Last month, Pope Benedict XVI issued the first encyclical of his pontificate. Its title and its message can certainly help us with what we are about today as we honor married couples celebrating golden, silver or other significant anniversaries this year:
Deus Caritas Est: God is Love. That God is love is the fundamental truth that the gospel proclaims to the entire world. It is the heart of the “good news” of salvation.
We were created in the image and likeness of this God who is love. Understanding that we are made in the image and likeness of God can help us to understand why God put into the humanity of man and woman the vocation – and thus the capacity and the responsibility – of love and communion.
Today, we honor you because your response to that vocation, with the help of God’s grace, has endured through the trials and tests of time.
Your vocation to a common life lived in the Lord; that is, within the holy bonds of Sacramental Marriage, is a witness to the fact that God does love his people. Your coming together “in one flesh” in a relationship of mutual and exclusive fidelity “until death do you part” is an image and symbol of the new and eternal covenant that unites God and his people. As a sacrament, Matrimony is a living and outward sign of Christ’s own love for his bride, the Church. Your unconditional love one for another, the mutual and exclusive fidelity of your love for one another, your love’s openness to life expressed through its fruits – your children and your good works – reflect the love of Christ himself. He loves us to the end with a love that is unconditional, faithful and, through the gifts of his Spirit poured into our lives, fruitful. Yes, by your love for each other – in sickness and in health, for better or for worse – you give a living witness that Deus Caritas Est, God is Love.
It is a witness sorely needed today when so many people – and society itself –are confused about the meaning of marriage and family. Today, more than ever, we need your witness about the true “facts of life”, about the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal life. The many years you have shared together – and certainly no one can pretend that they were always easy or that there will be no difficult days ahead – but those many years have given you experience – but more than experience, they have given you wisdom. You must share that wisdom if young people today are to discover the beauty of the vocation to love.
As the Pope pointed out in his encyclical, the word “love” is frequently used and misused. Most commonly, it represents what the ancient Greeks called “Eros”; that is, the erotic love between a man and a woman. But the Church, from her earliest days, proposed a new vision of self-sacrificial love expressed in the word “agape”. The natural human love between a man and a woman is a beautiful and sacred thing but it needs discipline and maturity, it needs ‘agape’ lest it lose its true dignity and purpose.
Our modern society certainly has exalted “Eros” but at the same time it has also debased the human body and in doing so has impoverished Eros. Eros, reduced to just ‘sex”, has become a commodity – a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold. The lack of modesty, our complacency with the ‘soft porn’ that has invaded our popular culture, is not a sign of our society’s “being at ease” with the body – as opposed to an older generation’s supposed prudish uptightness. Rather, it is a sign of our society’s contempt for the human body. Men and women today consider their bodies and their sexuality are purely material – somehow outside of themselves as if they were “extra baggage or an external shell” and thus to be able to be used and exploited at will.
As Catholics, we do not believed that we are Platonic “ghosts in machines” or Cartesian “substantive minds”. We believe that we are “ensouled bodies” – we have one human nature, made up of a unity of body and soul. Our bodies – and our differentiation into male and female – are not extraneous to our selves, to our very beings; rather our body and our sexuality is part of our identity as persons. Just as we speak of a sacrament as an outward or visible sign of an inner or spiritual reality, our bodies sacramentally display our souls.
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reminded us, man can only realize himself through the sincere gift of himself. The “Theology of the Body” developed by Pope John Paul II speaks of “nuptial meaning” of the body for the human body, constituted male or female, reveals man and woman’s call to become a gift for one another, a gift fully realized in their “one flesh” union. The body also has a “generative meaning” that (God willing) brings a “third” into the world through their communion. In this way, marriage constitutes a “primordial sacrament” understood as a sign that truly communicates the mystery of God’s Trinitarian life and love to husband and wife – and through them to their children, and through the family to the whole world.
In this way, we can speak of the language of the body. Our body language can communicate the deepest sentiments of the human person created by God for love and communion. However, to be authentic, this body language must reflect the truth about human nature as created by God. Only manifestations of self-giving that correspond to that truth will tend to that communion of persons to which humanity is directed. For this reason, adultery and cohabitation without marriage, one night stands and so called same sex unions while certainly described by some as “erotic” are in themselves incompatible to our true vocation to love. These expressions of a fraudulent “body language” are not worthy of the dignity of man created male and female in the image and likeness of God. It is a fraudulent body language that “communicates” only the counterfeit of true love.
Eros properly understood, however, does symbolize God’s passionate love for his people – and this Eros that attracts the opposite sexes to one another “leads a man and a woman to marriage, to a bond that is exclusive and therefore monogamous as well as permanent”. This is exactly what Jesus affirms, when quoting the Book of Genesis, he says: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” (Matthew 19: 5-6)
And of course, a distorted notion of Eros is not a just a product of our modern times. Although man’s vocation is to love, our capacity for love was wounded since that original sin of Adam and Eve. Because of that wound, we find the responsibilities of love very challenging, if not impossible. Even the apostles, when Jesus affirmed the indissolubility of marriage, complained: “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19: 10)
As Pope Benedict urges in his encyclical, a correct understanding of “Eros” needs to be rediscovered if today’s men and women are to respond faithfully to their vocation to love. A balance, between the ecstasy of “Eros” and the unselfish love of agape, needs to be reestablished. The key to regaining such a balance, the Holy Father tells us, is found in a personal relationship with God and an understanding of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.
We are in need of grace to be healed of the wounds of sin. Only God’s sanctifying grace can overcome the hardness of heart that led Moses to permit divorce. Only through the redemptive power of Christ’s paschal sacrifice was marriage restored according God’s plan from the beginning and thus was raised by Christ himself to the dignity of a Sacrament.
The hopes that people place in marriage are increasingly fragile in our age of easy divorce. Too many people, especially among our young, are cynical about the possibilities of entering into a joyful marriage that will endure until death. The hopes that people place in marriage are capable of being fulfilled only by acceptance of the Gospel.
For this reason we gather today at this “agape”, this celebration of the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ which is the Holy Mass. Here, we come wounded but seeking wholeness from the Physician of souls and bodies, Jesus Christ. And we are confident in the power of his grace – the grace that restores us to the spiritual health that makes reconciliation with him and with each other possible as is represented in today’s gospel with Jesus curing the leper. We once again ask you to once again renew the commitment that you made to each other so long ago, a commitment that has been tested and refined over the years, and a commitment that is now blessed and enriched by the wisdom of age. And we thank you for this witness.
Bishop Thomas Wenski
February 12, 2006
World Day of Marriage
Annunciation Catholic Church