Joseph and the Rediscovery of Love

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project“Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

The Bible tells us little about St. Joseph, but what it does tell us is a magnificent example of this principle.


Joseph was betrothed to Mary. The Jewish betrothal ceremony had more weight than our engagement; they were effectively married, just awaiting the moving-in ceremony. Yet when he found her “with child through the Holy Spirit,” Joseph decided to send her away. (Our imprecise modern translations say, “divorce,” but the Greek is more like, “set her loose.”) The first thing we can see is that the coming of Jesus confused Joseph’s plans.

Reading quickly, we sometimes mistake Joseph’s motives – and in the process, we mistake the strength of their relationship. Perhaps he thought Mary had been with another man. But surely no one who knew Mary would think that.

Rather, it says that he found her with child through the Holy Spirit. The text allows us – and the context compels us – to think he knew the child was divine. He sent her away not because he thought she was bad, but because he thought she was too good for him. It says he wanted to send her away because he was righteous; like any righteous Jew, he did not dare step into the sanctuary, knowing he was unworthy to see the face of God.

Indeed, the scandal of Mary is that God has come far too close. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t seem possible. So we pretend that Jesus is either less than God or less than truly human. To recognize that Mary is truly the mother of God is to explode our minds. Joseph, being holy, didn’t deny the truth – but he stepped away from it.

Thus the angel has to say, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (And we must be told, as well, not to be afraid to welcome Mary into our homes.) Joseph is afraid – but the angel reminds him of his own messianic dignity.


The angel tells Joseph of the role he must play: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph is the namer. He did not conceive the child, but he is to act as the father.

And he is to name Jesus savior – not destroyer. On the one hand, Jesus seems to upend Joseph’s plans. Like Abraham, Joseph must set off on a trajectory he never expected.

But in losing his life, Joseph rediscovers it. Naming Jesus points to how personal Joseph’s vocation will be. Children need parents – not just institutions – because they need to be known personally, to be known by name (not just by number). Joseph’s fatherly role is beautifully outlined in the naming of Jesus.

And Joseph is to be husband of Mary. We have a strange idea of ancient marriage, as if they didn’t even know their spouses. But though sin has always gotten in the way, marriage has always been about love and relationship. Children need marriage because they need to experience those personal relationships, to grow up in a context of inter-personal love.

The Bible portrays the first marriage, the marriage of Adam and Eve, as a delight, a discovery of another self and an end to the loneliness of being surrounded by mere animals. The Old Testament portrays marriage as the ultimate image of the love of God for his people, a love which is the opposite of betrayal and infidelity. I agree with the tradition that says the Song of Songs is about God and his people, not about human marriage – but regardless, it portrays marriage as profound being-in-love.

And when Jesus gives the grace to restore marriage – a grace given preeminently to his mother – it results in a love like his own. The only commandment to the Bride is to love.

Joseph wasn’t ignorant of Mary. She wasn’t some stranger that he suspected of adultery. She was his best friend. In the story of the Finding in the Temple, Mary can speak for Joseph’s heart: “your father and I have looked for you, greatly distressed” (Luke 2:48).


Jesus is savior. He comes to restore, not to destroy. He calls Joseph, yes, to give up his life. Like any marriage, he must give himself unreservedly to his wife, to his child, and to God. In this marriage, he will have to give himself even more radically, as evidenced in his fear to go forward.

But the angel tells him not to be afraid. In giving his life, he finds it again, in laying it down he rediscovers all the riches of love: the love of husband and wife, the love of father and son, the love of friendship, the love of God.

Where is St. Joseph in your devotional life?

(For more meditations like the above, check out Fr. Mary-Dominique Philippe’s exquisite The Mystery of Joseph. (aff))

Thy Kingdom Come: Marriage and the Family

seven sacramentsIn the last two weeks, we have considered the beginning of our life of faith in Baptism (by which we can call God in heaven our Father) and the leading fruit of that new life, which is praise (the hallowing of his name) sacramentally made visible to us by the Ordained Priesthood.

But there is life on the other side of the altar rail, too. We offer our lives on the altar, through the hands of the priests – but our sanctification, our life as children of God and of praising the Father, would be incomplete if God’s kingdom did not penetrate into every aspect of our lives.

And so after “Hallowed be thy name, we say, “Thy Kingdom Come.” And alongside the priesthood, which offers all to God, there is the sacrament of marriage, by which that kingdom penetrates into human life. When we say that third line of the Our Father, let us think of the sacrament of the Christian family.


