The Story of Hosea and What It Teaches About God and Holy Matrimony

HoseaWe are currently reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea at daily Mass. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our own tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also of God’s passionate love for us. We do well to recall the story, especially given the “great debate” among some in the Church today over the question of divorce and remarriage. And while there are many painful stories of what some have had to endure in difficult marriages, remember that God is in a very painful marriage with His people—yes, very painful! God knows the pain of a difficult marriage and a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and what He chooses to do about it.

The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some “fill in”:

  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
  1. Together they have three children, each with a symbolic name: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they are born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
  1. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea for another lover and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well-documented.
  1. Hosea takes her back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). Now while the quoted text does not clearly specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  1. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and of all false lovers is not real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  1. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).

This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. Its truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord, who has a bride—a people—who are unfaithful to Him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and we renewed them on many other occasions.

But all too often we casually “sleep with” other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies, or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.

And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. And yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals a view into the grieving heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing out His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. Although God is said to be like this, He is not angry the way we are angry. He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic the way we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe Himself to us.

With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.

  1. Thoughts of Divorce! Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text suggests that God is weighing His options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But as we will see, He will not do that. For although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
  1. The bitter charge against herLet her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts … “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. They do not—it is God who does so. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda, and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God a wounded and jealous lover? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is neither hurt nor angered by the way we are. And yet we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not passionate as we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.
  1. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers. … I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense. … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  1. The hoped-for resultThen she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring His bride back to sanity, to bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and who can save her.
  1. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again His love for her in a kind of Marriage Encounter She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, misplaced priorities, and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
  1. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day. … I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!

Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment He rendered was an indication of the high sacrifice He had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and He had to journey far and then carry us back.

I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have struggled to save a marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those who are currently struggling, striving to persevere, so that you realize that God knows your pain—he too experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. If it helps to realize that God knows your pain, please understand that He does. In the words of the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

A Pastoral Plan for Marriage and Family Is Unveiled

Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with hundreds of invited married couples, Cardinal Donald Wuerl presented the Archdiocese of Washington’s pastoral plan to more fully implement Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The complete text of the plan is available here and additional resources can be found on this website: adw.org/amorislaetitia.

The purpose of the pastoral plan is to achieve the overarching goal of Amoris Laetitia, which is to strengthen marriage and family. It emphasizes effective marriage preparation, support for married couples, marriage enrichment, and assistance for couples struggling in their marriages. The plan speaks to teaching the faithful more effectively on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the need for conscience formation, and the overall need for formation in the Gospel. There are also helpful sections directed toward working with people in irregular situations so as to address their problems and keep them close to the heart of Christ and the Church. The Tribunal processes of the Archdiocese remain as they have been in the past for the proper resolution of marriage cases.

Before an in-depth discussion of the plan, a short aside is in order: While nearly all of the commentary on Amoris Laetitia has focused one or two narrow matters pertaining to a couple of footnotes or to Chapter 8, almost to the point of ignoring the rest, the pastoral plan correctly understands that the exhortation is much, much broader in scope. It is this larger part to which the Cardinal’s plan is devoted, while also attesting that there is no change in Church teaching.

What this plan is about is formation in the Lord’s teaching and grace as well as setting an ever-stronger foundation for marriage and family. Cardinal Wuerl notes in his own blog, The parish has a central role in making clear the Gospel vision for marriage and family life. Indeed, this must be our crucial work going forward, both as an Archdiocese and in our individual parishes.

I would like to reflect on this solid, pastoral plan, by reflecting on it in three ways: A Gospel Picture, A Growing Problem, a Going Plan.

A Gospel Picture In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus sees a woman of Samaria coming to a well to draw water. As the Lord who created her, He has always known her and loved her. Before He ever formed her in her mother’s womb He knew her (see Jer. 1:5) and knew everything she would ever do. Indeed, every one of her days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). Yes, He knows her and loves her.

The woman is not named because she may well be you or someone you know. Yes, her story is our story.

The woman comes to the well thirsty. She may be an outcast since she comes alone and at a time of day when others would not be there. Whatever her pain, whatever her sins, whatever shortcomings may have caused her to be outcast and alone, Jesus seeks her. There’s an old hymn that says, “He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

In daring fashion, Jesus, a man, speaks to a woman in public. This was not done in those days. He also reaches across racial and ethnic divides, appealing to their shared thirst. In her own pain and fear she at first scoffs that a Jewish man would speak to her, a Samaritan and a woman. In His patience and mercy Jesus does not give up. Slowly, even tenderly, He draws her to a deeper encounter and helps her discover her true thirst.

