittle them when you weigh them, shudder them when you count them out. For many slight ones make a great one: many drops fill a river; many grains make a mass. And what hope is there? Confession above all.[2]

Confessions are heard here before Mass, but few people come; next week, another opportunity will be had. Will you hear the cry of the Baptist to repent and take advantage of this opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord?

When it comes to confession, people generally have a few basic questions, the first of which goes something like this: “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?” The short answer is because Jesus wants us to confess our sins to a priest. When he breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Jesus said to them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). If Jesus did not want the Apostles to forgive sins, he would not have given them power and the authority to do so; he did nothing needlessly. If the Apostles are to know which sins to forgive and which sins to retain, they must know what the sins are and this requires confession.

The second question wants to know something like, “Won’t Father treat me differently? What if he remembers my sins?” The likelihood that a priest remembers who goes to confession is small; we enter the confession to lift the burden of sin, not to keep a tally of who comes. However, even if a priest does remember who comes to confession, he cannot treat that person any better or any worse because of what he learns in the confessional. It’s rare that a priest might remember who confessed what sin. You enter the confessional to get of your sins; why would the priest want to keep them?

A third question is, “It’s been a long time; how do I go to confession.” The process is very simple. Enter the confessional and tell the priest how long its been since your last confession. “It’s been while,” means different things to different people; has it been two months, or thirty-seven years? Next, confess your sins are best as you able; there is no need to euphemisms; let the priest know you are finished by saying something like, “These are my sins,” so he doesn’t accidentally interrupt your thoughts. The priest may then give a few words of counsel and will give you a penance. If you think the penance is too severe or too light, let the priest know. Next, make an act of contrition by acknowledging your sorrow for sin; it can be as simple as, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The priest will give you absolution and send you on your way with your burden lifted.

When Saint John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, he intends for us to prepare and cleanse our hearts, for by cleansing our hearts we also cleanse our lives. This is – frankly – the only preparation for Christmas that matters. As beautiful as the lights and trees are, as tasty as the cookies are, if our hearts and souls are not prepared, all of the preparations of our homes will be vain and will not produce the full joy that is desired.

In what remains of Advent, “what we really must do is clear the way for the Lord who is good and powerful. We are disposing our hearts for an encounter of love with him, and in this way we are encouraged to undertake the needed purification.”[3] Ask the Lord, then, to help you recognize your failures to love, your failures to love both God and neighbor, in ways both large and small. Enter into the confessional with these failures to love and ask for the grace to make a good and worthy confession. By doing so, you will encounter Love himself, who will fill you the joy and peace he longs for you to have because his kingdom is indeed at hand. Amen.

[1] Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 10.4.
[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 3.14.
[3] Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Daily Bread of the Word: Reflections on the Weekday Lectionary Readings (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019), 2.

Homily - Are these acts proper to a preparation for the coming of Christ the King?

The First Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We prayed a few moments ago that, through this sacred season of Advent, that the almighty God will grant us “the resolve to run forth to meet [his] Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.”[1] If I may say so, our country is in desperate need of these righteous deeds!

How have we, as a nation, begun our preparations for the coming celebration of the Birth of the Christ? The answer – to anyone who pays any attention – must be a deafening, “Poorly!” Sadly, the sense of an encroaching darkness is not only to be found in the natural world, but also in the hearts of men and women. We sing in our carols that this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but how did many seek to enter into the joy of the season? With self-absorption, violence, and greed. As evidence of this, take just a few examples of what transpired this past Friday, the very day after we as a nation professed to render thanks to the Almighty: a man was shot in a mall food court in Syracuse, New York because of an argument;[2] in White Hall, Pennsylvania, a fight broke out in the Lehigh Valley Mall; and in Hendersonville, Tennessee, employees at a Walmart had to disperse a group shouting profanities.[3] Are these the righteous deeds required of us to “be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom?”[4] Are these acts proper to a preparation for the coming of Christ the King?

