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Wedding vows pledge agape love, and transform
the man and woman into a one-flesh union ("…bone of my bones and flesh of
my flesh…" Gen. 2:23).
It is easy to lose sight of the sacredness of marriage in our modern world of Vegas wedding chapels, civil marriage, same-sex "marriage", and Desperate Housewives. However, as baptized Christians, we have a higher standard imposed by truth. As Catholics, we have even greater responsibility and burden imposed by the fullness of truth.
This truth sources from Our Lord Jesus Christ himself through his revelation of God to man and the revelation of man to man. What do we know about this God in whose image we are made?
The Truth about you
What we call "God" is a trinity of Divine Persons. Their unity is so complete that these three who's (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit) are one what (God): a Divine Communio. God the Father ("…the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…") by His very Nature pours himself out totally to his Beloved - Jesus Christ ("…eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father…"). This Agape is so complete, we say, "God is Love", not "God has love" or "God loves". Love is His Nature meaning that if he were to stop "begetting" his Son, that is, stop loving (agape), he would cease to be. God the Son, Jesus Christ the Beloved, receives his Father's love perfectly, without fear, hesitation, or doubt. His nature is to glorify the Father in a divine reciprocation of Agape. Indeed, the only right response to love…is love. Eternally, the Father and Son are in a communion of giving and receiving so real, that it is the Third Divine Person, The Holy Spirit ("…the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and Son he is worshipped and glorified."). Talk about love taking on a life of its own! Life and Love are inseparable with God. Made in God's image, Life and Love are inseparable with Man.
The call to marriage
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So, what does this have to do with marriage? We were made to love (agape). We were made relational - to be a self-gift. "..man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except in the sincere gift of himself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). The only two ways to live our vocation here on earth is in marriage or consecrated celibacy "for the kingdom". Though we are all single for some part of our lives, there is no call or vocation to singleness or bachelorhood. This seems harsh to modern sensibilities absent an understanding of the truth of the human person and his destiny. Our destiny is an eternal marriage with Christ. We, the Church, are the bride betrothed to Christ the Bridegroom. Our Lord told the Pharisees that in heaven, man and woman are not given in marriage, yet he raised marriage to a Sacrament here on earth. If it is so sacred and important, why does "death do us part"? In St. Paul's discourse on marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33) we are given the Christ/Church marriage as the model for our earthly marriages.
In the light of this heavenly marriage, we can see earthly marriage as a time of perfecting ourselves: a preparation for eternity. Here we drown our selfishness with selflessness. Here we make right use of our God-given human freedom and free will by ordering it towards serving the other in radical self-gift. Adam and Eve's sin of disobedience cost us Paradise, but - "Oh happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" - Christ's victory over sin won us more blessings than those lost through Adam's sin (CCC 420). We are now offered divinity through an eternal one-flesh union with the God-Man drawing us right into the divine Communio.
He's Preparing You
Make no mistake; you are in preparation for marriage. For most, matrimony is the Sacrament preparing you for the eternal marriage with Christ. For others, it is beginning the eternal marriage with Christ directly through consecrated celibacy (priest, religious, or consecrated laity). This celibacy "for the kingdom" cannot be reduced to a personal rejection or renunciation of sex. It is a marriage (free, full, faithful, and fruitful), a one-flesh union with Christ, here and now, in anticipation of the eternal wedding. The preparation for both Matrimony and consecrated celibacy, though, begins at the moment of our conception until the moment of our vow, right in our own family.
The sacred duty of parents is the procreation and education of children. This education is both in faith and reason - "the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" (Fides Et Ratio, Introduction). The essence of maturity is the internalization of our formation. The external rules, structure, or ethic taught in our childhood steadily becomes the internal ethos of an adult. Imperfect obedience driven by fear must become perfect obedience driven by love-love of God and love of neighbor.
This ethos is both required to make a vow of love and further developed within marriage. Put another way, we cannot pledge ourselves as a gift until we have taken ownership of ourselves (i.e., self-mastery). If your future spouse were to enter your life right now, would you be ready to make a gift of yourself? You can't give what you don't own. More important than finding the right one, we must struggle and work to be the right one. This struggle and work is seeking sanctification (personal holiness) in our ordinary, daily life through the sacraments, prayer, and sacrifice. When we draw closer to Christ with all the "tools" available to us in his Church, we can be assured that he will equip us to answer His call for us. God doesn't always call the equipped, but He always equips the called. Bring your "five barley loaves and two fishes" before trying to feed the "five thousand" because his grace always builds on nature.
Ultimately, we are all called to marriage - eternal marriage to Christ. The only two callings (vocations) to prepare for this marriage are matrimony and consecrated celibacy. Made in the image and likeness of a God whose nature is total gift of self (agape), we are also made for free, full, faithful, and fruitful love (agape). Earthly marriage is a Sacrament because it points to, and prepares us for, this eternal marriage; it really joins a man and a woman into a union imaging the Trinity; and it is a font of graces to live out our agape wedding vow. No matter what our stage in life, our good works for the Lord, or our sins of the past, He is preparing you for marriage.
Some excellent recommended Catholic resources
Damon Clarke Owens lives in West Orange, NJ with his wife Melanie and their five daughters. He is the Director of Natural Family Planning for the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ and the founder of New Jersey Natural Family Planning (www.njnfp.orgg). He speaks nationally on marriage, chastity, Theology of the Body, and Theology of the Family. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 847-0165.