What is all this talk about Marriage?
ONE COUPLE’S STORY
June 28, 2003 was one of the most joyful and significant days of my life as it was the day I married my wife, Libby. Not only were Libby and I preparing to wed, but we were also planning to work full-time together as youth ministers in the same large suburban parish in the Twin Cities, and this was a part of the excitement as we headed toward our wedding day. Our mind set was, “Not only will we be missionaries for Christ bringing the good news of His love to teens, but we will be doing it together as married missionaries! What could be better?!”
As part of our engagement, like many couples marrying in the Church, we met several times with our pastor. I don’t remember everything he told us, but the one thing I do remember is him telling us that our most important ministry to the youth and other parishioners we were preparing to serve was the ministry of our marriage. In reality, we had no idea what he meant, even though we took him seriously. We thought we would run some good programs for teens that would awaken them to their relationship with Christ, but as the first few years of our marriage and life of youth ministry unfolded, it became clear what our priest was trying to teach us.
Don’t get me wrong, we were qualified and competent youth ministers, but the greatest thing we ever did for our parish community was the witness of our married love for one another in the midst of great suffering. Libby and I faced the great trial of having two of our infant children pass away from a rare genetic disease. Both our son, Peter, and our daughter, Gianna, died when they were about three months old about 18 months apart. Our Sacrament gave us access to limitless grace, and since grace is God’s life within us, it sustained us through that difficult time, giving us the strength to witness to God’s love in the midst of tremendous suffering. We could not have imagined when we said, “I do”, nor would we have chosen, that our suffering would be the primary witness that Libby and I would proclaim, but yet it was the opportunity we had. Trial can often be the occasion for a wedge to form between couples, but our faith turned us to one another and to the Church in a deeper way than we imagined. Our suffering brought us closer together, and that closeness was a sign to all in the parish of our trust in God and one another.
How did our experience affect others?:
Let me give a few examples. Shortly after our daughter, Gianna, passed away, a teen in our program approached my wife about some issues she was having in her family. She was a quiet young woman who was very guarded with her emotions and was not especially involved in parish youth ministry. My wife was surprised to hear from her, and asked what had prompted her to reach out. The young woman said that she wanted to ask how we had dealt with our tragedy. How could we still believe in a loving God? It was our suffering that “earned” my wife the privilege of listening to this young woman’s heartache. Our Sacrament sustained us like a well of water in the desert and gained my wife the credibility to share with this young lady about the reality of God and His desire to be close to us when we face hardship. On another occasion after our children died, some volunteers of ours received news that their unborn child would not live long after birth. This couple, who had become close friends, told us that they received strength from our experience and looked to our example of how to deal with loss. They learned from us who had walked the road before them, and they received the grace from their Sacrament to walk the same agonizing road. Recently, now 7 years after the loss of our second child, a friend of ours lost her mother and we were discussing how helpless we felt to help her with another friend. The second friend told us, “I don’t know if you realized this, but we’ve all been watching you in your grief. You have taught us how to stay faithful in grief. You’ve already helped.” These 3 examples are just a few of the ways my wife and I “ministered through our sacrament”.
Are Libby and I somehow special? Are we somehow called to “minister through our sacrament” when no other couple is called to do the same? I don’t think so; trust me when I say that Libby and I are not super humans. In fact, this points to how extraordinary God is. If He can use US to communicate to the world a glimpse of His goodness, then believe me, He can use anyone. The truth is that He desires to speak to the world through the ordinary couples who have their relationships infused with the power of the Sacrament of Matrimony. After all, our God has revealed Himself as a God who communicates to humanity. Jesus is the WORD of God. I do not know the circumstances He wishes to use or the timing in which He desires, but I know that if a couple chose to invite Him into their love by opening themselves to being a sacrament in the Church, he will use that couple to speak to the world.
