Thursday, October 4, 2012

Marriage - a Path to Holiness

Twenty Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year B

Marriage today is no longer the safe haven it once was; in fact, it is just the opposite. Where once, marriage seem to provide social, emotional and financial security, now it is a journey out to the dark, uncharted, and often troubled waters, or as I so fondly like to tell the young couples preparing for marriage – a one way ticket ride on the Titanic, without live boats. The parties  in fact leave the safe harbour of their lives as single unencumbered individuals– they leave their families, their neighbourhood, their job security, and often enough, their circle of friends – and, as a consequence, they run the risk of an expedition, with all its uncertainties and imponderables. Besides fidelity and commitment, the word ‘marriage’ in our present day has taken on such new meanings as hazard and risk.

Given the many challenges and new demands of marriage, where can couples find the necessary resources to help them weather the storms and tsunamis of troubled times as well as breathe new life into the humdrum existence of growing old together bereft of excitement and novelty? Today’s readings may prove instructive and helpful to those contemplating or preparing for marriage. Young people, who often find the greatest source of information and the accompanying values from the internet, television and movies, need to pay attention too. For couples already married, it’s never too late to sit up and take in a much needed refresher.

The readings remind us that marriage is not a human institution; it is a divinely instituted one. It is a vocation.  It is a call from God to participate in his plan for the world, cooperate in his work of creation, and share in Christ’s work of redemption through the daily living out of family responsibilities.  Too frequently, however, God is forgotten in all the busy-ness of making preparations for marriage. The couples are more concerned with the wedding dress, the dinner, the floral arrangement, the invitation cards and the wedding photos. God and the church are reduced to necessary inconveniences. Many often think that the only reason why they have to see the priest is because they want to get married in church. The Church wedding has become nothing more than a sentimental ceremony rather than a spiritual celebration of faith in God’s love. Abandoning the sacred character of marriage ultimately dooms it for disaster.

It is easy to understand why so many have this misguided view of marriage. What we witness at every wedding may seem to be solely the actions of two human persons who wish to solemnise their love publicly through ritual and oaths. But the visible action of the couple merely veils the most important action which is invisible – the action of God. The mutual yearning for union between a man and a woman, the longing for a deep, permanent attachment, is not a mere human reality. It is put there by God as a reminder of his desire to share his own life with us and to symbolise the Christian’s longing to be with God forever. Therefore, marriage is ultimately the Work of God. Understanding marriage as primarily the Work of God does not reduce the couple into two hollow and mindless puppets. Their consent, freely given and exchanged, becomes both an act of commitment and an act of surrender to God’s Work.

Realising that marriage is as much a work of God has serious implications. Couples often attempt to ‘make’ their marriage work. They sincerely wish to be good parents and try their level best to establish a family, an environment where their children will grow up strong, courageous, possessing good moral values and be the envy of neighbours and kin. They often attempt to achieve all of these things as if God was not part of the equation. Couples and families would exhaust all possible options and resources available to them before resorting to prayer. But if marriage is the Work of God, prayer must always be a priority. If marriage is the Work of God, the greatest quality that must be possessed by these two individuals is not just parenting skills, compassion, care, forgiveness or even love. It is faith. It is faith that God will supply, make good and bring to completion the good work He has begun.

That is why the standard which is demanded by marriage is not merely superhuman – it is divine. It is a relationship that has been marked out from the very beginning as one characterised by unity and indissolubility. The unity of the two persons render them a new being, a being that is joined not just at the edges but also at its core. A unity that calls the parties to life-long fidelity. A unity that can never be dissolved by any human action or decision; so strong that it can only be ended with death. And this is so, because the unity of marriage only prepares you for the unity with God in heaven. All this seems too weighty and even humanly impossible. Be assured, its part of the Work of God. Only God can guarantee both unity and indissolubility.

Interestingly, the Church also describes liturgy as the Work of God. If both liturgy and marriage share the same analogous description, we can treat liturgy as another benchmark for marriage too. Our celebration of the Eucharist pulls in various themes, but principal among these is the theme of sacrifice. Couples must learn the important lesson of sacrifice from the Master himself, the High Priest, who made himself lower than the angels in order that he might taste death for the benefit of everyone, as described in today’s second reading. Marriage calls the parties to the marriage to embrace the cross, not seen here as a burden, but as a sacrifice of love. Marriage makes the ultimate demand of couples who are asked to sacrifice everything, even their most treasured dreams, their private space, and their moments of enjoyment for the benefit of the other. One of the main issues affecting marriages and contributing to the rise of divorces and separation even among Catholics, is the inability of parties to make sacrifices even in the face of changing conditions and circumstances. Changes often place new pressures on marriage, such as the arrival of children, employment, financial crisis, familiarity which comes with the territory. But these changes need not necessarily be indicators marking the end of the marriage. It is only so, when the parties stubbornly or selfishly refuse to make the necessary sacrifices and to pay the heavy price to save it. Lasting and loving marriages do not come cheap!

Today, family life and married life is under siege. Divorce is becoming a normal everyday occurrence. Society provides an entire range of products from family therapy to self-help books to assist couples and families to weather the trials and difficulties encountered. What does the Church offer? What can the Church offer? Well, what the Church offers may appear overly simplistic and seemingly unconnected but it is the ultimate solution because it concerns every man or woman’s vocation. The Church offers us holiness. It’s time we call a spade a spade. The problem with marriage today is not just about dysfunctional behaviour, emotional baggage, or societal pressure. It is a problem of sin, the sin of individualism, the sin of selfishness, the sin of unforgiveness, the sin of infidelity, the sin of pride, the sin of lust, where man has been waylaid, where he has forgotten his ultimate vocation to be holy.  God instituted marriage for humanity’s salvation. God instituted marriage as a path to holiness. Like every other vocation, marriage is another preparation for heaven.  We launch from our safe and familiar shores so that we may finally make our way home to that great harbour, where we will find a safe refuge from every storm.

Marriage isn't easy. Marriage requires sacrifice, prayer and faith and these are the basic ingredients of holiness. Clearly, a husband and wife do not make a marriage holy; parents and children do not make a family holy. The family is holy because it is God’s creation, his plan for our way to him. It is his plan for our way to live fruitfully and happily here on earth. We are called to recognise the holiness inherent in these precious and sacred realities and to become humble servants, instruments and cooperators of God’s action and grace. God is the author of life and designer of marriage and family. He has made them in his image and likeness just as he makes man in his image and likeness. Marriage and family are holy because they are God’s work. Our work is to be holy and to allow him to do the rest.

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