“How many of you ladies, when you were growing up, wanted to be a Disney princess?” That’s a question I ask brides-to-be when I’m teaching classes to engaged couples in preparation for marriage. Interestingly, usually about ninety percent of the hands go up. I use this analogy to explain marriage in light of Ephesians 5, where St. Paul explains that husbands and wives are called to love each other as Christ loved the Church. How did Christ love the Church? He laid down His life for her! This is a tall order for marriage in today’s self-centered culture, but it’s not simply an ideal, it’s a necessity. The “princess analogy” is meant to illustrate the point that there’s a reason these classic fairy tales resonate with the human heart. They are centuries-old tales expressing that true love is worth laying down one’s life. No matter what perils ensue, no matter how many dragons must be slain or villains must be stopped, true love holds fast and the handsome prince will move heaven and earth to be with his bride. But in today’s society, it can seem that chivalry is all but dead.
Tragically, many of today’s couples preparing for marriage have faced far more obstacles than did those of the last generation or two. Many come from homes broken by divorce, or have been wounded by their own previous failed relationships or bad choices. Perhaps they have experienced other tragedies in their lives, such as abuse, abortion, or pornography, to name a few. Some of the greatest detriments to marriage and leading causes of divorce are the damaging effects of cohabitation and its close companion, contraception. Studies consistently show that there is a significantly higher divorce rate among couples who live together before marriage.
An interesting manifestation of these wounds comes from my observation of the reactions to another question I pose to couples in marriage preparation sessions. In the context of a discussion on what authentic love is (as contrasted with the world’s counterfeits), and in pointing out that in marriage we love our spouse for who they are as persons made in the image and likeness of God, I ask, “What do you love about your future spouse?” I give them a minute to think and I watch their faces. Just as cartoons depict a light bulb over a character’s head when he gets a bright idea, it is evident by the smiles and looks of love what is in their hearts. This seems to happen with most couples, and it gives me hope for them. However, there are always a few who simply stare back expressionless. That is rather scary. One can’t help but wonder if these marriages will even survive.
Contrast the worldly misunderstanding of love with that of the faithful Catholic man who has gone to great lengths to surprise his future bride with a proposal of marriage. They have shared many deep conversations and they know that God is calling them to spend the rest of their lives together as man and wife. The groom-to-be secretly asks her father for her hand in marriage (yes, some still do this!). Then the setting has been carefully chosen, everyone has been sworn to secrecy, and the ring is ready in his pocket, all set to be lovingly displayed as he gets down on one knee. Shortly thereafter, family and friends rejoice with them as a photo appears on Instagram with the caption, “She said YES!” A “Hallmark moment” to be sure, but also one that bears witness to the very fact that the total gift of self in marriage reflects deeply the gift of God’s eternal exchange of love in the Holy Trinity. While it may not be expressed in theological language, the very essence of the grace-filled couple’s witness makes people say, “I want what they have.” What they have is a Christ-centered relationship.
Sadly, there are far too few examples of what the reality of a Christ-centered marriage looks like. It could be tempting to give up in despair when we see the devastation wrought in a world where people are “looking for love in all the wrong places”. But as Christians, we live differently. Instead of passively giving up, we are called to bring light and hope to a darkened world, like the couple described above who embrace their God-given mission and understand that God is part of their marriage. And, like the couple married seventy years when asked their secret for such a long happy marriage, the wife replied, “When you have God in your life everything works out!” Young and old, these couples understand the human expression of what God is Love means.
St. Paul understood well that bearing witness in a darkened world can feel like an uphill battle. As he wrote to the Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)
What is marriage, but a life-giving dying to self – essentially an imitation of Christ. There is a stark contrast between the world’s insistence on instant gratification and the dying-to-self act of love that authentic marital love embraces. As Theology of the Body expert Christopher West describes it, God has laid out for us a beautiful banquet, but we are eating out of a dumpster.
How then can we reclaim authentic marriage? And not only reclaim this beautiful truth, but really make it known so that the next generation can embrace it and change the world. It is a tall order to be sure, and there are many ways in which this question could be answered, but ultimately, it is the working of the Holy Spirit in each of us which has the ability to transform the culture. People are hungry for the truth – whether they realize it or not. Those seeking marriage in the Church are surely a ray of hope, but their degree of success in embracing their vocation is largely dependent upon their openness to the sacramental grace they receive when they exchange consent at the altar. We must especially witness to those bearing scars that Jesus Christ wants to heal and transform those wounds. Today’s engaged couples do not have to let the wounds of their past define them, and they need the hope that knowing this gives. In this Year of Mercy, we are given an extraordinary opportunity to humble ourselves before the Lord, recognize that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17) and give our hurts, sins, and failings over to Christ who’s love can heal us and make us new. It is then that we can truly bear witness to the power of God who is Love, and live it accordingly.