It could be through suffering that God communicates; it may be through the blessing of finances that He chooses to communicate; it may be through the befriending of your next door neighbor in a time of crisis that He chooses to use your marriage. It may simply be through the heroic and hidden sacrifices of everyday caring for children that He communicates through your marriage, but make no mistake about it, He desires to communicate a specific message of goodness and love through you that no other couple can communicate. Our challenge is to simply open ourselves up to this possibility and say, “Yes!” Through your Sacrament, you will receive an abundance of grace to fulfill your mission!
The Two Words that Changed the Course of History:
With this in mind, I would like to examine more thoroughly what a couple is saying “I Do” to when they freely choose to be a sacramentally married couple in the Church. When a couple says “I Do” at the altar, the course of history is changed for that couple and for everyone they will ever encounter from that point forward because their relationship is no longer the same, Christ now dwells in a different way in their midst and is present through them ready to encounter people through their relationship. Let’s look at 3 distinct aspects of sacramental marriage and how that sheds light on some other Church teaching regarding marriage. I invite you to join me in this examination of Marriage and to invite someone who may not understand fully what we believe as Catholics to join us as well. Hopefully, it will strengthen your own bond, and you can serve to strengthen others!
Why is Marriage so Important to Catholics?
What is it about marriage that is so important to us Catholics? It is not merely a matter of holding on to what we have always believed in, and that somehow we are locked into an archaic, arbitrary, and stagnant definition of marriage. We believe so strongly in what marriage is because we believe so strongly in “why” marriage is. Marriage points to something beyond the man and woman. The committed love of the husband and wife is a sign of something greater than the man and woman. Lost in the debate over the definition of marriage is this reality for Catholics, and perhaps this is the providential moment in history to clarify this beautiful reality.
I Saw the Sign, and it Opened up My Eyes:
When we say sacrament, one thing we mean is “opportunity to encounter Christ”. Every sacrament is a sign of something greater. In other words, a visible reality makes present an invisible reality. With the Eucharist, the visible bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and thus, the invisible God is made manifest, and we encounter Christ. While the physical eyes see only bread and wine, the eyes of faith allow a follower of Christ to see and experience His mysterious presence.
With marriage, the man and the woman are also a sign. They are the sacrament. With physical eyes, one simply sees a couple pledged to one another for a mutual fulfillment of happiness, but eyes of faith allows one to see something beyond a happy couple. So, what does the happy couple tangibly represent to a person who views life through the lens of faith? What is the greater reality they represent? Ultimately, they point us to the reality of God and His permanent, life giving love for His people.
Marriage: Gateway to Glory
Most Catholics are familiar with the “Glory Be” prayer. It proclaims that we give glory to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be”. This prayer opens us to three distinct time periods, before time, during time, and after time. If God created marriage to be the sign of His loving presence and reality, then it makes sense that marriage would point to these distinct aspects of God’s existence: before, during, and after time. These three time periods of God’s reality are the 3 aspects of the sign of marriage that I would like to explore. Only with this understanding do the moral teachings of the Church make sense. When we forget the roots of what and why God has created marriage to be, then the Church teachings on marriage and family seem arbitrary and exclusive.
Before the Big Bang:
First, marriage is a sign of God’s existence as a “Communion of Persons” before time began. Before anything in the material or spiritual realm was created, God existed as an eternal exchange of love. The eternal person of the Father so love the person of the Son, and in return, the Son so loved the Father that their love is a third person who we call the Holy Spirit. We understand the Holy Spirit to be the love between the Father and the Son, and this eternal exchange was flowing before time began and before He created the new life of the human race and all of creation. (cf Jn 1:1-5) Marriage in the same way exists as the foundation of the family, and exists as a “communion of persons” before the relationship brings new life into the world. The husband and wife through the gift of themselves expressed through intercourse participate in bringing new life into the world. This is one of the ways that the communion of husband and wife is a sign of the Communion of the Trinity as eternal love. Marriage is the sign that awakens us to the greater reality of God’s eternal exchange of love from before time began.
