As usual you can listen to the homily here.
The function of a priest’s homily or sermon is not primarily to draw on his own experience but to present the teaching of Christ and His Church, to form and inform the faithful so that they can follow Christ more effectively and fervently. So when I come to speak about marriage I am obviously not talking from any deep knowledge of married life but from the teaching of the Church. My purpose is to unveil God’s plan for the union of man and woman.
I must begin by bewailing the poverty of the English language when it comes to emotion. When we think of marriage we most often also think of love. But that word ‘love’ is applied very widely in English. I can say I love beer, pizza, and a host of other things, even bad things, as well as loving spouse, parents, children, friends, and God. One word stretched so far becomes very thin in meaning and power. So when I speak of ‘love’ I ask you to hear ‘total and unconditional self-gift’. This is what I think God means by ‘love’.
I must also point out that our purpose in life is not a happy retirement. Our purpose is to get to Heaven and to bring as many people with us as we can. All other purposes and ends are secondary to that purpose. Success in this life without getting to Heaven is ultimately the greatest and most appalling failure. That is true just as much of marriage as it is of any other vocation.
Just as a tree grows yet remains the same tree the teaching of the Church unfolds and deepens over time . Until the Twentieth century few theologians gave much thought to the theology of marriage. Oh you might think, theology: the thoughts of some bunch of celibates what would they know? Well one of the most influential of those thinkers was Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German Catholic philosopher and anti-Nazi (he was top of their most wanted list) and a layman, married twice. His second wife is still alive.
The Church has always held that marriage, the union of man and woman, is part of the Divine plan for creation. For a long time they spoke of its end or purpose as being procreation but that has been deepened so that we can speak even of three ends of marriage: union, procreation, and salvation so that marriage is unveiled as a path of sanctification.
Firstly the union of man and woman in marriage is a good, perhaps the greatest natural good in this world. Union means that a man and woman can form a lifelong bond that goes beyond the merely physical or psychological. Man and woman are meant to be bound together, we have the capacity for this spiritual union in our very souls. We are made for one another like left hand and right hand, like left eye and right eye and together we can do what on our own we cannot. Through marriage the spouses teach one another how to love. St Paul speaks of the husband loving his wife and the wife respecting her husband and usually that is taken to mean he’s using different terms for the same love. Might I suggest there is more in what he says? I suggest that St Paul may be saying that men and women love but in different ways and that the path of marriage involves learning from one’s spouse the breadth of love, and the real meaning of total self-gift. In the Sacrament of marriage, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the natural bond becomes a real supernatural bond that has Eternal consequences.
Secondly through marriage children are brought into the world and so our nation, our society and our State are built up. With each child that is conceived there comes the possibility of all the good that that child will do and all who may come to exist through that child and the good that they, in turn, will do. To adapt a Jewish proverb ‘who conceives a child blesses the world entire.’ What a wonder then is marriage and the conception of children. It was often said in the past that a woman’s place was in the home but actually the home is the proper place for both man and woman. Home is not a building it is the people you belong to and the first duty, by far the most important duty, of a husband or a wife is to love and care for their spouse and to love and care for their children. No job, no career, no sporting, social or cultural event or activity, nothing save the worship of God should come before it. I exempt Sunday Mass because here we are on the doorstep of our Eternal Home and if we do not make it to Heaven all our effort here on Earth is worthless.
Finally, marriage is a true and valid way to salvation. It is said that on the day of his Wedding the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor said to his wife “Now we must help each other into Heaven” and she was delighted for that was her desire as well. Marriage is sanctifying because it is also penitential in that we can do penance for our sins through the suffering it can bring. (Dad story) It is also ascetical, that is, it is a spiritual training ground where we learn how to live a virtuous life. As athletes use weights to train so we can use the difficulties of living with others to grow in love and virtue. Marriage is a good, a natural good but as a Sacrament it becomes a supernatural good, that is, it is a channel of grace, of God’s own life and action on the spouses’ souls and the world, a path to salvation for them and for their children. Christian marriage is ordered not just to the good of the spouses but of the whole of Heaven and Earth. Sanctification is the consequence of entering marriage wholeheartedly, cooperating with God’s grace and so marriage can be as sure a path to Heaven as any other vocation.
One of the fruits of the efforts of theologians to unfold the Church’s teaching on marriage was a move away from using the juridical, legal terminology of ‘contract’ to the biblical language of covenant. A contract is usually a fixed-term, finite agreement for the exchange of goods and services while a covenant is an open-ended, unlimited, union for the exchange of love and life. Both have consequences (and penalties attached) when they are not honoured but those for a covenant are much more substantial, even eternal.
Having made this move to the language of covenant it is extraordinary that today the term ‘partner’ is used even by the Sacramentally married. It is a sign that society, always behind the Church in its thinking and having rejected the Faith, has reverted to a legal and this-worldly understanding of the union of man and woman. Reducing marriage to a contract is robbing people of its richness and glory. Study after study has shown how it benefits people to be married and to become parents. We religious and clergy may live longer but there is a physical and mental downside to our way of life – part of its cross. Though that said, having lived so many years with friars, we do say that some women were spared an awful life by our vocations.
A friar told me this story: a priest goes to comfort a recently bereaved old woman. ‘Don’t grieve so. Soon you will be with him in Heaven for ever’ “Oh Father,’ she replied, ‘that’s what I’m worried about.’ Of course what is not of God, what is fallen, does not survive the death of our bodies. Only our true self, our immortal soul survives and all other unimportant concerns fall away. Those relationships that are founded on and built up in grace also survive. If you want to keep your bond with your spouse into eternity then build up your life together in communion with the Lord.
Seek to be converted, to love ever more truly and consistently, to forgive and to share your Faith with one another. Try not to take one another for granted but rather begin each day with thanksgiving for how the Lord has blessed you. What is built on the Lord lasts forever and no flood can ever bring it down.