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Part of the trouble marriage has found itself in – part of the reason that the readings for this 27th Sunday, Year B, sound harsh to our ears, is that the culture long ago gave up on marriage.
Bruce Springsteen’s songs moved a generation and there is much to recommend in them. But not their understanding of marriage.
(Click here for “Jesus and Pope Francis on Marriage” at the National Catholic Register.)
In The River, marriage turns into a mirage. In Born to Run, to settle down is a “death trap, a suicide rap.” In Hungry Heart: “I had a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. I went out for a ride and I never looked back,” he sings, explaining “Everybody has a hungry heart.”
Bruce is noticing something true about marriage: It isn’t a smooth and untroubled life. It is difficult. It entails suffering.
But what he doesn’t realize is that there is a way to live a marriage that doesn’t leave your heart hungry.
A remarkable study surveyed couples before they married, during their first year of marriage, and then checked up on them every five years for decades. What the study found was that most people experience periods of “dissatisfaction” and even “great dissatisfaction” with their spouses. Those who divorce and remarry are soon enough “dissatisfied” with someone new. Those who stick it out and stay with their spouse start soon report rising “satisfaction” again.
The man whose hungry heart led him to leave his wife and kids behind in Baltimore probably soon found his heart as hungry as ever. If he had stayed in Baltimore, he would be singing a different tune.
Marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments work, guaranteed. We just have to give them a chance.
There are three ingredients to a fulfilling marriage, according to the Church: Being faithful to your spouse, being open to children and staying together through thick and thin.
First, faithfulness. There is no greater fidelity than what Jesus describes in the Gospel.
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,” says Jesus in today’s Gospel, “and the two shall become one flesh.”
Two don’t just become faithful, they become one. If that sounds like a painless untroubled existence, think again. Think of the pain one flesh experiences, then multiply that by two. Now, think how much harsher the pain is when “two become one.” Suddenly there are two wills trying to be one will, two sets of preferences trying to compromise on one set of choices.
Marriage is often compared in the Bible to Christ’s relationship with his Church. The pain we feel in becoming one is like the pain Jesus felt being faithful to the Father’s will. The second reading teaches us that Christ was “made perfect through suffering.” Likewise, the only way our love becomes perfected is through the suffering that comes with, for and even because of our spouse.
Second, Catholic marriage requires openness to children. In fact, children are mentioned in each reading.
The first reading, from Genesis, describes our movement from childhood to maturity: “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.”
The Psalm describes our movement from maturity to parenthood: May “your children [be] like olive plants around your table. … May you see your children’s children.”
The Gospel describes yet another movement, back to childhood: “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
This is the progression of a Christian life. Children start out helpless, and rely on others for everything. Adults rely in the same way on their spouses (or their vocations). Then parenthood (spiritual or physical) comes, and we find we need to rely on God, for everything after all. We go from child to openness to children; from parenthood to childhood again.
The third lesson for married couples is the permanence of marriage.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” Jesus says.
Of course, cases where a spouse is abusive or never really meant to marry in any real sense are a different matter. But if you are married, you can expect the cross – and, after a cross, you can expect a resurrection.
The one who said, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me” knows how to feed a hungry heart.