“Before the Big Bang” Implications:
This aspect of the Sacrament of Matrimony sheds light on why the Church recommends to couples to not live together before the bond of matrimony exists and likewise to not engage in sexual intercourse before the bond exists. Which comes first in the sacramental meaning of marriage, the family or the bond? The bond forms the family, and when a couple lives together without the bond present, they are not being truthful with their actions and thus, are not being an accurate sign of the Trinity. God created marriage to signify this reality, and when a couple is a counter sign, the Church is there to help them realize that they were created for more than simply a more convenient living situation. The relationship of man and woman and its great potential is a sign of the dignity of man and woman, and the Church has the obligation to always protect human dignity even when it is unpopular.
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby…
The unfortunate thing is that the Church is falsely stereotyped as simply having its teachings on cohabitation and premarital sex for the purpose of ruining people’s fun, and thinking so little of sex. The reality is that the Church thinks so highly of the couple and their sexual relationship that it wishes to help couples maximize their sexual relationship by living it out as it was intended in marriage.
When a couple either engages in sexual activity or has children outside of the bond of matrimony, they are communicating a false message about who God is. Remember that God existed as a communion before he entered into the activity of producing life outside of Himself, and so, the couple must exist as a “communion” before entering into activity that results in life if they wish to signify God accurately. Not doing so communicates falsely that God did not exist in this reality, but His creation of life is arbitrary and not rooted in an intentional plan of faithful love.
How Do We change the False Stereotype?
Does every cohabitating couple know they are conveying a false message about who God is? Absolutely not, most couples when they enter into a sexual relationship or move in together are trying to express the love they have for one another, and they simply do not know that they are falling short of what their relationship could be. It is up to us who do know better to help them realize they were created for more and to not settle for a counterfeit version of love. Let us who do know, be heralds of God’s abundant mercy starting first with our own commitment to live as a radical sign of God’s goodness through our own marriage.
Many never hear the beauty of God’s plan for marriage growing up. Often times, someone may hear, “Don’t do it,” or “It is a sin” or “It breaks a commandment.” While those efforts were well intentioned, they fall short of God’s beautiful plan of sex and sexuality. God’s commandment is understood properly in the context of His plan from the beginning. If we only say, “Don’t do it because it is a commandment.” We make God seem like an arbitrary dictator who is out to ruin our fun and that He is withholding something from us. We fall victim to confirming the image of God that Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. The serpent convinced Adam and Eve that God was withholding happiness from them, placing limits on their freedom and above all, He could not be trusted. If Adam and Eve fell prey to this false narrative and they were operating with a much higher intellect and will than we are after the Fall, then do we really think our own children will fare much better when society tells them the same false narrative about God withholding happiness from them? It is incumbent on us to share the good news of God’s plan from the beginning and His desire to maximize our happiness that he has established the “rules” of marriage.
Like any good parent, God does not have His “rules” just to see how He can spoil His children’s happiness. God wants to protect us and keep us from perpetuating a false narrative with the way we live our lives. Truthfully, each of us is n advertisement for something by the way we live. Some of us advertise for the baseball team or football team we cheer for by wearing their logos, some of us advertise for our favorite musical artist or television show by posting on Facebook. Why do you think there is so much talk about “Branding”? Companies spend millions of dollars each year trying to figure out the best way to get you to wear their logo and “brand their products”. Bear in mind that by our nature, we are made in God’s image and through Baptism and Confirmation, God “brands” us to represent him in the world. Wearing logos and advertising for products are relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, but the daily choices we make concerning the way we live our lives makes a statement about who we are. Let us be mindful of this reality, and choose to advertise for the true meaning of marriage by being a radical and passionate sign in marriage and live according to the ultimate “brand” of being a Christian witness!
These are the Days of Our Lives
Marriage is a sign of God’s loving existence during time. In fact, St. Paul reminds us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent His son…” (Gal 4:6). Every sacramentally married couple is called to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church. By the way a married couple loves one another day in and day out, they give witness to the reality that God is a God who is passionately in love with His People, faithful to His promises, and generously forgives and gives life to the full.
