It’s easy to preach on these marriage passages at the anniversary mass when the sanctuary is filled with couples celebrating twenty-five, forty or sixty years together. It’s easy to speak about the covenant of marriage when you look into the eyes of partners who know the size of each other’s secret regret and the shape of their private dreams.
It is easy to preach these passages with conviction when you are speaking to people who have walked together, facing the same direction, staring down their demons and holding tight to their blessings. They don’t duck when preachers toss out words like “sacrament”, and “covenant” and “commitment”. They don’t flinch when the standards are high and the requirements are tough because they have ventured into the desert and discovered life buried in the dry sand.
These are couples who struggle and fall but stand to face more trials and temptation. They are people who find in these efforts a larger spirit; a more compassionate heart; a new understanding of the cross. Maybe they are particularly determined; especially blessed; or just very, very lucky. But whatever the reasons, for these men and women, two really did become one and these readings fall upon them like a benediction.
It’s also easy to preach about marriage at the beginning of it all, when two people, armed with more hope than experience, stand eagerly before the altar--and in the midst of tulle and lace, offer up their pledge to each other and to God. In that moment, their world is filled with possibilities.
But there are other times--and other listeners. Sometimes, these words about marriage and commitment feel like assault weapons aimed directly at the wounded. Sometimes, these words are heard by broken people grasping the broken and tattered edges of their lives. Sometimes these words fall, not as a benediction, but as a burden that can be carried no more.
It is tempting for us to see those who are hurting and say, “These teachings are just too hard; too unrealistic; too outdated to uphold. Who can live this?” After all, people live longer, today. Challenges to marriage are complex and support is thin. Times have changed. Statistics show that even promises made in Church have a tendency to fail. Wouldn’t it be safer and more “pastoral” to simply water down the truth and embrace the statistics? Isn’t it more honest to lower the bar than to raise our expectations? Wouldn’t it be easier to throw up our hands and admit we can’t solve these issues than it would be to prepare our children for the hard work of living out a vocational call?
There is no question that preaching the ideal can be painful. It reveals the cracks in our façade and the sins in our closets. It holds up a mirror to our own brokenness--both personal and ecclesial-- and reminds us that we will all struggle at times to find our way home.
But we will miss much more than an affirmation of marriage if we shy away from these readings or dilute their message. We will miss something profound about our faith—something profound about our God. The Biblical story begins in birth, in the making of the world and in the creation of man and woman in the image of the God who first imagined them. That same Biblical story ends with the vision of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Throughout its pages, God’s love for his people is imaged as the love of a husband for his bride. God’s son is the heavenly Bridegroom, united with his bride, the Church.
This imagery permeates our story.
The Bible reminds us that marriage is one way we can concretely experience the great mystery of God’s love. It is a lens through which we can view and experience those great concepts of fidelity, faithfulness, mercy, forgiveness and hope.
It is a loving response to God’s call.
Like Holy Orders, marriage is a vocation designed to lead us to a life of holiness. Like all vocations, it is risky, demanding and incredibly rewarding. It can leave us open to great joy and at the same time, vulnerable to great pain. And for that very reason, as God’s people, we must continue to teach the truth about marriage. We must celebrate its beauty and mourn its death. We must reach out to those in pain without reservation; yet never lose sight of the ideal.
We must witness to the value of marriage not simply with signs or slogans; not through angry discourse or divisive action, but through our unwavering commitment to model the Christian call to love, without reserve and without measure. Pope Francis reminds us that Christian marriage carries with it a “missionary dimension;” a willingness to be a channel of God's grace and blessings for everyone we encounter.
Our witness to these truths is a reminder that the covenant of marriage does not lie at the margins of Christian life, but at its heart.
© Susan Fleming McGurgan