Building a Culture of Love and Life
We’ve known all our lives that February 14 is Valentine’s Day, a time when we honor those we love. But arguably more significant and lesser-known celebratory dates about love precede the 14th, when roses and candy fly from shops into loved ones’ arms.
February 7-14 marks the annual celebration of National Marriage Week USA, and the second Sunday of February (the 10th this year) is World Marriage Day. In a 2018 letter to his brother bishops, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, of Philadelphia—chairman of the committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—both celebrations present “opportunities to focus on building a culture of life and love that begins with supporting and promoting marriage and the family.”
As a believing community, we have a stake in every Christian marriage. The spirituality of married people enriches the life of the whole parish. Couples model the many ways we can live out our vocations, whether we’re married or not. Love, after all, is our common calling as Christians, whatever our state in life. Of the three things that last—faith, hope, and love—love is the greatest (1 Corinthians 13:13). As a prayer in the marriage rite proclaims, love is our origin, our constant calling, and our fulfillment in heaven. The prayers of the rite stress that the wife and husband are the sacrament, the living signs of God’s love—first to each other and then to the world. Learning to become that sign is a lifelong call, a constant divine whisper in the ear.
Rejoicing in God’s Grace-filled Gift
Marriage is a greater commitment than a promise made in a single sacramental moment. It’s an ongoing process of discovering and learning about God from the experience of married life. The spirituality of marriage, the sense that God is part of it through good times and bad, is what makes Christian marriage truly sacramental. A couple’s married life—through all of its various stages, from honeymoon to old age, is a gifted and graced journey through which husband and wife experience the power of God’s all-consuming love.
The honeymoon phase has been a discovery of creation’s goodness ever since Adam gasped in wonder at the companion God provided—one who was similar and yet so pleasantly different from him. Men and women are different in more ways than the obvious, and the surprises aren’t always pleasing. Whether by nature or by training, each couple differs in the family-shaped expectations they bring to marriage, in personality, in habits, in the rhythms of daily life. The first task is to get to know—not necessarily understand—how the other ticks.
Certainly a sense of humor is the salt that makes the effort of learning to live together palatable. This is the stage when couples begin to learn the art of compromise, to learn to appreciate the other’s individuality in a union that may well differ from the marriages of other unique individuals—skills that enrich community life as well. Humor may smooth the journey, but it takes hard work to continue to travel. There comes (for the first time, not the last!) a point when the glow wears off, faults stand out, differences seem insurmountable, and loving a spouse may feel more like trying to love an enemy. So it’s back to “for better or worse” to carefully recall what first attracted one to the other, what it is about this person that makes a lifetime together seem worth the effort. And it’s forward to a deeper understanding of what it means to say that God is love.
Love is, by its very nature, life-giving. It first gives life to a couple, creating we out of the raw materials of you and me. A couple’s love spills over into relationships with in-laws and friends, coworkers, fellow parishioners—and, sooner or later, it seeks to take separate flesh in children. In Catholic wedding ceremonies, couples are asked to express their willingness to accept children from God. While most couples will become parents, some will never bear or adopt a child. These couples are called to nurture life in their extended families, their parish, and the larger world.
Marriage and married love are by their nature ordered to the procreation and education of children. Indeed children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves…But marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children…Even in cases where despite the intense desire of the spouses there are no children, marriage retains its character of being a whole manner and communion of life….(Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes]), 50).
As couples become parents, they discover that a child upsets the balance of marriage long before the proud parents meet their offspring. Pregnancy brings morning sickness and hormonal storms; adoption can be a harrowing process. And the stranger the two people cradle at last has evidently paid little attention to their expectations!
It’s no small thing to speak of God as
Embracing the Joys and Challenges of Parenting
If nurturing brings worry, it also brings wonder. Parenting teaches a new definition of love: not just gazing into each other’s eyes, but looking outward together in the same direction. Children enlarge a couple’s world. The vulnerability discovered by new parents lends way to a sharper awareness of culpability, a sense that what threatens any of the world’s children—drugs, hunger, war—threatens their own. From involvement in school organizations to charitable causes, being a parent means hearing a call to bear the burden of those decisions that will shape the world children will inherit.
Raising children takes its toll on the closeness of marriage. Sleepless nights with
Finding Sure Footing on Fresh Ground
And so it is for empty nesters—privacy, time, and empty bedrooms! The starry-eyed illusions packed for the honeymoon have all been exploded. By now, two people know each other better than anyone else in the world. They know how to please each other; and they also know what hurts the other. In the absence of the many duties of child rearing, a couple—business partners and co-parents—now can become companions in a well-established friendship. The empty nest proves a quiet haven for these old friends. Armed with a much surer sense than that which they brought to the altar as newlyweds of who they are as individuals, they can focus on appreciating the unique gifts they each bring to their marriage.
Married love is an eminently human love because it is an affection between two persons rooted in the will and it embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestations of the friendship proper to marriage (GS 49).
New friendships open as well. The kids have grown into adults with whom friendships can be built. As they fall in love and marry, the circle of friends around the family table expands. When grandchildren arrive, a couple can again share God’s delight in children and new life. Grandchildren give a new sense of one’s place in history and with it a need to explore traditions. It must have been the grandparents who retold the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph around the evening fires in Egypt. The tribal elders, whether grandparents or not, have a faith-story to share with the newest generations.
Gathering the Graces
Retirement thrusts a couple back into the hard tasks of a new marriage. Living together full-time isn’t the same as sharing evenings and weekends and going separate ways during the day. Roles and responsibilities are often redefined; perhaps they even undergo a complete overhaul from the arrangements that have worked for years. Finding new outlets for the energy once absorbed by a job and giving each other space to pursue separate interests draw on the graces of marriage as a couple settles into their last years together.
In the beginning, a man and a woman promised to love each other “until death do us part.” In the evening of life, that parting is no longer just a possibility; it is inevitable. The conviction that “love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6) carries a couple through years filled with both joy and sorrow. Sometimes they disappoint each other; often they start over again. Regardless of the path, throughout a sacramental marriage God stays always near, always calling a couple ever closer to each other in love.
The marriage covenant exists not only for the good of the partners and their children, but also for the good of the Church and society at large, as we are reminded by the Second Vatican Council (GS 48). The couple not only gives this sacramental sign to each other, they also give it to the entire community of witnesses. Our human lives are interconnected, like a fabric, woven together by many commitments. The fidelity of the commitment of husband and wife should strengthen our own personal commitments.
Marriage is a great mystery. It is something that should touch us deeply each time we experience a Christian wedding and each time we witness the sacramental love of husband and wife. It is a mystery that should move us to continue to defend, support, and promote the grace-filled gifts of marriage and family.
Sources: Adapted from Catholic Update’s “The Spirituality of Marriage: Becoming Signs of God’s Love” by Carol Luebering (C9705A) © 2012 and 2018 Liguori Publications;
and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium Et Spes) © 1996 by Reverend Austin Flannery, Costello Publishing Company, Inc.