Now, you may think I’ve lost it by the title of this post. But I promise, I haven’t.
I am not suggesting that marriage is not above love, or personal commitment, or the unique relationship between a man or a woman. All of that is absolutely true, but what I am suggesting is that marriage is not merely a personal matter like our culture would like us to believe. Rather, marriage is meant to be a union of the personal and the social dimensions of life that works toward the good of both. Let me explain.
Once upon a time, the different sectors of a person’s life were all very interconnected. Your neighborhood, church, work, children’s school, etc. were all interwoven together and the relationships formed in these different sectors overlapped a lot. Today, however, we compartmentalize our different sectors and the relationships we have most often stay in the sector they originated in. The result is social fragmentation and loneliness.
Marriage, then, has become the answer to this loneliness. The cultural portrayal of marriage turns it into a relationship that “can provide what is lacking,” as Julie Rubio notes in her book Family Ethics. Marriage becomes above all romantic, it becomes private, it becomes highly individualistic. Our culture presumes that marriage is all about the personal choices that two people make in order to “complete” their own lives. Couples are taught that everything one needs for happiness can be found within the bounds of their relationship and that the romance can “sustain and fill those who have lost a larger sense of connectedness to church, neighborhood and community.” Ultimately, a married life becomes its own little world, set apart from any larger community.
This type of marriage, turned in on itself, has nowhere to go.
There is, however, a very different type of marriage and it is to this type that Catholics, and more broadly Christians, are called.
I was looking for something in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a little while ago, and as I glanced over the section on the seven sacraments I found something that made me do a double-take. The sacrament of matrimony is labeled as a sacrament “at the service of communion” (1534). There is such a profound truth and beauty in that title that I simply fell silent for a moment.
If you read on you will find this:
“Matrimony is directed towards the salvation of others; if it contributes as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that is does so. It confers a particular mission in the Church and serves to build up the People of God” (1535).
The type of marriage that a Christian is called to then is one that is not individualistic like the culture suggests, but rather it is other-centered. Instead of focusing inward on the lives of the couple, a Christian marriage projects always outward. A Christian marriage asks “How can we serve not only each other, but those around us?” It questions, “How can we focus on the needs of others instead of our own desires?” And more than anything, it wonders “How can we lead others to Christ?” Marriage then “is a statement against the isolationism of the world,” as Rubio states.
The defining characteristic of a Christian marriage that makes this possible is that it is fundamentally open. A husband and wife are called to an attitude of openness – openness to children, to extended family, to neighborhood, to community, to the nation, and to the world. Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian, exclaims “Marriage is not an act in which two individuals come together to form a ‘we,’ a relationship which they set themselves apart from the ‘all’ and close themselves against this. Rather it is the act in which a ‘we’ is constituted which opens itself lovingly precisely to the ALL.”
Note, it is not that a husband and wife do not focus on their own relationship and work to cultivate the love between them. They of course do, married love is a continual gift of self, and it is precisely this love between them that then overflows to others. As their love for one another within their home grows Christian couples should take seriously John Paul II’s words “open wide the doors for Christ.” If the couple opens their home, opens their marriage and opens their family to the community around them they have the opportunity to allow their love for one another to multiply through their love for others. Moreover, it is only in this overflow that the communion of married love can be perfected and completed. Christian families, in their service to others, “grow in self-giving love within and outside the bonds of kinship.”
Here are some practical ideas of how Christian married couples can do this: visit with an elderly, sick or widowed person in the neighborhood, invite newlyweds in the area to dinner at your house, invite your children’s friends over, host bible studies or prayer groups in your home, serve your local community through service projects at shelters, food banks or churches, be active in your parish life and lend your help wherever your gifts are most needed, and so many other ways.
If a husband and wife live this type of life their marriage will not simply be a romantic and individualistic relationship that has closed its doors to the world beyond themselves. Their family will not be the “isolated haven” that society all too often portrays. Rather, it will be a “small, sacramental, grace-filled community connected to and engaged in a larger world.”
I will leave you with this:
“Sacramental love never simply stays at home…An intrinsically sacramental marriage will model and extend self-gift as a way of being, both inside and outside the family.”