I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you … By this shall all men know that you are my disciples — if you have love, one for another. How beautiful are these words that Jesus addressed to His apostles at the Last Supper; and what a huge challenge, too, to “love one another, as I have loved you.” Our latest diocesan handout for the ‘Year of Faith’ reflects on this love of God, caritas, that is at the heart of our belief in, and response to, God.
In the light of this, we come to consider the final of the seven sacraments in Christian tradition: the beautiful sacrament of marriage; a sacrament that many of you have entered into, or will enter into, in your lives. In many ways it exemplifies the sort of love that Our Lord is urging on His disciples. For married love is not just any sort of love, but it is a love that is to be freely given, total, faithful, and fruitful — when married love is lived out in perfection, it mirrors wonderfully the love of God, who loves us in just such a way: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully.
There’s all sorts of distorted discussion being bandied about in today’s society about marriage; but none of this can affect the universal, God-given, intention for His human creation, that a man and a woman, from the dawn of history, come together for life in marriage. It is God who is the author of marriage; and He calls men and women, to this day, to be husband and wife, to raise a family in love and Christian faith, for their good, the good of their children, and the stability and health of society.
We talk about a ‘vocation’ (a ‘calling’) to the priesthood … but marriage is no less a calling: God has in mind for each of us his or her vocation, and for many of you that will be marriage. And so, you live out your marriage in the Church, in the sight of God, and conscious of the dignity of your mission as a married person, and probably also as a father or mother. Marriage is not only some human institution, a convenient living arrangement; marriage is a key part of God’s plan. It is exactly how God means His human creation to live and perpetuate, in committed love that is the basis of a family, with the children that a couple may have. This is why we cannot just define marriage in our own way, or simple change the law to decide that it can be between two men or two women if we feel like it. It is written into our bodies — written into our human nature — and reinforced by the teaching of the Son of God and of His Church, that man and woman are ‘complementary’: they ‘go together’ as a union of different sexes that leads ordinarily to new life. Only that sort of a proper union can be ‘fruitful’: God gives parents this awesome power of pro-creation, giving rise to new human beings, new immortal souls from God that are called to eternal life.
Throughout Scripture we are reminded of the centrality of marriage to human life, because the most common image of God’s love for humanity is that of the marriage covenant. God’s love for Israel, Christ’s love for the Church, is often compared to the love of bridegroom for bride. In the second reading we heard it, an image of the heavenly Church in her perfection, “the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband.” Marriages — especially the Sacrament of Christian marriage — are called to be a witness in this world of God’s loving, … “love one another, as I have loved you.” This is a high calling, and not always one that is easy to live up to, but Christian teaching on marriage — that it is to be faithful, life-long, and open to children — all help married couples work at the difficulties that they encounter. Married love is to mirror to the world the love that God has for us, love that is eternal, forgiving, faithful, life-giving. We know that it is not always easy, that any married relationship has its ups and downs; but reliance on God at the heart of a marriage — where both husband and wife commit themselves to prayer and sacrifice — this is the powerhouse of a Christian marriage. It is God’s grace that is at work in a Christian marriage, husband ministering grace to his wife, wife ministering grace to her husband. God is the third party in a fruitful Christian marriage, sending His Spirit into that relationship that relies on Him.
All of this goes to explain why the Church makes such a big deal of marriage. A Catholic is obliged to get married in the context of the Catholic Church, and in no other venue, whether civil or religious. Additionally, it is only within a valid marriage can a couple enjoy a sexual relationship. I shall write more on this when I re-issue for you shortly a letter on Marriage for your reflection. As well as this, I will invite again, as I have repeatedly done in my years here, those who are not in regular marital situations — either living together outside marriage, or who got married in a civil setting only, for some reason — to come and see me for a private discussion as to how to move forwards towards a solution that is in keeping with our faith, and the teaching of Christ. I am more than happy to spend time with parishioners, resolving these situations if at all possible, so that good marriages may be made, in the Church, and any past histories and mistakes can, within what is possible, be overcome.
Like all the Sacraments, Marriage is a source of immense grace and strength. I sometimes think, when I see an elderly couple, perhaps one of them caring for the other devotedly at home through a chronic illness — I think to myself, what are they doing if not just what they vowed on their wedding day, perhaps 50 yrs earlier: “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part”? There they are, 50 yrs on, fulfilling their marriage vows as keenly as on the day they made them. We all know that a good marriage demands a lot of work, sacrifice and ardour, as well as a lot of enjoyment and fulfilment. But the long and happy marriages that do result they point to the wisdom of God, and the goodness of God in having planned our race as male and female. May God strengthen the marriages of our parish; assist those struggling in marriage; and prompt our young people to value and aspire to the holiness of a lifelong, committed and sacred married union. May God bless all of you who are married, and remind you of the joy of your own wedding day!