Here is the homily preached at St. John Parish in Clonmel on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B]. For the Scripture readings, click HERE.
For the homily’s text, jump below…
The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Genesis 2:18-24 + Hebrews 2:9-11 + Mark 10:2-16
October 4, 2015
If you were to ask a child why two people get married, very likely he would respond, “because they love each other.” At its heart, this is true, of course. But it begs the question: “What is love?”
A child might respond that love is what two people feel for each other. Love is the thing that makes their hearts jump when they see each other. Anyone who has been married for any length of time can explain that this sort of emotional love is only going to carry a couple so far. In fact, if it’s the only type of love in that marriage, the relationship will flounder.
In other words, the love that is the heart of a sacramental marriage is not just an emotion, which rises and falls with the passage of time. Emotions can enhance the full experience of love, but emotions are not at the heart of love.
True human love is a moral choice. True human love is an act of the human will: in marriage, a moral choice that one spouse makes to sacrifice oneself for the good of the other. This is the only type of human love in which a marriage can be truly and firmly rooted: a love in which one sacrifices one’s own life.
Naturally, we Catholics see this sort of love when we look upon a crucifix. What sort of love did Jesus have in His Sacred Heart, as He chose to remain on the Cross, and offer His Body and Blood, soul and divinity for every sinful human being, including yourself?
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But consider one particular aspect of real human love. Human love, even though it can share directly in God’s divine love through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, is limited. That’s not a surprise, since we humans are creatures: we are finite in nature. Real human love is limited in many ways. One of these is the way in which knowledge and lack of knowledge, or we might say knowledge and ignorance, or we might in some cases even say, knowledge and doubt, are both part of human love.
How much knowledge of a person do you need to have in order to love a person? At one extreme, some would argue “none at all”. The idea of “love at first sight” is popular in our culture, and some cultures in the world still practice arranged marriages, where the bride and groom meet each other for the first time on their wedding day. Most of us, in our modern, rationalistic culture, would reject both of these as being naïve at best and irresponsible at worst.
We tend to believe that you cannot love what you don’t know. We believe in the importance of courtship, part of which is “getting to know” the other person. Many programs of marriage preparation include “compatibility tests”. All of these raise a question: how much knowledge of another person is needed before one can truly love that person? Can one human ever know all there is to know about another? Frankly, is there any human person who ever even knows all there is to know about his own self?
Since all forms of true love are rooted in the Love who is God, we might ask a similar question on the spiritual level. How much do you have to know about God—or how well do you have to know God—before you can love Him? I raise all these questions just to stir the pot, to help us hear today’s Scriptures more thoroughly. But consider one more example before we focus more closely on today’s Scriptures.
One year when I was teaching a session to RCIA candidates and their sponsors, a person who was already Catholic asked a question with a very worried look on her face. She said that during the months that she had been attending these sessions of catechesis, she had begun to realize just how much she did not know about the Catholic faith: so much so that she thought perhaps that she should be baptized again. How much, she asked, does a person need to know to be baptized? She certainly understood that a baby who is baptized knows very little about God, but she felt that the situation was different in her case, since she was baptized as an adult. Her question confused me at first, and it took me quite a while to understand what she was asking.
An unmarried couple sometimes uses a similar sort of question to justify living together before being married. Their reasoning goes that, if they have more experience with—and knowledge of—each other, they can be more sure about making such an important commitment. This of course confuses the importance of human knowledge on the one hand, and God’s grace on the other. Which of those two is the foundation of Marriage?
It’s not the depth of two persons’ knowledge of each other that makes them married, any more than it’s the strength of their emotions for each other that makes them married. What makes a couple married are—firstly—their human vows: their moral choice to hand over the rest of their natural lives to each other, with all the unknowns that that entails. The two human vows are sealed by God’s choice—God’s divine vow—to strengthen them constantly by His grace: whether they are richer or poorer, in good times or in bad, in sickness or in health.
God knows the spouses’ pasts better than each spouse knows the other’s past. God knows both spouses’ pasts better than each knows his or her own past. God also knows the future of the couple, a future which to them lies completely hidden on their wedding day. God’s knowledge and God’s love are infinite, and in spite of all the human weaknesses and sins in the past and the future of both bride and groom, God still vows always to be with a couple throughout their married days.
Jesus, then, teaches that an offering of oneself in marriage involves a complete sacrifice of one’s self: of the mind, of the will, and of the heart. Real love is not something that can be tested beforehand by human experience. Because—finally—it’s not the human love of the spouses that seals their lives together: it is God’s love. Not until the grace of God enters a marriage through their exchange of vows will God make His promise to be with the couple always, which is the only promise that can make a marriage what it’s really meant to be.