I know some may object and say, “Father, those things didn’t happen around here; calm down.” Perhaps not, but not too far from here, in Jacksonville, Illinois, a man sought to hire himself out to stand in line for Black Friday shoppers; he listed one his qualifications as having “plenty of felonies so no need to worry bout [sic] me backin [sic] out of a fight.”[5] I remind you again of the words of Saint Augustine I shared with you two weeks ago:

Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.[6]

Because we are part of this nation and all bear some share in the madness that has become Black Friday – and an improper celebration of Christmas - we must all honestly examine our lives and ask ourselves an important question: Am I resolved to go forth to meet the Savior with righteous deeds? The consideration of such a question is, after all, the very purpose of Advent. “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11).

In the midst of the darkness of these days, I find myself repeating a line J.R.R. Tolkien gave to Aragorn at Helm’s Deep: “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”[7] The ancient Christians prayed looking toward the east; even in their homes, they would look out an eastward facing window when making the sign of the Cross and saying their prayers. They did so in the confidence of the return of “the one Morning Star who never sets,” Christ Jesus, “who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.”[8] They looked to the east because they knew that dawn is ever the hope of men. They looked not simply to the dawning of a new day, but for the dawning of the coming of the Lord Jesus with his angels and his saints; they lived in eager expectation of his coming and sought not to be caught unawares lest he come as a thief in the night. Can the same be said of us? Do we live in eager expectation of the coming of Christ, or in eager expectation of the next sale or party?

This season of Advent has as its chief aim two purposes: first, a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, and, second, a preparation to celebrate his Birth at Bethlehem. The temptation today is, as I have said before, to anticipate too early Christmas Day at the expense of our spiritual growth. In many families, the Christmas tree and the Nativity set are already raised and will be taken down shortly after Christmas dinner, in stark contrast to the liturgical year, which celebrates Christmas beginning not until Christmas Day and continuing through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this coming year the twelfth of January.

It seems we have forgotten this rich season that calls us to wait, to be still, to ponder, and to hope for the dawn. The Church “raises its gaze to the final goal of pilgrimage in history, which is the glorious return of the Lord Jesus” and, recalling Jesus’ “birth in Bethlehem with emotion, it bends down before the crib. The hope of Christians is directed to the future, but always remains well rooted in a past event.”[9] To put it another way, “Christians live in the transitional period between the black of night and the bright light of morning… But since the gloom of the present age has yet to dissipate, it remains a time of temptation and risk for God’s people.”[10]

Too often we lose sight of both of these directions – the future and the past - in the hustle and bustle of worldly life and become too caught up in the present. Advent calls us to step beyond this busy-ness, to contemplate anew the great love of the Lord Jesus who “shall judge between the nations and impose terms on many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

Our communal neglect of Advent in favor of the maddening drive to get more and more stuff we do not need “seems especially disturbing – for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.”[11] We find ourselves surrounded by

More Christmas trees. More Christmas lights. More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee – until the glut of candles and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.[12]

Is this not something of what the Lord Jesus warns against when he tells us that we also “must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44)?

It is too easy for us to give in to the temptations that surround us, to focus on the commercialism and materialism of the culture in which we find ourselves, to ignore this season of grace in which we should be stirring ourselves from our faithlessness and from our sluggish spiritual sleep (cf. Romans 13:11). I challenge, urge, and beg you to instead focus on Jesus, on keeping his commands by loving God and neighbor in every circumstance, and to prepare to meet him when at last he comes to judge the living and the dead. So long as there is yet another dawn, there is time for us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Let us keep these days of Advent well, not in the anticipation of the gifts we will exchange on Christmas Day, but in gratitude for the gift of the Lord’s mercy given us in his Birth at Bethlehem and in expectation of his return in glory.

Some time ago, Pope Francis gave us a bit of wise fatherly advice. He encouraged us to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, with the Eucharistic Lord present in his tabernacle, and to make a simple prayer: “You are God; I am a poor child loved by You.”[13] If we make this prayer our own, the Lord will help us remember the many ways we have failed to love both God and neighbor. With these sins in our minds and hearts, we can enter the confessional and entrust ourselves again to God’s merciful love. We will leave the confessional with a lightened and joyful heart and “the dawn from high shall break upon us” (Luke 1:78). Then, walking in his paths, this will truly be the most wonderful time of the year (Isaiah 2:3). Amen.