Now, let it be said immediately: marriage is not everything. Just as last week we said that the sacramental priesthood makes visible in a few people the truth of the universal priesthood of the faithful, so too marriage makes sacramentally visible the broader truth of the kingdom of God. Those who are not married – and those to whom we are not married – are also places where that kingdom is manifested. But marriage is the sacrament that makes it visible.

Just as those who are not ordained priests look to the priests to manifest the truth of their own priesthood, so those who are not married – and the married themselves, in all their other relationships – look to marriage to make visible the meaning of God’s kingdom. And just as we can think of the ordained priesthood to help us remember what “hallowed be thy name” means, we can look to marriage to help us remember what “thy kingdom come” means.


Marriage is the ultimate human relationship, “the greatest friendship,” as St. Thomas Aquinas says, the first discovery of bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, another human to whom I can relate, as St. John Paul II reminds us in his meditations on Genesis.

Marriage is the necessary condition for child rearing. This is fabulous. The Second Vatican Council (echoing St. Thomas) calls it “the school of deeper humanity.” Children need to be taught what human life is about. Marriage teaches them. Although we need to take our children to church – to see the ordained priest hallow God’s name – that is not enough. Children also need to be taught human relationship.

When the Church traditionally said that children were the “primary end” of marriage, there was a delightful circularity. On the one hand, the point is that children desperately need the witness of a true marriage: not just a marriage rightly sealed at the altar, but a marriage lived in all the grandeur of human friendship – marriage serves children. On the other hand, in order for marriage to serve this “end,” it must be an end in itself: unless marriage is a magnificent friendship – again, not just sealed at the altar, but lived out in all its “busy generosity” (as Vatican II again proclaims) – it does not serve the children.

Marriage is human relationship, the love of one person for another, in its most fundamental expression. There are those who love more than married couples. But there is no greater icon of what human love is.

Sex is kept in marriage not because marriage is about sex – but because sex is lower than marriage. Sex is the act by which babies are made, and so sex must be kept in the place within that magnificent friendship – including lifetime fidelity – where those babies can flourish. Sex is unitive, too – because you wouldn’t want procreation to happen without union, wouldn’t want children to come into the world without the magnificent friendship of marriage.


When we say “thy kingdom come,” we don’t just mean blind obedience to a dictatorial will. We will talk about God’s will next week – but his kingdom is something else, something grander. A kingdom means not just mastery, but a realm flourishing because of the benevolence of its monarch. A kingdom is not just a castle – and the Church is not just the altar – but the whole wonderful happy realm that benefits from a wise and just leader.

God’s kingdom is love. God’s kingdom is when love of God (hallowed be thy name) spills out into love of neighbor, and when God loves our neighbor through us. It is when what we experience at the altar becomes a way of life, a way of love, in our homes.

Marriage is not at all the only place where we love. We pray for God’s kingdom to come in all places. And yet the call of true family – a call we live so imperfectly, but to which the sacrament of marriage calls us and for which it gives us grace – manifests to us the true menaing of thy kingdom come.”

How do the imperfections of your family help remind you of the grandeur of family love?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Love and Marriage

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 2:18-24; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; HEB 2:9-11; MK 10:2-16

This Sunday Pope Francis’s great synod on marriage begins.  The Gospel for the Mass is Scripture’s bluntest statement against divorce – and together, the readings give the most beautiful picture of why marriage is a central icon of Christian love.

In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is lawful.  He goes out of his way to contradict Moses: he allowed divorce only “because of the hardness of your hearts.”  But Jesus quotes Genesis – “from the beginning of creation” – emphasizing the words “they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together no human being must separate.”  And therefore remarriage, he says, is no remarriage, but adultery.  Strong words.

Mark slightly streamlines this dialogue compared to the almost exact same account in Matthew 19.  But he eliminates Matthew’s confusing words about how fornication effects the situation.  And at the end of the story, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain this teaching in private, Matthew has Jesus admit that it is hard (“All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given”), but Mark just has him repeat it (“Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”)  In Mark we simply have the teaching in its starkness.


But Jesus points to the beginning, and the Lectionary gives us the passage he cites from Genesis.  Genesis, in fact, gives us some keys for appreciating this stark teaching in the Gospel.

