I was looking for something this morning while preparing to teach a class on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body this fall, and found the following quote in my journal:
“There is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationship with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment―which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering―means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his ‘I’ ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child―essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”
Pope Benedict XVI, “On the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia,” December 21, 2012
This led me to reflect on how we praise those who sacrifice their lives for the sake of our nation and for the sake of others. We honor the firefighters who went towards the World Trade Center towers instead of away from them on 9/11. We honor veterans and those who have lost their lives through military service. We honor those who give of themselves or lose their lives in taking stands for noble causes. We praise this kind of sacrifice and offer honor and respect, and hopefully also practical assistance for those who have not given their lives unto death, but yet endure ongoing consequences of their sacrifice. But when a spouse decides to stand and give sacrificially for the sake of a broken family, for their own marriage, and for marriage itself as something that is vital for all of us, as something that we all together should honor, respect and safeguard, we are instead so often told that we are foolish, that we are throwing our lives away, that God doesn’t want us to suffer, that he just wants us to be happy. We are instead often also told that we are mentally unstable, naive, and unable to let go.
But is marriage and the giving of life within a family simply about meeting our earthly needs for intimacy and strictly a private matter, or is it also meant to be an act of sacrificial self-giving, even part of our worship? Are our choices in this regard peripheral, or are they a central part of our mission as followers of Christ? Are our marriages and families meant to be a gift for ourselves only, or are they part of a gift of self that we give to God and neighbor?
Jesus says to us in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In John 13:34, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” In John 15:12-14 he says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
What if being faithful in this way is part of how we live out these words of Jesus? What if this is part of how we come to understand what his words mean, and what his giving himself up for us means in a fallen world? What if this kind of sacrifice is a way of incarnating these words and his work into our lives and into a world that needs to know that there is enduring, faithful love and that this love prevails?
The word obedience means most literally “listen to.” It comes from the union of Latin prefix, ob (“to”) and audire, which means “listen, hear.” Love is a language we can only learn to hear, communicate, and obey experientially, and the first, singular incubator for this experience for every human being is the experience of family. How we are meant to understand ourselves and how we are meant to relate at every level of life – with God and with each other – is encapsulated in a special way within the relationships formed in the family, founded on the love of man and woman and made fruitful in the lives of our children – in the lives of every child around us and not just those biologically related to us!
Our experience of family is the first place any human being learns to receive and be loved like a child as Jesus is loved by the Father (the essence of filial love), and what it is to love as Christ loved us, through a total, sacrificial gift of self (the essence of spousal love). In the family we learn the unique place of the child in love and the special ways that men and women express the nature of love, which can only be most fully understood in light of the whole that they are together – as man, as woman and as child, in a unity that is always both natural and supernatural. It is where we learn love’s most intimate lessons, including how to trust and wait on the Lord and each other in situations that look excruciatingly difficult or impossible, just as Jesus does with the Father in the garden of Gethsemane.
Is this something worth fighting for, laying down one’s life for, and honoring? I believe it is! I also believe that honoring my particular marriage is part of how I am called to listen to (to obey) Jesus’ words. I do not listen to him because I am afraid he will strike me with lightening, but because I love him and he loves me, and it is important to listen to those whom we love. Honoring marriage and what it means to be family can never be a matter of simply acknowledging a warm, fuzzy abstract ideal while making choices that don’t fit that ideal, but can only ever be about honoring and loving the actual people that we have given ourselves to and who have been given to us, those who surround us in our daily lives. If we say we love and worship Jesus Christ, we also must remember that he was not, and is not, an abstract ideal, but he came to us as fully human (and fully God!), as one who lived, died, and loved concretely and bodily with all that he was and is, so that he could fully reveal what it means to be God and to be human, and how these two things uniquely come together around what it means to love.