Sunday, October 7, 2012

Meaning and Marriage

Sunday: 7 October, 2012 –– 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:18–24  / Hebrews 2:9–11 / Mark 10:2–16
Meaning and Marriage

Our society is in a crisis for loss of meaning, and one current issue where we see loss of meaning is marriage. We need to be aware of the connection between marriage and meaning. In his message for the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Men and women were created for something great, for infinity. Nothing else will ever be enough… The desire for a more meaningful life is a sign that God created us and that we bear his ‘imprint’." (italics added)

What gives meaning to life? We crave “a more meaningful life.” Is that physical life itself?  Think of all the effort that goes into sustaining life (if you want an overwhelming example, try reviewing everything that goes into our government’s Department of Health and Human Services!). Is our meaning found in productivity? There are those who expend great effort and take great delight in personal accomplishments. I think the bottom line of a meaningful life for most people would be happiness –– we are here to be “happy”?  Does the feeling of being happy give meaning to our lives?  It seems that far too many people think so.

A counselor once told me of a woman who came to see her seeking justification to leave her husband for another man. There was a typical litany of how the new love was so perfect and how he made her so happy. The counselor said the woman then asked her, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” I’ve never forgotten what the counselor said to the woman: “Do you think Jesus was happy when he chose to go the cross?” Was Jesus happy when he asked the Father if there was any other way?  Was Jesus happy when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). Notice, in today’s epistle reading, the Hebrews writer tells us how Jesus fulfilled God’s purpose in distinct contrast to what we think of as happiness: For it was fitting that he should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10).

Now I am not suggesting that marriage should make us suffer! Marriage is truly meant to be a gift that includes happiness. But the woman in my story illustrates a tragic mistake in popular thought today: our society is trying to make marriage a primary means to achieving happiness. Actually, our contemporary society is obsessed with the idea that sexual pleasure will make us happy, and marriage is being manipulated as sanctioned sexual pleasure. There is a massive effort to convince popular opinion that marriage is nothing but a human social construct, and that true “freedom” means designing and altering marriage to whatever promises to make us happy. 

Marriage is not a mere human social construct.  Mark tells us that the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about marriage because they were testing him. What God says about marriage is still being tested today, and the only way for the Truth to be heard is for Christians to understand it, embrace it, and live it. This is not a mere social debate. Archbishop John Joseph Myers (Archdiocese of Newark) has written a pastoral letter that is worthy of extended reflection. (  He begins by noting: “Marriage is as old as humankind. From the beginning, God created the human race in his own image and likeness; male and female he created them (cf. Genesis 1:27). Sexual difference and complementarity have been present from the beginning as part of God’s creative plan.” He quotes part of today’s Old Testament text: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), and then continues, “Thus, marriage can be seen as the ‘primordial sacrament’ predating the Fall and surviving original sin.... It is therefore the fundamental building block of every society and of the Church, a matter of vital concern to both.”

If we try to engineer marriage from the perspective of human happiness we will lose on two levels. First, people who focus on happiness are seldom happy. Focusing on our own happiness is an act of selfishness, and being preoccupied with ourselves is a sure path to misery. The human emotion of happiness is a by-product of something else. There is certainly happiness to be found in marriage, but it is the result of love –– and we love when we are focused on the good of another (which is the opposite of selfishness). Second, if we try to make marriage something other than what God has designed, we go against the grain of the universe –– and the more we try to go against the grain the more “splinters” we get (rejecting God’s way is rebellion, and rebellion is destructive; we become more and more fragmented –– “splintered”, to keep the analogy).

Jesus is explicit: From the beginning of creation.... Marriage was built into the fabric of who we are from the beginning. Then Jesus quotes the Old Testament Scripture and first affirms something that is so basic it is almost unbelievable that any other option would ever be considered: God made them male and female. This is the first building block of marriage from the beginning.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Canon law both provide a straightforward definition of marriage: “The matrimonial covenant.... is by its nature ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring....” In the Genesis story the man did not have a suitable partnerSo the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man.... then built up into a woman the rib he had taken from the man (Genesis 2:21,22). Perhaps you have heard what Matthew Henry, the early 18th Century Presbyterian Bible commentator wrote about this: “Eve was not taken out of Adam's head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” The Catholic Church teaches that the essential elements of marriage include unity, permanence, faithfulness, and fruitfulness.

In Christian marriage, you give yourself away... and you receive the gift of the other person. That is what the marriage ceremony –– the covenant ― is all about. In the presence of God and witnesses, a man and a woman publicly declare their choice to give their lives away and to accept the responsibility of the other person's gift. If I were a surrealist artist, I would picture marriage by drawing an image of a man and woman each cutting their hearts out and handing them to the other. The wife's heart is given to the husband and the husband's heart is given to the wife... and the life they live together is one of sharing all that it means to love. All the things we need to be fully human we choose to entrust to that one other person.

The trouble is that many married people assume this only half-way. Our culture conditions us to think mostly of what we are going to get from marriage. Our spouse is supposed to make us “happy.” But how often do we understand the other, more important, part of marriage: we lay down our lives for the good of our spouse! This is one reason there are so many divorces –– laying down our lives is hard, and many will not do it. Our culture is obsessed with what we can get, not what we can give. It is a total distortion of Christian living.

Do you remember where I started this? It’s the issue of meaningfulness. When we try to find meaning and purpose in our own selfish happiness instead of God’s loving design we will only find frustration, brokenness and pain. We dare not try to redefine marriage thinking it can sanction misplaced sexual obsession. Such a thing will only accelerate spiritual death. We need to understand that God is far more concerned that marriage helps make us holy instead of merely happy.  

Breakpoint, a Christian editorial, tells this story: The website, Craig's List, a young woman wrote: "I'm a spectacularly beautiful 25-year-old girl. I'm articulate and classy. I'm looking for a guy who makes at least half a million a year. Where do you single rich men hang out?"  She also wanted to know how men decided between marriage versus just-a-girlfriend.  “I am looking for MARRIAGE ONLY," she said.  In response, a man who claimed to meet her financial requirements said that from his perspective, her offer was a lousy business deal. "What you suggest is a simple trade: you bring your looks to the party, and I bring my money," he wrote. "But here's the rub: Your looks will fade and my money will continue to grow. So in economic terms you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning asset.” The man continued, “This is why it doesn't make good business sense to 'buy you' (which is what you're asking); I'd rather lease. So a deal that makes sense is not marriage. If you want to enter into some sort of lease, let me know."

This illustrates the crass ideas being projected on marriage. Television presents it as entertainment on a show called The Bachelorette (I was told this; I’ve never seen it). Archbishop Myers continued in his pastoral letter:

Marriage is a human institution, to be sure, and spouses can enter into the bond of marriage only by freely choosing to do so. Still, marriage is an institution whose defining features and structuring norms are not pure products of human choice. We cannot define and redefine marriage to suit our personal tastes or goals. We cannot make forms of relationship or types of conduct marital simply by attaching to them the word “marriage.”

There is a spiritual numbness spreading over our whole culture. The mainstream media has embraced an agenda of “re-inventing” marriage. We are inundated with it, even our children. The strategy is to wear us down –– to present the disordered as normal and to present Truth as bigotry. We need to understand we are in war for our souls. When marriage is about “what I get” and when marriage is merely a context to pursue sanctioned sex, we all lose. Marriage is holy. Marriage is one the Sacraments our Lord gives us to make us holy. This is because marriage calls us to love –– and love ultimately is this: that [God’s only-begotten Son] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives.... (1 John 3:16). Marriage means something –– it’s part of the “meaningful life” God created for us and renews in us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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