At a critical moment she says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty. Here is the moment for which Jesus longed and thirsted: her assent, her response in faith, however nascent. Her assent opens the first door to the living waters Jesus wants to give.

There is an obstacle, though

“Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”

Note that there is no rejection in Jesus’ tone, but neither does He ignore her marital situation or wave it off as if it were of no account. Like a good physician, He sees this as likely at the heart of much of her pain and her difficulty in discovering her truer thirst. Something here needs healing, needs to be addressed, so that the living waters can flow and satisfy.

How exactly Jesus dealt with her situation is not clear. Whatever happened was between them. Remember that the Gospel accounts often present in a focused way what for us usually takes much longer. For example, Jesus healed lepers in a moment and cast out demons by a mere command. In contrast, our healing and the casting out of our demons takes time and an ongoing encounter with the Lord through His Body, the Church.

In this Gospel then we see a picture of what the Church has always done and must continue to do. Whatever our hurts and whatever our histories, the Church—the living, active presence of Jesus Christ in the world—must continue to seek those who thirst and draw them to Christ, the source of the true water for which they really thirst. Some bring struggles with sin, addiction, weakness, and other afflictions. All of us are sinners who need ongoing healing. We often seek love try to satisfy our thirsts in the wrong ways and in the wrong places. The role of the Church is not to dismiss sin and struggles as if they were of no account, but to help the faithful, through God’s graces, to work through struggles and overcome obstacles so that the healing waters can flow.

A Growing Problem It is no secret that marriage and the family are in crisis. (See some sobering statistics here: Marriage Troubles.)

The culture is increasingly poisonous to marriage and family: secularism, materialism, the sexual revolution, mobility and rootlessness, the demise of the extended family, the need for two incomes, suffocating college debt, promiscuity, movies that emphasize dysfunction rather than virtue, pornography, ideological colonization, and individualism.

The biblical vision of marriage, family, and sexuality has been significantly eroded in the minds and consciences of many people today. This is true in our parishes as well. The Church cannot remain aloof or disinterested in the walking wounded, who greatly resemble the woman at the well. In his blog, Cardinal Wuerl beautifully notes,

So many people think that if their own lives look more like the woman at the well than the Holy Family that there may not be a place in the Church for them. That is simply not true.

As Jesus looked to the woman of Samaria with love and sought to draw her to the living water of the Spirit, so the Church looks to us with love and seeks to more deeply immerse us in the living waters of Holy Spirit and the Lord’s truth, which alone will set us free.

Simply wishing people well or welcoming them without providing real, substantive help is not enough. Jesus did not brush aside the woman’s painful marital past at the well. He raised the issue with her and (albeit in a hidden way). He ministered to her in a way that allowed her to leave her water jar (a symbol of her reliance on the world) and run joyfully to summon others to Jesus.

The Church, as Christ’s active presence in this world, can do no less—hence the Cardinal’s pastoral plan.

A Going Plan The Pastoral Plan of the Archdiocese of Washington is a combination of pastoral practices and the assembling of resources to help parishes and individuals form and care for one another in today’s world. The Cardinal sets forth “the need for more adequate catechesis and formation, not only of engaged and married couples and their children, but also priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and other pastoral workers.”

The Cardinal also speaks to the need for the proper formation of conscience through patient and careful teaching by the Church and careful listening and discernment by the faithful.

There are some people today who (often with erroneous consciences) uphold objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal or who want to propose something other than what the Church teaches. They should in no way presume to teach or preach this to others. The Church must patiently and clearly help them, and everyone, to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

The Church must consistently seek more effective ways to reach people, especially in this age of secularism and detachment from traditional Christian and biblical terms and vision. We cannot simply presume that others share our premises or understand our terms and distinctions. The Cardinal notes, “The act of accompaniment includes fidelity to the teaching as well as awareness of how the teaching is being received or even able to be perceived.”

The Cardinal exhorts pastors: “The underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church.”

Our job is to assist in the ongoing formation of conscience with respectful, patient, and clear counsel.