[1] Roman Missal, Collect for the First Sunday of Advent.
[2] Ryan Miller and Sarah Taddeo, “Destiny USA shooting: Police search for suspect after man shot at mall on Black Friday,” Democrat & Chronicle, 29 November 2019.
[3] Cf. Leslie Katz, “Black Friday 2019 fights prove shopping for deals is as perilous as ever,” CNET, 29 November 2019.
[4] Roman Missal, Collect for the First Sunday of Advent.
[5] Jimmy Bates, in the Facebook group “Jacksonville, IL Swap Shop, 27 November 2019.
[6] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings, 3.7 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 524.
[8] “Exultet,” Roman Missal.
[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 27 November 2005.
[10] Scott W. Hahn, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 238
[11] Joseph Bottum, “The End of Advent,” First Things (December 2007), 20.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Pope: Corruption is blasphemy which leads to worship of money,” Vatican Radio, 24 November 2016. Accessed 27 November 2016. Available at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/11/24/pope_corruption_is_blasphemy_which_leads_to_money_worship/1274477

17 November 2019

Homily - 17 November 2019 - On a culture of instant gratification and Christmas

The Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Have you noticed something odd or out of place these past many days? I certainly have, and I am sure you have, too. Already before the Solemnity of All Saints, garlands and ornaments were hung in stores; holiday lights began illuminating the autumn darkness; and Christmas trees were seen through living room windows.

As I say, all of these are out of place for this time of the year. Many people will disagree with me, but this is because too many Christians have, first, forgotten the liturgical year and, second, forgotten that Christians are supposed to be distinct from the world. If we were supposed to live according to the standards of the world, Jesus’ warning that “You will be hated by all because of my name” would be meaningless, and we know that nothing Jesus said or did was meaningless (Luke 21:17).

With the liturgical year and its calendar, time itself takes a new and profound meaning. No longer is the passing of time the slow march towards death, but it becomes the way in which “the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation to Pentecost Day and the days of waiting for the Advent of the Lord.”[1] For those who follow the liturgical year, it is a source of many blessings, for

Just as the Lord has punctuated the sky with stars, and the fields with flowers, and the years with seasons, so has he punctuated the seasons themselves with feast days, that by this distinction made from the daily services, the holy solemnities may lead slothful characters, at least after a time, willingly back to prayer, and idle minds may by these annual feasts make themselves ready for the Lord.[2]

“In fact, throughout the course of the year the Church unfolds the entire mystery of Christ and observes the birthdays of the Saints.”[3]

Liturgical Christmas Time, the authentic Christmas season, “runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6;” this year, in the United States of America, it will last until January 12th.[4] The authentic Christmas season has nothing to do with the commercialization of a great and holy feast that has everything to do with the immense and almost unimaginable love God has for sinful humanity.

For whatever reason, more and more Americans are anticipating holidays and holy days earlier and earlier. As but one example, in some places, Trick-or-Treating was held more a week before Halloween. As I said a moment ago, Christmas decorations are already erupting seemingly everywhere, and we have not even arrived at Thanksgiving. All of this saddens me. The culture of instant gratification has forgotten how to wait in patience and so has lost much of the joy these special days once brought.

About this time every year, several people share an article on various social media with a headline to the effect of, “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you.”[5] The bold claim of the headline is based on the words of Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown, who said, “Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extends the excitement.”[6] My experience, at least, contradicts his words; lots of people decorate earlier and earlier each year, yet they do not seem any happier going about town; quite the opposite seems to be true. Even if his claim is true, we have to ask ourselves what Christmas is about; is it about some fuzzy feeling linked to receiving gifts, or is it instead about the manifestation of God’s love for us on the day when the sun of justice arose with its healing rays (cf. Malachi 3:20)?

At the risk of sounding like an old man – I am only 41, which, for some, myself included, seems old – the secular observance of Christmas is not today what it was twenty years ago. When I was in high school and college, I had the great pleasure of getting paid to play for seven years: I was first hired by Kay-Bee Toys as a Parental Video Game Advisor, a seasonal position that led to my being hired as a regular sales associate. Then, it was rare to see Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving or to hear Christmas music (which then actually sang about the Birth of the Savior instead of mere sleighs and snow); indeed, if you put up decorations before Thanksgiving, people thought you were being ridiculous; not is almost expected. Shopping about for gifts was a mostly enjoyable experience, with greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” being heard many times each day. Helping shoppers find a gift for someone was usually fun. Back then, "Black Friday" was called "Green Friday," before customers started shoving each other, because half of our annual sales were made on that one day.