Jesus quotes Gen 2:24.  Immediately before those words (“This is why a man will leave his father and mother”) come Adam’s words of admiration for his wife, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

(In many modern translations, the words, “That is why” belong to the narrator.  But the Tradition often assumes that Adam is still speaking: he prophesies – and, despite our translation, it is in the future tense – “That is why a man will leave his father and mother.”  In his admiration of Eve, Adam prophesies all marriages to come.)

The first note, then, is similarity and equality.  After the rhetoric of the Sexual Revolution we forget, but the Christian prohibition of divorce is one of the most pro-woman decisions in the history of mankind.  Alongside the right of women to choose celibacy, it is the original feminism.  Moses did not allow women to leave their husbands – like every other non-Christian society, he only allowed men to leave their wives.  Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was first of all a rejection of this inequality – the inequality expressed every time someone abandons their promises.  The man has no right to abandon his family, because God created man and woman equals.


A second note: the unity of body and soul.  He admires that she is from his body: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  But in the preceding story, the problem is one of soul.  He is alone (the Hebrew word is “separated” – already a word pointing toward divorce) and looking for a “suitable partner.”  He names the animals, but the animals cannot speak back to him.

In Eve’s bodily similarity to him he discovers her personality.  He knows that this one who has his flesh and bones will also be able to talk to him and so heal his loneliness.  Marriage, with all its fleshly privileges and obligations, points to a much deeper kind of unity.  Bodily union is an icon of spiritual friendship.  Jesus’s insistence on maintaining that fleshly union points deeper, to an abiding friendship.


We begin to see that the key words in what Jesus says are “hardness of heart.”  This is the true enemy of marriage.  And the deeper claim of Jesus is that this hardness of heart – which has reigned even through Moses – can now be conquered.

Our second reading begins a tour through the Letter to the Hebrews that will last the rest of the liturgical year.  It gives the theological key to this healing of our hard hearts.

In it, Jesus becomes “lower than the angels” – the Most High comes down – to taste death for us.  He consecrates us by suffering.  He becomes one of us, our brother – bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.

Suffering among us, Jesus conquers hardness of heart.  It is by our union with him, and our willingness to suffer for others, that divine friendship becomes possible.  The heart of Jesus loving us even to the Cross is the icon of married love.


The long option for the Gospel brings us back, yet again, to the theme of children.  In Mark, it almost feels like this discussion of marriage is an interruption of a conversation about children.

Suddenly what we have learned about marriage floods out into how we see all people: we love them as we love ourselves; see their bodies as an icon of their souls; are called, even through suffering, to overcome our hardness of heart.  In marriage we have learned the grandeur of Christian love.

What does marriage teach you about loving your neighbor?




A Couple Thoughts on Christian “Submission”

jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-marriage (1)Last week we had the marvelous reading on marriage from Ephesians 5, “Husbands, love your wife, as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it.”

Perhaps I don’t emphasize the obvious enough, but I presume everyone here knows that this reading is not about putting down women.  The verse before the controversial one, where it says, “wives, submit to your husbands,” it says, “submit to one another.”  There are three verses on the wife’s submission, nine on the husband loving his wife.  The husband is called to imitate Christ, laying down his life for his bride, nourishing and cherishing her, loving her as he loves himself.  All of this needs to be said.

But today I would like to go a step further, with a couple thoughts on what Paul says about women.  (My most serious scholarly work is on gender and marriage in the Greco-Roman and especially medieval worlds.)


First: it is widely said – by those who do not simply ignore these verses – that Paul is simply working with the cultural norm.  In his society, they say, women were second-class citizens; Paul does his best to fill that cultural norm with love.  Similarly, a few verses later he will talk about slaves; Paul is not – I definitely agree with this – supporting slavery (and definitely not the chattel race slavery of American history, a particularly odious variant).  He’s doing his best to bring love to an imperfect system, just as we should.

That is certainly partly right.  We can learn a lot from that approach.  But it might be a little too simple.  Even its take on ancient slavery, and worker-employer relationships, is a bit too simple.

What if we turn this approach on its head?  Instead of saying that submissive wives were the norm in Paul’s culture – what if the opposite was the norm?  I don’t know many submissive wives; in my experience, it is more often husbands who submit to domineering women.  (Please – I’m not denying there are abusive relationships!  Just questioning whether that is the “norm” that Paul is assuming.)