Remember that the Church has long reached out to people in invalid marriages through the Tribunal and annulment process. The Church and your local pastor stand ready to assist you if you are currently in a marriage not recognized by the Church. It is often possible to resolve the obstacles that stand in the way of the living water of the sacraments. Please seek advice from your parish or the Archdiocese. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” It is rooted in Jesus’ very words. There is no room to detail all of that in this post, but I have written in more depth on the subject here: What is an annulment?

The pastoral plan then goes on to exhort parishes and parishioners with practical advice. The Cardinal addresses pastors, parish leaders, parish staff, catechists, youth, engaged couples, newly married couples, young adults, young families, older couples, and families in special circumstances (e.g., military families, interfaith and ecumenical families).

The plan concludes with references to dozens of practical resources and programs in the areas of formation, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, and help for those in troubled marriages.

Some may wonder whether a plan such as this will simply be announced with great fanfare only to end up on the shelf. I would point out that Cardinal Wuerl and the Archdiocese of Washington have a well-established record of following through on pastoral plans. Our Synod, conducted in 2014, has been carefully implemented and has resulted in many structural changes and ongoing initiatives that were sought by the members of the Synod. The Cardinal’s recent pastoral on racism has resulted in a standing committee to shepherd its implementation.

I am convinced that this pastoral plan will also bear much fruit through consistent and persistent action, ongoing review, and accountability. There is much to do—marriage and the family need our focused attention. It is our mission and goal to root the world once again in God’s beautiful vision. It will take time and great effort from all in the Church. We must pray and we must act. The pastoral plan can unite and focus our efforts. May God’s grace and blessing be upon us.

Cardinal Wuerl Releases Amoris Laetitia Implementation Plan

Cardinal Wuerl Releases First Detailed Pastoral Amoris Laetitia Implementation Plan for Parishes 
“Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family” released this weekend in all parishes of the Archdiocese of Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, today celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, where he released,Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family.” This broad and detailed pastoral plan is the first of its kind in implementing Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia at the parish level. The pastoral plan considers the challenges that individuals, couples and families encounter today in a highly secularized culture, and encourages parishes to serve as welcoming places for all, particularly those who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society. In releasing this document, Cardinal Wuerl is encouraging all individuals, couples and families to participate in the life of the Church in the Archdiocese of Washington.

At St. Matthew’s, Cardinal Wuerl began his homily referencing the Gospel reading for the day: “The long and beautiful recounting of that meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman shows how Jesus not only draws out of her the realization of her own sad condition, but also what the gentle and consistent accompaniment helps her to come to understand.” He continued, “Pope Francis uses the story of the woman at the well to remind all of us that the journey from detachment and distance from God to a rich embrace of God’s love is one that requires patience, engagement and what now has become a common place word: accompaniment.”  

Accompaniment, Cardinal Wuerl noted, is a word that Pope Francis uses today to remind us of the fullness of pastoral ministry that helps move us beyond just hearing the Word, and to understand appreciate, appropriate and live it. “I have chosen today, and this Gospel, as a time to announce our own effort at accompaniment,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Giving the example of the archdiocese’s annual Mass for couples celebrating jubilee anniversaries, the cardinal spoke of one family at the Mass with three generations celebrating their 74th, 50th, and 25th wedding anniversaries. “The tableau is a visible proclamation of what Pope Francis announces at the very beginning of Amoris Laetitia: ‘The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church,’” he said.

But for many today, he continued, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving, which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. “Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.”

“It is in the light of both the effort to experience the joy of love in marriage, and the challenge to address its brokenness when that happens that we, in consultation with this whole archdiocesan Church, including laity, religious and clergy, offer the Pastoral Plan as our effort: to share in the joy of love in marriage and family, and to be with others in their life’s journey whatever the conditions that are a part of this moment in the journey,” said Cardinal Wuerl. 

Neither the Holy Father’s 2016 exhortation, nor this pastoral plan presents a list of answers, the cardinal reminded the faithful as he concluded his homily. But both documents call for a pastoral approach for people – married, single, and divorced – who are struggling to face issues in life, the teaching of the Church, and their own desire to reconcile it all, and he called on the faithful to carry out the call to share the joy of love in marriage and family life. After the Mass, the cardinal greeted the families and gave them copies of the pastoral plan. Children in attendance also received special rosaries from Cardinal Wuerl that had been blessed by Pope Francis

“Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family” is available on the archdiocese’s website at: adw.org/amorislaetitia. Printed copies of the plan in both English and Spanish were sent to all 139 parishes in preparation for this weekend’s official release of the document, and Cardinal Wuerl encouraged priests of the archdiocese to read the plan and preach about it at all parish Masses this weekend. 