In more recent years, however, things are vastly different. Last year, for example, I kept track of the number of times a cashier wished me either Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas; the total, sadly, came to zero. What have we allowed to happen?

Some will say, “Father, society has changed today; that’s simply the way it is and we cannot change it.” To those who might say this, I remind you that we are part of society and that some seventy percent of the American people still claim to be Christians.[7] It’s high time we lived like Christians. Saint Augustine once rightly said, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”[8]

I do not raise this issue today to be a Grinch (the cartoon is better than the movie) or a Scrooge (The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best version of the classic work by Charles Dickens). Rather, I raise it to up us recover the joy of the holy days that are yet to come and to help us “to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.”[9] I do not want to exhaust ourselves with premature celebrations; I want us instead to enter fully into the liturgical year so that its beauty, peace, and joy can be ours.

If our mindset is to anticipate Christmas rather than to celebrate the actual day with its following season, we will miss the beauty and the hope the season of Advent offers, and Christmas Day will lack something of the sacred joy that should permeate it. If we anticipate our holidays and holy days so much so far in advance, by the time they actually arrive we will already be worn down and ready to move on to the next anticipation, only for the cycle to keep perpetuating.

This coming Sunday, the liturgical year enters its final week with the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In two weeks, the liturgical year will begin anew as we enter into the season of Advent with its “twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.”[10] It is against this backdrop that we heard the warning of the Prophet Malachi: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” (Malachi 3:19).

Let each one of us, then, humble ourselves and submit to the liturgical calendar, seeking to enter into each aspect of the mystery of the life of Christ Jesus. Let us reject the busy commercialization of what are meant to be holy and reflective days. Let us strive to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of the Messiah through the season of Advent, so that we might “not act in a disorderly way,” but might instead imitate the great Saints of the Church who strove to unite themselves to Christ in every aspect of their lives (II Thessalonians 3:11; cf. II Thessalonians 3:7). Amen.

[1] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, 17.
[2] Saint Paulinus of Nola, in James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 259.
[3] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 1.
[4] Ibid., 32.
[5] “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you,” Hully Daily Mail, 16 September 2019. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/putting-christmas-decorations-up-september-3323337.
[6] In ibid.
[7] Cf. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
[9] Roman Missal, Collect for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[10] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 39.

11 November 2019

Homily - What is the purpose of marriage?

The Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

There are some today who take offense at Jesus when he says, with the authority of God, that “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35). In an age in which so many spouses seemingly forget the promises they made on the day of their wedding – namely “to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live” – we have a tendency to say that marriage is forever.[1] But this is not true; marriage lasts “all the days of my life,” “until death do us part.”[2] With death, marriage comes to an end. Why?

In somewhat veiled terms, the Lord Jesus gives us the answer to this important question. It is because those who will be raised from the dead on the Last Day “can no longer die, for they are like angels” that they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:36). Saint Bede the Venerable explains this answer further when he says, “Since matrimony is for the sake of children, and children for the sake of posterity, and posterity for the sake of death, where, therefore, there is no death there are no marriages.”[3]

On the one hand, this might at first glance appear a negative assessment of marriage; on the other hand, however, it gets right to the heart of the purpose of marriage:

By the Sacrament of Matrimony Christian spouses signify and participate in the mystery of unity and fruitful love between Christ and the Church; therefore, both in embracing conjugal life and in accepting and educating children, they help one another to become holy and have their own place and particular gift among the People of God.[4]

In other words, the purpose of marriage is for a husband to help his wife become a Saint and for a wife to help her husband become a Saint. When this is forgotten, the marriage begins to fail.

Marriage, of course, is founded upon love, but authentic love is not always understood today. More than anything else, love is a choice and an act for the good of the beloved. The emotion of love comes and goes; sometimes we feel loved and sometimes we do not, but our emotions are not always reliable. This is why the highest form of love is not an emotion but, rather, an act of the will, a choice for the good of the other, even – and especially - at my own expense.

