Annual celebrations remind us of special truths evident in God's design and covenant of marriage
On two Sundays in September I have the pleasure of celebrating Mass, in Omaha and Norfolk, with couples marking significant anniversaries of marriage. The churches are filled with couples who celebrate 25, 40, and 50 years this year. These days, we regularly welcome those who have been together 55 or 60 years. It is not unusual to have a good number with more than 60. This year, the longest married couple attending the event is celebrating 71 years of married life.
Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the anniversary couples also attend. Recently, we have invited couples married for five and 10 years to celebrate their anniversaries and to help honor those (and to be encouraged by those) who have been at it for a lifetime. These opportunities to give praise and thanks to God for the gift of married love are among the most joyful events of the year in the archdiocese. No one is happier to be there than I am.
For one thing, it is not difficult to prepare a homily for this congregation. I simply try to reflect back to these faithful spouses what we all witness in the church. God has called them to a holy vocation and with his call he has provided the daily grace to respond in faith.
COOPERATING WITH GRACE
Husbands and wives have cooperated with that grace to love in faithfulness and generosity beyond anything they could have imagined on the day of their wedding. They have promised to love one another for better or worse, in sickness and health, richer or poorer. Every marriage turns out to be a mixture of all of those. No marriage is perfect. No spouse is perfectly faithful in thought, word and deed. The forgiveness received from one another and from God over the years is part of our reason to give thanks and to celebrate.
Even without perfection, husbands and wives who strive to fulfill the marriage covenant become living sacraments of God's faithful love for His people. In the new covenant, sealed by the blood of Christ, God has given His Son in marriage to the church. The enduring life and fruitful love that God offers us in the church is seen explicitly, if imperfectly, in the love of husband and wife.
The original plan of God, reflected in the complementary nature of man and woman, is raised to the dignity of a sacrament in the new covenant. Spouses grow in holiness as they lead each other to Christ. Their witness, the love that overflows their marriage, leads us to Christ, as we are encouraged to place our hope in His faithfulness.
In our time, it has become necessary to explain and defend a traditional understanding of marriage. This is important not because we simply want to preserve a cultural "tradition" but because God has designed marriage with a certain nature and purpose. This plan of God reflects his care for the good of the spouses, for the good of the children and for the good of the community. God also intends Christian marriage to reflect his own fruitful and faithful love. The most powerful teaching about true marriage always has been given by married couples like the ones I met recently at the anniversary celebrations.
GREAT NEED FOR TEACHING
Temptations to trade in a God-ordained understanding of marriage for a human-designed version are as old as the hills, as the sixth and ninth commandments remind us. Our culture is further influenced by a century of Hollywood's cheapening of marriage - both on screen and off - as well as an emphasis on the pop cultural virtues of tolerance and self-determination. So the need is great these days to teach about and to receive God's loving plan for marriage.
The love between a husband and wife involves a free, total and faithful mutual gift of self that not only expresses love, but also opens the spouses to receive the gift of a child. No other human interaction or relationship can say the same thing. In God's plan, sexual intimacy is reserved for married love, since in marriage, sex between a man and a woman speaks the true language of self-gift. Sexual behavior between two men or two women can never arrive at the oneness experienced between husband and wife, nor can these actions be life-giving. It is a simple fact - although not simply grasped in our culture - that it is impossible for two persons of the same gender to make a total gift of self to each other as husband and wife do, bodily and personally. Humans are simply not built that way.
COMPLEMENTARITY A KEY
We use the term "complementarity" to refer to the unique and fruitful relationship between men and women. Men and women are created in the image and likeness of God. Both have real dignity, but equality does not mean sameness or equivalence. A man is not a woman and a woman is not a man. "Male" and "female" are distinct bodily ways of being human - of being open to one another and to God. Because they are "complementary," men and women bring different and indispensible gifts to a relationship. In the unique relationship of marriage, this complementarity of husband and wife is expressed in the act of conjugal love, in bringing children into the world and in fathering and mothering their children, all calling for the unique gifts of husband and wife, male and female.
The sexual difference of man to woman and woman to man affects us genetically, biologically, emotionally, psychologically and socially. It is unlike any other difference we experience, and it allows for the total union of husband and wife that is at the heart of marriage. Same-sex attraction may, for some, cause confusion about the essential complementarity of man and woman, but it cannot substitute for it. It cannot form the basis of true marriage which has this God-given complementarity as one of its essential elements.
I thank the married couples I met recently for reminding us all of these truths. They are not sterile truths. Rather they are part of God's loving design, and they are embodied in the marriage covenant of husbands and wives. May God bless and strengthen all who have been called to the holy vocation of marriage.