Perhaps the most awkward encounter any Catholic has is the first time they meet with their priest to discuss their wedding. Here you are, happily in love and now you have to go sit in the office of a man who has never been married before and “prepare” for marriage. A recent 2016 survey found that Catholics have one of the lowest divorce rates in our country. Look I get that it’s awkward but the studies are in and they show that those meetings work. For you see as a priest I see marriage in a totally different way. Yesterday I started my morning with Mass and then an hour of confessions where there were certainly a number of confessions concerning marital issues. I then went off and celebrated a funeral seeing, the end of life, before celebrating a wedding, the beginning of marriage, and this afternoon I celebrate a baptism, the beginning of life. In the course of this weekend I have been blessed to see the entirety of the life cycle. While all of my friends see life step by step as a priest I see it all at once. I see the joy of a couple preparing for marriage and the struggle of couples who are fighting to keep their marriage together and it gives a much different perspective. Preparing for marriage from this perspective is effective! Did you know that Catholics who are actively practicing in their parishes are 31% less likely to get divorced than non-religious persons and even someone who is Catholic in name only is 5% less likely to divorce than a non-religious person.
I can easily sense the awkwardness of a new couple coming to me for marriage prep, so what do I do, well of course I make it even more awkward. When a couple first comes to meet with me to plan their wedding, I start by asking them “why do you want to get married.” It seems like a fair question, but most couples usually just stare at me so after a moment or so of awkward silence I say something like “look I get it you love each other or your wouldn’t be here, but what does that really mean that you love each other.” Sadly most couples I prepare for marriage don’t have an answer for this basic question. Sure they know they love each other, but they have never stopped to even ask what that means so I often ask a follow up question. “Why do you want to get married. I mean in today’s society you really don’t have to get married, so what is it that brings you here seeking marriage.”
Perhaps some of you who are already married are thinking phew at least I won’t have to deal with that and those of you who aren’t married yet are making a mental note to find another priest for your wedding. Well you can run but you can’t hide because today I ask you how would you answer those questions. I think at its heart the love of marriage is very simply the expression that I need you. This isn’t the kind of yin and yang love where two parts come together to make a whole. Now both the husband and wife are their own complete person and they certainly don’t need their spouse to complete them, but it is precisely because both a husband and wife are whole themselves that they are able to give themselves totally to the other. Marriage then is nothing short of a total gift of self between spouses.
Jesus tells us in the scriptures that “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend.” Marriage then is the imitation of Christ. Jesus doesn’t just tell us what love is, He shows us from the cross when He lays down His life for each and everyone of use. So marriage then is the imitation of the crucifixion, where the spouse lays down his or her life for the other. They give everything and in that sense they need the other. Why because if you are offering everything of you, someone else needs to look out for you and your own interests. Someone else has to lay down their life for you.
Marriage is simply the way in which the spouses help each other become who God intends them to be. The yes of the marriage vows is a promise to make the other person a saint. The yes of the marriage vows is a promise to lay down one’s life for their spouse in the same way as Christ laid down His life for each of us. Why? So that their spouse can achieve their eternal reward. The vows of marriage are a promise to give oneself totally, faithfully, and fruitfully to one another until death, mirroring the love that God has for each of us.
Sadly most couples I meet who are preparing for marriage have never thought about love this deep. Love for so many in our society is just another feeling. But I don’t control my feelings. I don’t wake up in the morning and say “you know I think I’ll feel sad.” I don’t wake up in the afternoon from a nap and say “I think right now I’ll be angry.” No we are far greater than that. We are not ruled just by our emotions.
The love expressed in marriage is not some romantic idea expressed simply in words or feelings, but rather an expression through your deeds, an expression through your way of life that says you matter so much to me, I will give my life for you. This love is not some feeling that may go away later in life. No “to fall into love means to fall into something and that something is responsibility.” The love expressed in marriage seeks to limit one’s own freedom for the good of the other for “true love by its nature is uncompromising, it is the freeing of self from selfishness and egotism.”
The 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom summarizes marriage by claiming at their wedding vows a couple says to each other “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us … I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.” It can be so easy to lower our sights on marriage as the Pharisees did in today’s Gospel but today Jesus calls us to remember that God’s plan for marriage is a call to lay down one’s life for the other. Marriage is a path to holiness, and like all paths to holiness it demands sacrifice. Today’s Gospel is then a challenge to each married couple to stop and answer that awkward question I ask every engaged couple “why did we get married” and perhaps it’s a challenge to change your answer to that question.
 Pew Research Institute. 2016 Religious Landscape Study on Divorce or Separated Adults accessible at http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/marital-status/divorcedseparated/
 Jn 15:13
 Fulton Sheen. The World’s First Love Mary, Mother of God. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 2011. Pg. 26.
 Fulton Sheen. The World’s First Love Mary, Mother of God. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 2011. Pg. 29.
 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Eph. 20,8:PG 62,146-147.