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The Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 655,000 Catholics, 139 parishes and 93 Catholic schools, located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

Advice for the Married: Don’t Forget the Gifts in Strange Packages

In his book Humility Rules (which I think should be read as Humility Rules!), Fr. J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. offers some insight into the humility of patience, forgiveness, and mercy.

Fr. Wetta recalls a situation in which he was asked to preach at the wedding of his best friend. As a monk, he was not accustomed to in preaching in parish settings and so sought the advice of an older monk:

I went looking for Fr. Luke. He is the founder of our community and has seen pretty much everything a monk can see. I found him asleep in a chair in the calefactory [a warmed sitting room in a monastery]. “Wake up, Father,” I said, “I need something wise to say at my buddy’s wedding.”

Fr. Luke opened his eyes, look around the room for a moment, and then said, “Tell them that there will come a day when he will want the window open and she will want the window closed.” Then he went back to sleep.

Fr. Wetta observes,

So, true love is more about endurance than it is about chocolates and teddy bears. We prove our love at precisely those moments when the people we love test our patience, put a strain on our kindness, and tempt us to anger. Love is truly love—and not just infatuation—when it proves itself in the crucible of suffering (Humility Rules, pp. 59-60).

Humility Rules is a wonderful book, well worth reading for its humor, wisdom, and whimsical art. The advice offered is not all that different from what I offer to pre-Cana couples, but Fr. Wetta presents it with more humor.

Patience, magnanimity, and mercy are essential for any relationship, let alone marriage.

Married couples give each other many gifts. Some of them come wrapped in obvious packages such as companionship, intimacy, and completion. Others come in strange packages.

Indeed, a spouse can give his/her partner many opportunities to know what it means to forgive. This is a gift, however strange its package, because Jesus teaches that if we forgive we will be forgiven but if we do not then we may go to Hell.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours (Matt 6:14-15).

Without forgiveness, it is pretty hard to enter glory; with it we stand a good chance.

It is the same with mercy. Jesus says,

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Mat 5:7).

James warns,

Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (James 2:13).

As anyone who has been married for any length of time knows, spouses give each other ample opportunities to practice mercy. Indeed, the debate about the window that Fr. Luke described above may well occur in the limousine ride from the church to the reception hall! This, too, is a gift in strange package. If I show mercy then I will be shown mercy on judgment day—and we’re all going to need mercy then, lots of it!

Even the difficult parts of marriage, the gifts in strange packages, help to sanctify the husband and wife. St. Paul reminds us, And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28).

Indeed they do. Don’t forget the gifts in strange packages.

How Does Idealism Negatively Affect Marriage?

Those who seek to strengthen Holy Matrimony and stem the tide of failed marriages propose many remedies, among them better catechesis, improved marriage preparation, and greater emphasis on the sacrament in sermons. All of these are fine ideas and necessary steps, but let’s also ponder a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today: idealism or unrealistic expectations.

Although we live in cynical times, many people still hold a highly idealistic view of marriage: that it should be romantic, joyful, loving, and happy all the time. It is an ideal rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vincit! (Love conquers all!) Surely, we will live happily ever after the way every story says!

Here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Yes, many are wandering about thinking, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” to borrow from a U2 song.

There is no such thing as an ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have been married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world that is governed by a fallen angel, have entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify. Like baptism, it offers graces that unfold gradually. The graces unfold to the degree that, and at the speed with which, the couple cooperates with God’s work.

It takes a lifetime of joy and challenge, tenderness and tension, difficulty and growth, in order for a husband and wife to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. Struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (see Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tension; without tension there is no change.

This may not describe the ideal, happily-ever-after marriage, but it describes the real one: full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, stress, and disappointment.

The real problem does not necessarily come from our ideals about marriage, which are good to strive for, but from the fact that we conceive of these ideals within a hedonistic culture.