In fact, this truth is at the core of the vows that the bride and groom promise to one another at the altar. The vows are what establish the sacrament. No vows, no sacrament. The couple has to promise to love one another in the same way that Christ loved the Church. If they are not willing to do that , then they do not become a sacrament. Let’s look at those vows more intently.
The Three ‘F’ Words
If you have not been to a Catholic wedding recently, let me refresh your memory. The priest or deacon who is officiating the wedding asks the couple three questions. The couple is asked if they have come freely. Next, the couple is asked if they promise to be faithful to one another, and finally, the couple is asked if they will be fruitful and receive children lovingly from God. Freely, faithfully, and fruitfully are the three hallmarks of Christ’s love for the Church, so for Her part, the Church is doing its due diligence to make sure the couple is not being tricked in any way. The Church is essentially asking the couple, “Do you want to be a sacrament? Do you want to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church? If you do, we will proceed to the exchange of the vows.”
First, what is it about freedom that is so important? If you remember the night before Christ died, He said, that he lays His life down freely. The couple has to be offering their lives freely as a total gift to one another. So, if someone is already married, they are not free to give their life away as it already belongs to someone else. We recognize this principle in everything else. For instance, if I freely give my car away to someone, and I sign all the paper work to make it legally binding, then I cannot take that car back and then tell someone else that I am giving them the car. We call that stealing, and I could end up in jail for taking that car. The car is no longer mine to give. If we recognize this principle with a simple material good like a car, how much more important is it to recognize the dignity of the humans involved to make sure they are free to give their lives away. A previous marriage is not the only thing that can hinder a person’s freedom to marry, but it is a common one.
This freedom sheds light on why the Church has its teaching on divorce and remarriage. Once someone is married, while they may get civilly divorced, they cannot separate what God has joined together in the sacrament. The only way that a person in this situation would be free to marry is if it were determined that the sacrament of marriage for which they thought they were already a participant in, never actually rose to the level of sacrament. Without getting into a total discourse on canon law, that is the basic principle involved in what Catholics call “annulments.” Annulments are not “catholic divorce”, but they are a declaration that a sacramental marriage never actually occurred.
The question of faithfulness is perhaps the least controversial. This seems like an obvious question that someone desiring to marry should answer in the affirmative. The Church, however, is not simply asking the question of whether or not the couple is intending to be faithful to one another for the whole of their earthly life because it is a random nice quality to have in a marriage, but rather, faithfulness is the direct signification of Christ’s love for the Church as revealed on the cross. Jesus Christ is faithful to His Bride, the Church, even to the point of dying for her. He died even though He did nothing to deserve it. Even when His people are unfaithful and sin against Him, reject Him, and turn to idols as their greatest love, Christ still offers His body to His Bride and says to her, “I will not abandon you, and I will not forget you. Nothing can change that!”
Faithful love for one another in “good times and bad, in sickness and health” is how a married couple live out the high calling of being a sign of Christ’s love for the Church. Adultery is a clear violation of this, whether the adultery is with another person or a pornographic image on a screen, but faithful love is more than simply, “not having an affair”. True faithful love is the daily offering of one’s life for the good of the spouse. Some couple’s do this better than others, but the important thing is that the couple intends this type of love when they promise at the altar. If the bride or groom does not intend to love permanently through the end of their earthly life, and in their heart intend to love like that only until the age of 43, then a sacrament has not occurred.
One of my great heroes of living this type of faithful love is a good friend of mine, Curt. Curt’s wife, Annie, was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer this past spring. The treatment has involved and equally aggressive attack on the cancer which has included numerous stays in the hospital. While I cannot go into every detail of their experience here, Curt has been a shining icon of Christ’s love for the Church in the ways he has supported Annie through this experience. Annie, for her part, has been an equally heroic figure in the humility in which she has allowed Curt to share in her sufferings and relied on his support and encouragement. The picture of Curt and Annie is exactly the picture of what happens when a human turns to Christ. Cancer attacks the body like sin attacks the soul. Christ’s mercy offered is the exact remedy that heals us from this “spiritual cancer of sin”. Like Annie allows her husband to support her, we are called to allow Christ to help us by accepting His gift of mercy.
