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.

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