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So here is the very heart of marriage. If Christ is not at the center of a marriage, that marriage cannot grow, because human love—left to itself—is only as fallible and faithful as any of our other powers: the human memory which fails us, the human intellect which can think only so fast and of so many things at once, and the human will which sins by turning inward on itself.
This foundation of marriage—Christ’s love, the love of His Sacred Heart, the love that seals the spouses’ lives together—is the only thing strong enough to save marriage. I’m not speaking about marriage in general, as an institution in our society today, although certainly His love is needed that way, also. I mean that a particular marriage, when it’s at its worst, can only be saved by Christ’s love.
So when is a marriage at its worst? A marriage is at its worst not when life throws poverty, or sickness, or any other serious blow against a couple. A marriage is at its worst when the blow comes from within: when a marriage is torn by infidelity.
“Fidelity”—“faithfulness”—is one of the four essential qualities of a sacramental marriage. A marriage which mirrors Christ’s love for His Church is a love that has those four qualities that we see in Jesus on the Cross: a love that is free, full, faithful and fruitful. Of these four, it’s trying to live out faithfulness—fidelity—that is the greatest struggle for so many couples.
We have to keep in mind, though, there are many different types of infidelity. There is a whole spectrum of types of infidelity: from thought, to word, to action. And of course, some actions are worse than others. But there is no marriage that is not affected by one form of infidelity or another. Even if it’s only in one’s thoughts, and even if those thoughts are kept to oneself, the married love of that couple is truly weakened, which makes daily self-sacrifice (the bread and butter of marriage) more difficult.
But at its worst, infidelity tears married love completely inside out. And it’s then that a spouse has to answer again the question that the priest asked at the beginning of the wedding ritual, on the day they got married: “Have you come here freely, and without reservation, to give yourselves to each other in marriage?” That little phrase—“without reservation”—gets at the heart of the Church’s clear statement—founded on the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel—that a marriage in which love is not given “without reservation”, is not a Christian marriage at all.
And so, in the face of infidelity, there has to be conversion, and there has to be forgiveness, for there to be reconciliation. It’s a simple equation: “conversion” + “forgiveness” = “reconciliation”. But it’s very hard to live this out. It’s even harder to live out if a couple excludes the possibility even from consideration. When a priest is preparing a couple for marriage, and, as part of the routine paperwork, asks each of them the question, “Do you intend to accept the obligation to be faithful to your spouse?”, I’m not sure how many of those young people understand that the “obligation to be faithful,” includes the obligation to offer forgiveness to the spouse who has been unfaithful.
In other words, a spouse who says, “If you’re ever unfaithful to me, I’m out the door,” is saying that there are limits to his or her married love. But Christ says that that’s a lie. And we know that that’s a lie, because that sort of “limited love” doesn’t mirror the boundless love of Christ that poured forth from His Sacred Heart on Calvary. If Jesus said to you, “I’ll continue to love you, as long as you’re faithful to me,” you would have no hope whatsoever of ever getting to Heaven.
Take this statement, and imagine one spouse saying it to the other: “I will love you, as long as you do not… ‘blank’.” Fill in the blank. If there’s anything that a spouse can fill in that blank with, to make that statement true, then that spouse is not living a Christian marriage. If a man or a woman is standing at the altar, and the priest asks, “Have you come here… without reservation, to give yourselves to each other in marriage,” and the man or the woman says “Yes” out loud, but in his heart, or in her mind, she finished that sentence by saying, “Yes… as long as my spouse is faithful to me first,” then no marriage comes into existence in God’s eyes.
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Recently the Pope spoke to a group that was meeting to pray and reflect on marriage and family life. The Holy Father said plainly—as plainly as Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel—that every child deserves to have his parents married to each other. “Truly”, the Pope continued, “Children are the greatest wealth… of the family.”
So how can children understand their true worth, if they’re not brought up in a home that is founded on the love of Christian marriage, and a home in which this love—especially love in the form of mercy and forgiveness—is freely offered? If children are brought up in a home where spouses are saying to each other, “I will love you, up until the point where you do this, and then I’ll love you no longer,” how can that child possibly believe that he or she is going to be loved unconditionally? If our children deserve unconditional love, and God offers each of us unconditional love in the face of our own worst sins, then a spouse in a Christian marriage deserves that same unconditional love.