Maybe – maybe, I don’t know – he tells husbands to love their wives because that is what husbands are most likely not to do.  Husbands’ hearts wander – even when they are letting the wife dominate the home and family.  And maybe Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands because that is their more common sin: not a wandering heart, but an uncooperative attitude.


I would really like to do a read through Ovid, the great myth writer of Paul’s time, to see how submissive, and how hen-pecking, Hera is.  (I know that Zeus’s heart is always wandering: “love your wives” is definitely not just accepting the cultural norm in those Greco-Roman myths.)

But today I did a Bible study on women in Proverbs, to find the Hebrew norm.  I found three models.

First, there are many warnings about adulterous women, defined by flattery and deception.  She lies and takes.  Notice that adultery can be a metaphor for other things, too, not just sex.  In this cultural norm – normal today, but apparently normal then, too – women use men to get what they want.  “Submission” might partly mean, don’t be like that.


The second model in Proverbs, also mentioned many times, is the “contentious” or “brawling” woman.  “It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.”  “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house” (that is, even if you have a big house).  “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”

This sounds to me like hen pecking: drip, drip, drip, till she gets what she wants.  Submission might also partly mean, don’t be like that.


Finally, the third model in Proverbs is the virtuous wife: Proverbs ends with a long beautiful description of her.  (Kimberly Hahn has a fine book of meditations on this passage.)  This woman is smart and provident and very active.

She is always “doing good.”  She makes things with her hands.  She acquires good food for her family.  She does many business transactions: buying fields and vineyards, selling the things she has made, making sure she finds the best candles for her home.

She is strong – “she girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.”  (“Girding your loins” meant putting on a belt: their flowing garments were fine for sitting around, but needed a belt if you were going to get anything done.)  “Strength and honor are her clothing.”  She cares for the poor.

She is wise – “she opens her mouth with wisdom” (not silent) “and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”  She helps her husband achieve success in the world.

Above all, “she looks carefully to the way of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.”  Really, all of this defines how Proverbs sees “idleness”: the good woman does not sit around, she is smart and provident and active and wise.  And so “the heart of her husband safely trusts in her.”


This is not a cultural norm of women who don’t know how to think.  It describes a kind of submission – her husband can trust her, unlike the manipulative or hen-pecking wife – but this “submissive” wife is anything but a push-over.  Rather, she works with her husband, and supports him, with her intelligence and activity.  Maybe that’s what Ephesians means by “submit.”

If I were to write another article about Ephesians 5, I would point out that the deeper teaching here is about the fruit of the Spirit, the work of grace in healing and elevating the lives of the faithful.  When Christ sanctifies Christian women, he doesn’t make them brainless bumps on a log.  He makes them women their husbands can rely on.

Where in your life could you practice an active, intelligent, counter-cultural submission?


Twenty-first Sunday: A Spiritual Communion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JOS 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; EPH 5:21-32; JN 6:60-69

This Sunday is our last week reading through John 6 and Ephesians.

In John 6 we come to the conflict: Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  When many of his disciples heard this, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  But Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Catholics we know we stand with St. Peter, who accepts Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, against those who reject it.  But as we did last week, let’s try to go deeper, and see what it means to accept this teaching.


Jesus’s response to those who are scandalized points us to the heart.  “It is the spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This is a curious response, when he has just been insisting on eating his flesh: “the flesh is useless.”  On one level, obviously he means that in order to believe the Eucharist is his flesh, we need to rely on more than our fleshly eyes.

But he says more than that.  What makes the Eucharist powerful?  How does it give us “life”?  As we saw two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit is the leaven of the Eucharist; by eating the Body of Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ.

The tradition of the Church – St. Thomas, for example, and the Council of Trent – talks about a “spiritual communion” in a way different from how we talk about it today.  Today, by spiritual communion we often mean, not physically receiving – as if the spiritual was deficient.  But traditionally, the Church talks about spiritual communion primarily as a good communion: the sinner might receive Christ physically, but not spiritually; we want to receive him physically and spiritually; we want our every communion to be spiritual.


Our reading from Joshua gives a metaphor for this spiritual receiving.  Joshua tells the people, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  The people “forget not all his benefits”: they say, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .  He protected us.”

As our Psalm says, they have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

The Exodus is a metaphor of the Christian life.  God has saved us, taken us out of slavery, brought us to the promised land – so that we may live in relationship to him, so that we may serve him.