Hedonism is the “doctrine” that the chief goals of earthly life are happiness and pleasure. (The Greek word hedone means “pleasure.”) In the hedonistic view, any diminishment of pleasure or happiness is the worst thing imaginable, a complete disaster. Many insist on a kind of God-given right to be happy and pleased. Even some devout Christians fall prey to these exaggerated notions and excuse some selfish and sinful behaviors by saying, “God wants me to be happy doesn’t He?” When the Church (or an individual) suggests that someone should do what is difficult, they react, not with puzzlement, but with downright indignation, as if to say, “How dare you get between anyone and what makes him or her happy!”

Our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is seen through the lens of hedonistic extremism. If the ideal marriage is not found, many feel a need—a perfect right—to end it in search of greener pastures.

This is just more evidence of our instant gratification culture that is used to “Rush shipping,” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now.” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments come quickly.

There is a saying that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly unrealistic notions of the picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality.

Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se; we must become more sober about our conception of these ideals through the lens of hedonism and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard, but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage—as some do rather quickly today—is not the solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage leads to another and perhaps yet another.

In the past, even the relatively recent past, people tended to stick things out, to work through some differences while agreeing to live with others. We would do well to regain something of this appreciation that earthly life is a mixed bag, that there are going to be challenges. Marriage is no different. Though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentment and disappointment if we don’t balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.

Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high rate of divorce, but an overlooked root is the expectation of an ideal marriage. Yes, many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (We would do well to remember that in a world full of adults behaving like this, it is the children who really get a raw deal.) This is a deeper and less discussed cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.

The Carnage of Divorce

divorceAlmost two decades ago, as a younger priest, I remember trying to save a marriage. Sadly, by the second counseling session I concluded that the couple really had no intention of trying to save the marriage. Rather, they were looking to me to assuage their guilt and to console them by telling them they were really “doing the right thing,” that God wanted them to be happy and would not mind if they divorced. I could do no such thing.

At a critical moment the couple said, in effect, “We are really doing this for the sake of the children. We don’t want them to suffer with all of our bickering.” To which I replied, “Then stop the bickering!” As they looked at me incredulously, I went on to urge them to get whatever help they needed to work through their differences. I insisted that God hates divorce and that divorce is not good for children; reconciliation is what they want and need.

Realizing that they were not going to get the approval and consolation they sought, the couple ended the session and did not return. They finalized their divorce. Their three children went on to be subject to things far worse than bickering: being carted around to different households on weekends, meeting Dad’s new girlfriend, accepting a stepdad, always secretly wishing that Mom and Dad would love each other again.

I thought of that story (and others like it) as I was reading this book, published in May: Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, by Leila Miller. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks that divorce is “good thing” for their children—or even for them.

Consider the following passage from the book, in which a woman writes of suffering through her parent’s divorce during her youth:

My grandparents’ generation had to deal with a lot — war, undiagnosed PTSD, and alcoholism—but they had a noble idea: That you sacrificed your own happiness for your children’s well-being. You took on all the heartache so they didn’t have to. …

My parent’s generation inverted that. They decided it was better a child should have her world torn apart than that an adult should bear any suffering. Of course, they didn’t frame it that way. They wanted to believe that the child would suffer less, because children were just extensions of the mother, and the mother would theoretically be happier [p. 131].

It is shocking logic, but widespread in our culture. Indeed, the whole conversation about marriage today is about adults and what makes them happy; children are something of an afterthought. Marriage is said to be about romance, being happy, and “finding a soulmate.” But if one asks a couple about having children, a common response is, “Oh sure, that too. We’ll probably have a kid or two … when we’re ready.” Children are seen more as a way of accessorizing the marriage, as an “add-on” rather than the essential work of a marriage.

Yet the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage has its entire structure made sensible by its central work: procreation and the subsequent raising of the children. That a man and a woman should enter a stable, lifelong union makes sense because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage is about children and has its very structure directed toward what is best for them. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, a child is best raised by a father and a mother who are stably present and who manifest the masculine and feminine genius of being human. To intentionally subject children to anything less or anything different does them an injustice.

The divorce culture casts this aside and insists that marriage is about adults and what makes them happy. If there are children in the picture, don’t worry, they’ll adjust; kids are resilient. Or so the thinking goes.

Leila Miller has done a wonderful service in showing that children are not so resilient after all. In fact, even long after attaining adulthood, these victims of their parents’ divorces still suffer painful and lasting effects. Ms. Miller interviewed 70 adult children of divorce and let them speak for themselves.