Finally, the couple vows to be open to the gift of children from God. God’s love gives life, and so if the couple desires to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church, then they commit to being open to God’s gift of life through the act of intercourse. Each time the married couple comes together through intercourse, God intends that act to be a renewal of the vows they exchange at the altar. This means the act must be “open to life”. Whether or not God blesses the act with an actual child is at His choosing, but the couple cannot purposely frustrate the life giving act through contraception or sterilization. The Church does not want any couple to break their vows to one another, and that is why it has teachings against contraception and sterilization. The dignity of the sexual act and the couple is always at the forefront of the Church’s teaching on any matter of marriage, and this is no different. This is a hard teaching in our culture given the widespread availability of contraception and sterilizing procedures, but like a good mother, the Church is there to protect her children and echo the love of God. God does not wish to see any of His children surrender their dignity for the sake of convenience. Obviously, most couples who contracept or have themselves sterilized are not intending to break their wedding vows, or they would not do it. It is not that the Church has been silent on this matter, but unfortunately, its voice has been drowned out by the all too often louder voices in the culture that distract us from hearing the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit in our conscience. I am confident that anyone who sincerely seeks to understand and listen to the shepherd’s voice will come to cherish it and gain a whole new appreciation of human and marital dignity in the process. Even for those couples who have traveled down this road, many have been enlightened and have turned to God’s tender mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (remember a sacrament is an opportunity to encounter Christ) , and have become the loudest heralds of why not using contraception has enhanced their relationship both with God and one another.
Equally difficult teachings that are often misunderstood by the popular culture are the teachings that the Church has against homosexual activity or masturbation. At the heart of these teachings is the reverence for the ability to co-create life with God that is woven into the very design of man and woman. The physical body reveals that under normal human function, the body is created to give life with a person of the opposite sex. A homosexual act cannot result in the creation of new life, and therefore cannot rise to meet one of the very important promises of marriage. Masturbation cannot result in new life, either; therefore, reason tells us that it cannot be part of God’s design for the human person. It is not an “other centered act” but rather it focuses on self. The design of marriage revealed through the body is that God desires us to be other centered.
New life potential obviously raises the difficult question of infertility. The skeptic would say that there is no difference between an infertile heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple or an act of masturbation because none of them result in new life. The difference is in the fact that the infertile couple simply has an issue of something not working properly, whereas the other two situations could never result in new life even if everything is working correctly. This is not to demean anyone, but it is simply a matter of science and that we believe the body has a designed purpose. Aside from the obvious scientific purpose, we also believe the body has a theological purpose. The body reveals the soul and the union of a man and woman in sexual intercourse in marriage has significance beyond that of the good of sexual pleasure.
Saint John Paul II said it best, “Couples are a permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross.” (Familiaris Consortio) God has a beautiful plan for marriage, and He has given every man and woman a great affirmation of how much He trusts them when He allows the married couple to be a sign of His own love for the Church, and yet, every sacramentally married couple when they offer their lives freely to one another, vow to be faithful to one another, and open themselves to receive children lovingly from God, does this.
If this is new to you, or you would like to deepen your understanding of why the Church teaches what she does, there are great resources on the Theology of the Body, which is a collection of St. John Paul II’s reflections on marriage and what it means to be a man and woman made in the image and likeness of God. One of the most popular teachers is Christopher West who has authored many books on the subject, but the point is that it can be understood and lived joyfully. I would ask anyone to answer the question, “Who holds the most beautiful and affirming vision of sexual dignity?” I believe that we do, and we simply need to do a better job of letting people know that they were created for this beautiful vision of life!