One way to think of a truly spiritual communion is that we give thanks to the Lord for all his goodness to us, and so we pledge our lives to him.

More deeply, before we give our lives to him, we receive our lives from him.  At the communion rail, he gives us life – and we go out with that life within us.  To receive him spiritually is to let his life penetrate into us, to be transformed by the gift we receive.


Again, the greatest image of this is in our reading from Ephesians.  This week it is the famous second half of Ephesians 5, on husbands and wives.  But note, before we start: Paul doesn’t just talk about husbands and wives.  Rather, he uses husbands and wives as a model of all kinds of relationships.  This is a teaching on marriage – but it is also a paradigm of the Christian life.

The Lectionary, then, rightly introduces the teaching on marriage with a few lines from the beginning of the chapter, where Paul is speaking more generally: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  This is true spiritual communion: to receive the love that Christ gives us, and to be transformed by it.  This is the whole of the Christian life.

As I am sure you know, he begins with the infamous words about wives – “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” – but spends much more of his energy on what the husband should be like.

In fact, he concludes his words on wives by saying Christ is the head because “he is the Savior.”

The first model of the husband’s love he gives is as Savior: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy.”  This love is self-sacrificial, yes – but with a purpose.  The husband is to have received Christ’s saving love, and so to live only to bring holiness to those around him.  Because true love focuses on the only real happiness of the other: holiness.

So the second model he gives is of the body: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.”  True love sees the other’s good as my own.

To both spouses – and to all of us – he says, seek not your own advantage; seek not worldly pleasures; but be transformed by the love of Christ, the Spirit you receive in Eucharistic communion.

What is one way you could be more Eucharistic to someone close to you today?

Consecrated Life and Marriage 

450px-Trappist_praying_2007-08-20_dtiIn the years after college, when I was discerning religious life, I went out to dinner one summer afternoon with a good friend, Betsy.  She too had been discerning religious life.  But like me, she was starting to wonder if that was her proper vocation.  She shared with me an insight that I think we should all live from.

She realized that what she was really longing for was not religious life, but heaven.  Later I would find that this is exactly what Vatican II and St. John Paul II say about religious life: it is the eschatological life, a life that lives more directly the desire for heaven.

It is essential to all other vocations that we be inspired by this witness.  We should all, on some level, be drawn to religious life, because it shows us our true heavenly vocation.


If I understand Canon Law, there are two kinds of consecrated life, “religious institutes” and “secular institutes.”  The distinction is that religious “pronounce public vows . . . and live a life in common” (CIC – i.e., Canon Law – 607§2) whereas secular consecrated “live in the world” (CIC 710).  Maybe more important, religious life “manifests (CIC 607§1) and gives “public witness” (ibid. §3).

To put it simply, religious are the kind of consecrated people who wear habits.  They make their consecration visible.

This is important to the Church: it serves the rest of us at least as much as it serves the religious themselves.  Most of us are not called to “look Christian” in such a visible way.  But we should all carry with us the sense that we are separated from the world; we are not the same as our non-Christian brothers and sisters; by our Baptism itself we are set apart for Christ.

The religious habit reminds us all of our consecration.  We need that.


All consecrated – religious and secular, visible and less visible – are defined by the three “evangelical counsels,” poverty, chastity, and obedience.  They are called evangelical because they are recommended in the Gospel and because they help to reveal the true meaning of the Gospel.

They are called counsels because they are not necessary – not commandments – but are just one way of living the Christian life.  Nonetheless, Christ counsels them, recommends them, because, in another sense, we are all called to embrace the true spirit of these counsels.  We all need the witness of consecrated life.


The counsel of Poverty reminds us that life is not lived for earthly goods.  No thing can make me happy – and the loss of no thing can separate me from my true happiness, who is God.

Canon Law almost seems to wink when it says religious should live poverty “both of things and of spirit.”  That is, the consecrated person can’t just say he is “spiritually” poor – consecrated life is about living out that spiritual poverty by actually giving up material possessions.

There is freedom here.  We are all called to discover that freedom.  We don’t need all the stuff!  And we do need the witness of those who freely give it up.

We with careers and families need more stuff than consecrated people do.  But we should look to them with some jealousy.  How good it would be to be more poor!


The counsel of chastity reminds us that God alone is our true Bridegroom.  There is some irony in calling the vow “chastity” – the virtue of chastity is not a counsel, it is a commandment, something we all must live.  Consecrated people go further, into celibacy.

