Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Christian Marriage and Family: Its Sacramental Reality

Christian Marriage and Family: its Sacramental Reality

It was in the middle of T.V. talk shows and print media publications that the traditional family life and marriage was again put to the fore in the consciousness of the Filipinos. It was set as the background, if not the target, of the sectoral cry for equality of marital infidelity. It is clamored that infidelity of the wife against the exclusivity of marital contract should be of equal degree and gravity with that committed by men. The nature of marital infidelity should be one and same for both sexes. It is unfair to hold one category of marital infidelity for the wife and another category for the husband. This is what happened in the provision as found in Family Code of the Philippines. Here, marital infidelity suffers from double standard categorization with a seeming bias against the wife. What constitutes marital infidelity for the husband is cohabitation, which, needless to say, implies habitual acts of sexual relations outside marriage. Whereas for the wife what constitutes her marital infidelity is just one adulterous act. The clamor is valid. However, a subtle message is in the meantime sent, that is, that damaged marriage can only be remedied by a legislation that is impartial and therefore equal to both the husband and the wife. With this too is the ambiguous signal that can easily lead to a conclusion that equality of marital infidelity is a good thing to be pursued.

While this was hotly discussed, the National Geographic an internationally acclaimed magazine due to the quality of its graphics as well as its well chosen and highly disciplined articles, came out in its February 2006 issue a banner story on love and family life. Entitled “The Thing called Love”, it portrays love as a chemical reaction that influences the brain and the whole person of the parties involved. It then proffers the questions: “Does passion necessarily diminish over time? How reliable is romantic love, really, as a means of choosing one’s mate? Can a marriage be good when Eros is replaced with friendship, or even economic partnership, two people bound by bank accounts?” (National Geographic, Lauren Slater, “The Thing Called Love”, pp. 32-49).

Conclusion of this kind is not new. Already in the age of the Enlightenment, similar accusations were leveled against the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and family life. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first and recent Encyclical Letter “Deus Caritas Est” alluded to this sniping when he quoted the leading philosopher of the age Nietzsche as saying: “Christianity had poisoned eros.” He said this as an articulation of the widely held perception of his time, that is: “Doesn’t the Church, with all the commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy, which is the Creator’s gift, offers in a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the divine?” (no.3).

Christian marriage is more than a piece of legislation that declares a couple as husband and wife; more than the union of a male and a female hit by a chemical reaction called love. It is a sacred union. It starts with the free choice of the man and the woman in love, mutually surrendering themselves to each other which they do by entering into marriage whose meaning and values do not depend on them but on God himself. For God is the Author of marriage, delicately endowing it with proper laws and regulations. And due to reality of sin in the subsequent status of man , making him/her prone to the temptations of the flesh and the pride of life that oftentimes sours the relationship between man and woman, God elevated that union into a sacrament. Here the spouses are caught up by the Christ who gives that great promise: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Canon Law expresses this reality with this provision: “The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (C. 1055, § 1). Marriage therefore bestows that sacramental grace to “perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children” (cf. CCC, n. 1641). In other words, in the Christian marriage the spouses encounter Christ who willingly dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up the daily crosses and so follow Him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burden, to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21; Gal 6:2).

It is within this context that the late John Paul II, in his address to the Roman Rota judges, highlighted the importance and the significance of the religious dimension of marriage.. He cited the phenomenon of many recent matrimonial cases and observed that there is a pattern. The pattern is the diminishing awareness of the spouses of the significance of the sacramentality of the Christian marriage. Spouses do not consider anymore the transcendence of Christian marriage, its intimate meaning, its intrinsic supernatural value, its positive effects on the conjugal life and family. He also observed that secularism has much to blame to this modern phenomena in Christian marriage. He said: “Today’s strongly secularized mentality tends to affirm the human values of the institution of the family while detaching them from religious values and proclaiming them as fully independent of God. Influenced as it is by models of life that are too often presented by the mass media, today’s mentality asks, ‘Why must one spouse always be faithful to the other?’ A person of faith can easily answer that question; but a person who is cut off from that religious dimension of marriage is in a quandary. Caught in a crisis, this person of no faith “will even reformulate the preceding question in this way: why it is always necessary to love the other spouse even when so many apparently justifying reasons would lead one to leave?”

It is also within this reality that we can understand the position taken up by Benedict XVI in his bold response to the accusation of Nietzsche who with bravado said: "Christianity had poisoned eros." It likewise provides ready answer to the question posed by the National Geographic: “How reliable is romantic love, really, as a means of choosing one’s mate?” He is sure and convinced to state that eros needs redemption. And then he describes in detail how this comes about, tracing the growth of love in the dynamic interplay of the eros and the agape. They are not opposite elements of one and the same love; nor are they antithesis. They form the two aspects of love, that is, the ascending love (eros) and the descending love (agape). Eros is at first wild, covetous, selfish. Yet it has that overpowering drive to climb every mountain and transcend any obstacle with great fascination and firm determination in pursuit of the great promise of happiness. As it draws near to the other, “it becomes less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to be there for the other.” It is at this point that the element of agape enters into this love, “for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” It has to be tamed by agape, disciplined by its calming yet firm touch. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 7).

Fresh ideas, indeed; novelties that answer well the modern soul of man questing for true love. But the Pope insists that the real novelty that Christian faith introduces to the concept of love is Christ Himself who “gives flesh and blood to those concepts” (ibid., n.12). He is the one who is met by the couple in the sacrament of marriage. Here, Christ is not just the good shepherd who seeks the lost sheep; not just the woman who searches for the lost coin; nor, just the Father who runs to meet and embrace his own son who became prodigal. In the sacrament of marriage, Christ is the bridegroom who gives up his life for the bride, the Church, to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word (Eph 5: 25-26). This is the sacramental Christ who becomes the role model of the husband in relation with his wife. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church” (ibid, 5:25). He is the same Christ to whom the wife has to obey, expressed by her submission to her husband. “Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord. As the Church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 25: 22-24). The reality of sin experienced by the couple in marital union is now caught up through the sacrament of marriage with the reality of grace that saves and purifies.

For the spouses, therefore, to survive the rigors of married life and family union, they have to be religious people, persons of deep faith. It was not for mere slogan purposes that Fr. Peyton coined that widely acclaimed phrase: “the family that prays together stays together.” He knew what it takes to be faithful in marriage and to stand up to the variegated temptations and sufferings of the family. To enter into marriage and the family life the spouses need the faith to see that Christ is there to support them all the way.

Christ then is essential to union in marriage and family life. It is not the legal imposition of punishment on the unfaithful partner, no matter the inequality or equality of marital infidelity; nor does it lie in the right and delicate balancing of the chemistry of love.