Feb. 7-14 of each year marks National Marriage Week, and the second Sunday of February (the 10th this year) is World Marriage Day. Of course, these commemorations of marriage coincide with the now highly commercialized celebration of Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14. These occasions offer an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental nature of love and marriage, especially in light of the confusion around these topics in our society today.
Love is a word tossed around almost flippantly in our society. We use it for most anything that we enjoy or find pleasure in. For example, we say things like, “I love ice cream” and “I love football” and then, at the same time, say “I love my spouse.” In the first two instances, it is clear that “love” is describing something being used for one’s own self-gratification. Someone “loves” football or ice cream because he or she finds pleasure in watching a good football game or eating ice cream (or doing both at the same time — even better!). Unfortunately, the same application of “love” can too often be used with a person, even one’s spouse. Another person can become like an object for self-gratification. “Love” can, therefore, become dependent upon (or even equated to) what one gets from the other person. Thus, when a marriage breaks down, sometimes it is said, “I just don’t love him/her anymore.” Often, what is meant is, “I just don’t enjoy being around him/her anymore” or “I’m not getting anything out of the relationship anymore.”
The Christian definition of love is, however, just the opposite of that sentiment. Instead of loving something or someone because of what I can get out of it, love is about what I can give. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, love is to “will the good of the other.” This first reveals that love is a choice (an act of the will), not merely a feeling. It also indicates that true love must be devoid of selfishness. It is entirely selfless, giving of oneself to another for their sake and not expecting anything in return. God, who IS love, reveals this to us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (Jn 3:16). Jesus showed us that love involves sacrifice by giving his life for us. In response to this incredible gift, we are called to give ourselves in love entirely to God (the first and greatest commandment) and then to our neighbor (the second greatest commandment). In fact, it is through self-donative love toward our neighbor that we express our love for God. This is profoundly true in marriage, the vocation that calls us to give ourselves entirely to another person “until death do us part.”
Marriage is a sacred covenantal bond between one man and one woman. In marriage, a man and woman commit themselves to a permanent and exclusive relationship of self-donative love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful. It is not merely a legal contract that comes with certain rights and privileges. In fact, civil marriage is an add-on to the fundamentally religious nature of marriage, since “God himself is the author of marriage” (CCC, 1603). Marriage and family life, as designed by God, serve as a reflection of the self-giving love of the Trinity. Therefore, marriage is not about getting something from the other person or from the legal status of being married. It is, rather, about “willing the good of the other” entirely for their sake. And the greatest good for any human being is union with God in heaven. Thus, the vocation of marriage is about helping each other become saints. And, if that love of husband and wife leads to bringing children into the world, then the parents are called to give of themselves in love to teach their children “by word and example” (CCC, 1656) how to love God and neighbor so they may also become saints. It is this kind of true love — not the self-centered, overly sentimentalized “love” often espoused by our society — that will transform the world for good.
Want to strengthen your marriage? All married couples are invited to attend the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s “Essential Elements for a Strong Catholic Marriage” renewal day led by Greg and Julie Alexander on Saturday, April 27, 2019, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at St. Ludmila Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids.
Learn more and register by visiting www.DBQArch.org/Events and clicking on the date. For questions, contact Matt Selby, director of marriage and family life, at 563-556-2580, ext. 233 or m.selby@DBQArch.org.