But again, they have something to teach us.  Marriage itself depends, says John Paul II, on a kind of virginal soul.  “You are a fountain sealed, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

To truly love another person – especially those we love most deeply, in our family – we must recognize they have depths which we cannot plumb.  They are made, finally, for God, not for us.  We love them most deeply when, like two members of a religious order, we kneel side by side in adoration of Christ.

We who are married are not called to virginity.  But we are called to this virginal spirit.


Finally, the counsel of obedience acknowledges that life isn’t about doing it my way.  How we need the witness of that freedom: the freedom to love, to embrace Christ, and not to be so worried about winning every argument.

We who are not under obedience don’t have that freedom.  We actually do have to make many more decisions for ourselves.  But let us long for the freedom of giving in, wherever we responsibly can.


We who are married need the witness of religious life, to call us to live our life in more radical love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Are there consecrated people in your life?  How do they call you deeper into sanctity?

Living the Sacrament of Marriage: Friendship

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Our last meditation on the sacraments as a pattern for our spiritual life is on marriage.

We can think of marriage coming last precisely because marriage is the sacrament of ordinary life. Not everyone is married, of course, but marriage represents the sacramentalization of the basic way of life. Ordinarily – not always, but ordinarily – we live “between marriage and marriage.” As Genesis says (and Jesus repeats), we leave our father and mother and cling to our wives: we go forth from our parents’ marriage to our own.

To call marriage a sacrament is to remind even those who aren’t married that marriage is where they come from. The celibate are not meant to despise their parents (Jesus condemns that – see Matthew 15 on people using religious vows as a way not to honor their father and mother). To the contrary, they are to reverence the marriage that gave them birth and brought them to life.

Many of us (myself included) were not raised in marriage. But there, too, we are meant to appreciate the tremendous pain of single parenthood, to reverence our parents all the more precisely because we know that marriage is the normal way, and that living without (whoever’s “fault” it might be) is a place of pain. Marriage is the normal place we all begin.


To recognize we come from marriage, however, is to recognize something profound about the human person: we are made for community. It is interesting, in political theory, that the great theorists of the modern world all pretend that society begins with a bunch of adult individuals deciding to form a “social contract.”

But that’s baloney – as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would remind us. To the contrary, we start off, long before we are adult individuals, in relationships. Before we know there is an “I,” we know there is mother. And marriage is the normal place for children to grow up – the only place we are supposed to be doing things that make babies! – precisely because children are meant to grow up in the context of relationship. We are meant to discover who and what we are in the context of friendship, of a mother and father who love one another.

Before we are individuals, we are part of a community. We learn to be human by learning what friendship looks like. And whatever our family looks like, we learn, too, that the most profound pain is when that friendship is broken. We are made to be in relationship. We are social beings.


There is a popular idea, unfortunately invading even the thought of some modern Catholics, that marriage is about two people looking inward at one another. To the contrary, the traditional view is that marriage is about looking outward, toward family and society. Marriage creates a hearth, around which is gathered the ever growing community which is the family, eventually including even grand children and great grandchildren. It is the place where we prepare our children to go out into the world, to live as members of a broader community. It is the place we welcome in friends of the family. Marriage is a place not of exclusion, but of inclusion.

Jesus demands sexual fidelity not to make the couple turn in on themselves – “Members Only!” – but, exactly the opposite, to keep their sexuality at the service of their children and their society, to keep them looking outward, to keep them social. Marriage is about being social.


Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. What a wild idea! Marriage is a mystery of unity and multiplicity. On the one hand, it shows how very close people can come together. Again, this is not restricted to man and wife: they are only the beginning. The family is, or is meant to be, a One, a communion of love. Christ comes as close to us as a family around a table. Indeed, the principal image of his closeness is not as Bridegroom, but as child, cheek-to-cheek with his mother. That is communion. That is family. That is what marriage is all about.

Yet the mystery of marriage is that we are also individuals. What a strange challenge is family life, and especially that central relationship, where we try to work together with someone who is not me! Marriage is a sign of God’s respect for our freedom, our individuality. It is a sign that individuality and communion are not at war, but in harmony. Indeed, in the sacrament of marriage, Christ is present to us not by overcoming our personal choices, but by being present within them.


What role does friendship play in your family? In your understanding of being truly human?