Springtime brings to our parishes an increase in the number of church weddings. These celebrations of the Sacrament of Matrimony are occasions of great rejoicing for the couple, for their families and rejoicing for the church.
Then comes the marriage, the living out of the vows of the Sacrament. “I take you to be my husband/wife, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” A sacramental marriage means that Jesus Christ is mixed up in the relationship between the husband and the wife. With the cooperation of the couple the grace unique to the Sacrament of Matrimony can accompany their relationship and assist their love. We are all aware of the fragility in our time of the husband-wife relationship and the unfortunate spike in the numbers of separations and divorces. What began in celebration ends in sorrow.
Recently, on the third Sunday of Easter, April 19, the diocese recognized significant anniversaries of marriage with couples celebrating 25, 50, 60 and more years of matrimony. The church recognizes that marriage is essential not only to society but also to the church.
The Mass, which included the renewal of marriage vows, was a joyful occasion. Each couple present in church for that occasion could have delivered a fine reflection on what it takes to reach a significant anniversary of marriage. This is some of what I said in the homily at that Mass:
Permit me to congratulate you on the occasion of the significant anniversary of marriage that you are observing. That you have reached this milestone is a testimony to you; to the sacrifices both of you have generously made over the years; to the tenacity of your love; and to the presence of God’s grace in your relationship. The Risen Lord is present in the Sacrament of Matrimony. He is present in each Sacrament. He is really present. Not as ghost but as the Risen Lord, as real as He was when He showed Himself to His disciples as reported in the Gospel for this third Sunday of Easter. He who had died and was buried even ate with them. That Easter story is teaching that Jesus is as real in His resurrection as He had been before His death. In a sacramental marriage the presence of Jesus is also very real. There are three parties in the marital relationship: The husband, the wife and the Lord.
Recently, there has been much attention and focus in the media on the church’s understanding of marriage as a result of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which took place in Rome last October and the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this September, which Pope Francis will attend. That gathering will be followed by the Synod on the Family to be held in Rome this October 2015. Perhaps some of you participated in the surveys for both meetings that were made available to the public through our Office of Family Life. Those surveys were the first time that there had been a universal polling and consultation of the bishops of the world and of the Catholic faithful. Both surveys posed very focused questions about marriage and family life. It is not news that the church’s teaching about marriage is not understood by many of the faithful. And, it is less understood by the media, popular culture and many people.
We look to the Sacred Scriptures for a guide to understand marriage. The Old Testament compares the election of Israel as the People of God to the faithful love of a husband for his wife. God chooses a people and binds Himself in a passionate bond. Marriage is compared to that experience of the People of God who are bonded to God as God is bonded to them. In the New Testament Jesus refers to marriage by repeating Moses’ injunction about divorce. St. Paul says that the love between wife and husband mirrors the love that Christ has for the Church. His love is a sacrificial love which is mirrored in married love between wife and husband.
The early Christians attempted to live in their culture with their Christian understanding of the marriage bond. The Roman world was fascinated with their respect for the nature of marriage. The Christian understanding of the marriage commitment challenged their society, which treated marriage as less than forever and less than a faithful relationship. The early Christians were convinced that it was their task by their example in marriage to transform and to influence the culture of their society. They did not conform to the dominant culture. Certainly, there is a lesson for us in their example about not conforming to what dominates society concerning marriage despite the pressures that we face from the media, the government and popular culture.
Marriage is a divine gift…the permanence, exclusivity and solidarity of the union of the husband and wife offer a sign of hope and a loving witness to human dignity in a world where hope often seems absent and human dignity is too frequently degraded. The Church teaches about the permanency of the marriage relationship, its exclusivity between the spouses and that marriage is oriented toward the procreation of children.
Husband and wife have unique roles which illuminate the beauty of their sexual difference and they naturally complement one another. At every level of their identity, emotional, biological, physiological, social and spiritual, a husband and wife are called to speak the language of married love in generous self-giving, one to the other. In their self-giving, the spouses discover who they are in a way they could not otherwise discover. The divine institution of marriage unites a couple together through life’s challenges and excitements, hopes and dreams, until death do them part. Jesus Christ, the center of this union, makes this possible.
You couples who are celebrating these significant marriage anniversaries are surely the best witnesses of the self-sacrificing love of husband and wife. Your fidelity in marriage mirrors God’s fidelity and is a sign desperately needed in our society. Fidelity is a good news item that needs to be publicized, even bragged about.
To the couples celebrating special anniversaries, thank you for the witness of 25, 50, 60 years of matrimony. To those engaged couples who will enter into the covenant of Holy Matrimony, may you do so with the faith that the Risen Lord Jesus will accompany your life as husband and wife.