Embrace your Destiny
Heaven! It is what we all desire in the depths of our existence. Every longing we experience is oriented to its fulfillment in Heaven. Every joy in this life is intended to be a sign of what is to come in eternity. When a joy we experience passes away, this should be a reminder that we are not in heaven where our joy is permanently fixed. Imagine going to a party and not having to leave at the end, but being able to stay at the party with all of your closest friends and family. This is kind of what Heaven will be like, except we sometimes interpret Heaven from our own limited human experience. We think that if Heaven is some sort of party that never ends, then eventually we will get bored. Heaven is not quite like that; it is not an endless succession of days where we have to find something to do. It is more like a fixed moment of joy that is locked into our very existence for in Heaven, there is no time. One of the greatest insights we can gain into this eternal existence is through a married couple.
Marriage is the Destiny
Finally, married couples are a sign of God’s existence in Heaven as the Church is wedded to Christ for all of eternity. Heaven is depicted in Sacred Scripture as a wedding feast. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. God uses this analogy partly to depict the eternal joy we will experience in Heaven. Let’s face it, wedding receptions are joyous occasions, and He is trying to awaken us to this reality. Essentially, He is saying, “If you think weddings are fun on earth, wait until you get here!” While this is part of it, He is also trying to teach us from the example of the most intimate of human experiences. Imagine a passionately loving couple who are approaching their wedding day. They simply cannot wait to give themselves as a gift to one another at the altar and also to consummate that relationship through the conjugal act. The joy the couple experiences through the total self- donation of intercourse is intended to be a foretaste of the bliss of participating in the union of Christ and His Bride for all eternity. This may make us blush, but it is God who came up with this analogy to describe what our experience of joy will be like in Heaven.
In the Catholic Tradition, we call Heaven the Beatific Vision. This description seeks to help us understand that we, the Bride of Christ, will see Christ, the Bridegroom, face to face for all of eternity in a loving passionate stare. As we gaze in the vision of our savior, we are filled with His love. His love penetrates us and fills us with His very life. Having received His life, we now have a worthy gift to return to Him, and so, having received, we can now give in return a pleasing gift. Does that description of the Beatific Vision sound like anything that a husband and wife experience in their earthly marriage? It should. The marital embrace of husband and wife where the husband gives his seed of life to his wife through intercourse, and she takes that seed into herself and offers it in return in the conception and bringing forth of new life is the earthly window where we catch a glimpse of the eternal embrace of Christ and His Bride!
Marriage as the Road Map
This is just a tiny glimpse into the beautiful vision of Marriage that the Church holds out to her children. So, for us it is not a matter of engaging in a debate of whether or not to change a definition. We do not believe we have the power to change what we did not create. It is not for us to change; it is for us to understand and live. Marriage is not an entity unto itself, but it represents the One who created it because He wanted to communicate the truth and beauty of His loving reality. Is it any wonder that as marriage has declined over the past several decades that we have also seen a rise in atheism? I believe they are connected. It makes sense that as we can no longer see the sign as clearly as we should, we cannot recognize what the sign points to. It is like trying to reach a destination without having the proper signs to guide the way. Can you imagine if you went on a road trip and did not have a map, or gps, or any road signs to tell you if you were on the right path? It may feel like an adventure when you first started, but it would soon turn into a frustrating ordeal. In this scenario, it would not be surprising if we did not reach our destination. I think this is what our culture is experiencing. They have set out on an excursion and have left all points of guidance behind. The culture thinks it is on an exciting experience of unbridled freedom and happiness, but it will eventually lead to frustration and despair. For us married couples, it is our duty to be the sign we are intended to be for the sake of others. When we do that, we will experience joy beyond belief because we will be living our purpose in life, which is to lead others to Christ. I invite all married couples to intentionally focus on being the sign they are called to be in order to change the culture. Living our mission as married couples is the most effective way to awaken our culture to the beauty of marriage. To paraphrase St. Catherine of Sienna, if we were who we were created to be, we would set the world on fire!