Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
“This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” This verse appears, more or less, in two of the three readings today: Genesis 2 and Mark 10, our Old Testament selection and our Gospel reading.
I’m going to cut to the chase here. I have more to say, but I want to get this out of the way right off the bat, not because I want to hurt anyone but because I have more to say, and I don’t want to dwell on this point. It’s also not a condemnation of any person for who they are or whom they love. However, I want to address a common and mistaken point of view, to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and to move on.
These two verses—one in Genesis and one in the Gospel of Mark, right from the mouth of Jesus—define quite explicitly what marriage is from the beginning. Anyone who claims that scripture has nothing to say about the definition of marriage as the exclusive union between a man and woman for the purpose of becoming one flesh—is plain and simply wrong. That is why the Church teaches what it does about marriage, and that is why the Church cannot change its teaching. It takes its teaching directly from scripture, as well as from natural law and the institution of marriage as practiced since the dawn of civilization.
Now that that clarification of the perpetual teaching of the Church is out of the way, I want to talk about what this truth about marriage means for us, because we have to admit that we have not treated this sacrament as we should as members of the body of Christ, and that goes for us Catholics as well as our Protestant brethren. If we had treated this sacrament as God intended and lived out our vows with the full conviction implied in the consent we exchanged in front of minister and witness, marriage wouldn’t be in the sorry shape it is today. And families would not be in the sorry shape they are in today. I say this, not as one who is celibate and has never grappled with the day-to-day reality of marriage as a vocation, but as one who has failed at that vocation—who has failed, but who has also come to a new and better understanding and conviction about marriage as vocation.
I am going to share with you some of the common themes I address in homilies for weddings. I apologize to anyone I’m currently preparing for marriage now, because you’ll probably hear these themes again at your wedding ceremony. Let’s just say that I am following our Holy Father’s recent teaching on ecology… and I’m recycling fervently.
The first theme is about the counterfeit. The counterfeit is what we see held up as the ideal of love in romantic comedies and young-adult novels with sparkly vampires. But these counterfeits don’t show a thing of what love or marriage are truly about. Love isn’t about succumbing to your feelings of passion, or finding personal fulfillment, or satisfying your greatest desires. True marital love is about seeking what is best for the beloved. Love is about sacrifice. That crucifix there should be a reminder to us of what love is. The kind of love required is that—complete self giving to the beloved. And that’s necessary because our obligation in marriage is to help our spouse get to heaven. I know some fantastic couples in our own parish who demonstrate this truth to us.
In our reading from Genesis, Adam sees woman for the first time. In Hebrew, “man” is ish, and woman is isha. She is not yet named Eve but isha—”woman.” You can see how Hebrew makes the relationships clear: Ish and isha. When Adam sees her, he says to her, “This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.”
“At last!” he says. He has been waiting for her and longing for her all this time.
Now, Hebrew has several different ways of expressing superlatives: that is, the way we might express great, greater, and greatest. We have the ending -er and -est. In Hebrew, one way to express these ideas is to chain duplicate nouns together as Adam does here—bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Your bone is the best of my bone. Your flesh is the best of my flesh. Adam is telling Eve, “You are the very best of me.”
I don’t think anyone can ask for a greater appraisal in the eyes of their beloved than that.
His reaction here is precisely what love is about. I mentioned that the counterfeits we get are all about how we feel about ourselves—how so and so over there makes me feel all oogy inside, gives me butterflies, and causes me to swoon and bat my eyelashes. Again, that’s counterfeit love. It’s centered on me, on my feelings, on mine… mine… mine!
But true love is not focused inward but outward. Jean Vanier, a philosopher and theologian who founded the L’Arche movement, once provided this definition of love that has stuck with me since the first time I heard it on Catholic radio. He said:
“To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.” (repeat)
There isn’t a word in that description that says anything about feeling woozy or getting heart palpitations or batting eyelashes. When you love someone, you reveal their worth to them.
Finally, the purpose of marriage is central to the definition of marriage. Our culture tells us that marriage is about self-fulfillment and finding our soul mate. Here it is again… all about us—about me, what I get, how this affects me, how I profit from this exchange. When Pope Francis decries our consumerist, materialist culture, this mentality is precisely what he’s talking about and what is too common among us and our children—assessing the market value of marriage.
The point of marriage is not the two individuals but what the two individuals will become and beget. When we marry, we are not just obligated to each other, but to our families, and to generations to follow.
Marriage is not a fair trade, and you are not asked to invest 50% for a share in the gain. You are asked to give 100% and a share in both the gain and the loss. You are to pour yourselves out completely to each other. That is what our Lord did for us there on that cross and here on this altar, and that is why God’s love for us is so frequently symbolized by the image of marriage in scripture.
And marriage is completely worth it. It may not always be fun, but it is always worth it.
In the eyes of the Church, marriage is intended for two primary ends: the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. Those are the two ends of marriage, and they are interrelated and interdependent. First, spouses need to bond and be one so that children have a stable household. Popular psychology has promoted the idea that children would rather see their parents leave their unhappy marriages and pursue their own bliss, but actual studies of the outcomes say something different. Children suffer most when marriages end.
Second, marriage is intended for the procreation and education of our children. Let me put this plainly because it has not been said clearly enough in our preaching and in our marriage preparation. A primary purpose of marriage is to have children—not to adopt children… or to think children are cute… or to smile at someone else’s children… but to actually bear children of your own and to be open to the opportunities that God offers you to this end. Now, not all couples can do this, but the Church expects all couples to be open and willing to do this—so much so that we can’t prepare someone for marriage who refuses to be open to bringing new life into the world.
Here’s the funny thing. The Church considers this a good for you. Why? Because having children and becoming a parent is the best way to draw you out of yourself and help you to become more self giving, more loving, and more self sacrificing. In essence, the primary goods are mutually supporting. You bond so that you can support a family, and you have children so that you come out of yourselves and sacrifice for others. At some point in everyone’s life, we must become a father or mother, either physically or spiritually—for example, as priests or religious sisters. The person who doesn’t take up this cross will never fully mature. You need to become a physical parent or a spiritual parent to be fully actualized.
Society needs family. It is its most basic building block. Without family, people act solely on personal interest, and that is rarely a good thing. The Catechism calls the family the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the place where faith is inculcated, and so it is critical, not only for society, but for the growth of the Church and for evangelization. If the family is not stable, the Church will not grow, and people will not hear about God’s love for them.
Finally, I want to say a word about this Sunday, which is Respect Life Sunday. We should be celebrating this concept every day, but because of some awful Supreme Court rulings, we are forced to make basic human dignity an annual campaign. We need to remember that all human beings have inherent dignity because of who they are and who made them. That goes equally for those walking around on their own power as for the unborn, the elderly, the mentally ill, the dying, and those sitting on death row. If we do not have life, we have nothing else. So we are obligated to fight for the preservation of human dignity and life irrespective of the particular circumstances of that life.
Our culture is at a crossroad, and we have to choose whether we will stand on the side of families, children, and marriage, or if we will cede the ground to those who exalt the individual above all. For the sake of our families, be bold and stand firm. Don’t let the doors close on your domestic church.