Understanding love is somewhat complicated by our language; we only have one word for love, and so we say I love you and this dog and this book and this pizza; we use the same word without distinction and lose something in the process. The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews, however, knew three Greek words for love, each with its own particular meaning. The ancient world, however, knew several different words for love. The Greeks, for example, knew of three.

The first form of love was called eros and was a “possessive or covetous love,” even a “worldly” love.[5] The second form of love was called philia and was the “love of friendship.”[6] The third and highest form of love – a love without self-interest – was called agape.

Likewise, the Hebrews knew two words for love. “First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching” and in this way is very much like the Greek eros.[7]

This comes to be replaced by the word ahabĂ , which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which … becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.[8]

This love is like that of agape and is very much like the love of Christ Jesus for his Bride, the Church.

It is generally the love of eros, a self-seeking love, which first brings a couple together. If this love of eros does not develop into the love of philia, into a love of friendship, the relationship will fall apart under the weight of narcissism. And if the love of philia does not then develop into the love of agape, into a selfless love, the relationship will remain one of mutual convenience, but it will not become the love intended by the Lord for Christian marriage.

There is a temptation today to over-romanticize marriage, to think it will somehow automatically bring about a life of bliss with no difficulties. The reality, however, as any honest couple will tell you, is not quite so picture perfect. Marriage is difficult. It requires compromise, patience, and gentleness; and when these are embraced, marriage is also beautiful, perhaps because of its difficulties. Like the Christian life in general, marriage is simple, but it is not easy. It is simple because, at its core, it involves only one thing, namely, that every day each spouse desires the good of the other above his or her own and labors to obtain that good for the beloved; each spouse must strive to build the other up in Christ for the glory of God. In this, marriage is far from easy.

The great J.R.R. Tolkien, a devoted Catholic and the author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, reflected on the reality of marriage in a letter he wrote to his son Michael in 1941. Then, after twenty-five of his fifty-five years of marriage to his beloved wife Edith, the elder Tolkien wrote these words:

Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification… No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that – even those brought up ‘in the Church’.[9]

The professor here speaks of a danger for the groom in marriage, but lest some think marriage brings no danger for the bride, we might note the temptation of the wife to always imagine herself to be right. Marriage, for her, too, requires deliberate conscious exercise of the will, that is, self-denial.

To put it in simpler terms, in the bonds of marriage, a husband is bound to care more about his wife than he cares about himself. Likewise, in the bonds of marriage, a wife is bound to care more about her husband than she cares about herself. Without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial, neither can do this. I do not want anyone to be unaware of this. But if husband and wife live with deliberate conscious exercise of the will, with self-denial, they can, with the grace the Sacrament of Marriage provides, put each other first and grow together in the love of Christ.

Among the words of profound spiritual counsel left us by Saint Marianne Cope, one of my favorite saints, are these: “Creep down into the heart of Jesus.” The reason she tells us to do so is simple: “He alone can comfort you in your supreme hour of sorrow.” These might seem strange words for a homily about marriage, but the truth of her words cannot be ignored, nor can the reality of marriage as a form of the cross, in that marriage requires a daily renunciation of oneself in favor of the spouse to become a reflection of Christ’s love.

A husband and wife should creep down together into the heart of Jesus each day of their married life. They should look around within his heart and poke around, exploring each day what it means to love fully and to love “to the end” (John 13:1). As they help each other creep down further into the heart of Jesus to conform their hearts ever more closely to his own, they will help each other to become saints, the first and primary purpose of marriage. Then they will be able to emerge from his Sacred Heart to love as he loves, teaching each other – and all who see them – how to do the same. If they live and love in this way, they can show to a darkened world the bright light of love so that, together with them, all may find their home in the heart of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Order of Celebrating Matrimony, 60.
[2] Ibid., 61.
[3] In Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 20.42.
[4] Order of Celebrating Matrimony, 8.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 7.
[6] Ibid., 3.
[7] Ibid., 6.
[8] Ibid.
[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 51.