Many were surprised that anyone was interested or even cared about what they thought or had experienced. One of the more common experiences shared was a “we’re not going to talk about the divorce” mentality. Never mind the awkwardness of Mom and Dad marrying others. We’re supposed to go along with the drastic changes and be delighted, happily accept new siblings, and call some man “Dad” (or some woman “Mom”) who really isn’t. We want to make sure that no one’s feelings get hurt, so we’re all going to be nice and pleasant. The unspoken message in this is that the feelings of the children matter less and must be sacrificed so that others—mainly adults—can be happy and “get on with their lives.”

Some who have read this book say, “Finally, someone understands.” Or “Wow, that’s just how I feel!” The powerful, articulate testimonies in it will help those who had to live through divorce to name and understand their own hurts and feelings, not merely so as to brood or to reopen old wounds, but to the bring them to the light and seek deeper healing.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a healing for those who have suffered and, I pray, a strong medicine to prevent divorce. As Christians, let’s remember that God designed marriage to be what is best for children. The truest happiness any father or mother can find will be the knowledge that they made the sacrifices necessary to be sure that their children were raised well and prepared for life here, and even more, for eternal life.

Disclaimer: Not everyone who is divorced came to be so in the same way. Some tried hard to save their marriage but their spouse was unwilling. Others came to conversion later in life. Still others were physically endangered during the marriage. This essay is not to be construed as a general condemnation of all who are divorced. Rather, it is a heartfelt plea that amidst today’s divorce culture we count the full cost of divorce and that we remember that marriage is first and foremost about what is best for children.

It’s a Glorious, Glorious Life

Last week, in preparation for our celebration of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Marriage Jubilarian Mass, we produced this video about Bob and Laurin Balkam, a husband and wife from the Greatest Generation.

Before the interview could start, Bob said, “I’ll tell you my life story and you see what you think. And I’ll try to do it in about five minutes.” But you can neither tell a 75-year love story in five minutes, nor help but take away some life lessons.

The first lesson to take away is the transformative power of faith. Bob and Laurin were not Catholic when they married. They were Protestant. And that’s just how Bob liked it. Until one day, that is, when he came home and Laurin was reading a book about the Blessed Mother. “Uh oh,” he thought. Laurin then went on to tell Bob that she had met a Catholic priest … and that he was coming for dinner. Bob wasn’t happy.

Even worse for Bob: after meeting the priest, he really liked him and would go on to meet with him several times. Bob said after that, he “knew in the soles of his feet” that God wanted him to become Catholic. The Balkams converted and raised all eight of their children in the faith, with God guiding, correcting, loving and just being present with them.

The second lesson involves the power of marriage. In the video, Bob says of his union, “Like the faith, Laurin has enriched me, instructed me, corrected me and encouraged me. She loves me.”

When they were first married Bob was about to take a job until Laurin told him, “No, Bob, you’re not going to take that job. It’s not good enough for you.” He went back the next day and asked for another position and got it. He ended up staying in that job for 20 years, but the most important thing that he received, he said, “was a gift from my wife … a transformation in my view of myself.”

The third lesson is the true meaning ofvisible signs.” A few years ago, Laurin was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For both Laurin and Bob it was a terrible shock. There is little doubt that their faith has helped carry them through challenging times. But if ever there were a couple who serve as a visible sign of an abiding faith in the love of God and faith in the path that He presents each of us – should we choose to follow – it is the Balkams.

For example, Laurin is no longer able to speak, and I wondered how they communicated. Bob showed me. As I watched from a distance so as not to intrude, Bob began speaking to her in their own “language.” He took his bride’s hand and looked into her eyes, and she responded immediately, full of life and animated. It is a language of joy and of laughter; it is their language of love. It is the language of a 75-year marriage that Bob calls, “a glorious, glorious life.”

* * *

Join us for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Jubilarian Mass for Married Couples, celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, on Sunday, June 25, at 2 p.m., at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Baker is Director of Multimedia Production for the Archdiocese of Washington. To view more inspiring videos produced by the Office of Multimedia Production, please go to the WashArchdiocese YouTube page.

Marriage and Family at the Time of Jesus

N.B.: I am in the Holy Land at this time. As my travel schedule is heavy, I am republishing some articles about life in Jesus’ day. I hope you will enjoy reading (or re-reading) them as much as I did.

The word family had a wider meaning both in Aramaic and in Hebrew than it does in English. The Hebrew, ah, and the Aramaic, aha, could be used to refer to brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters, cousins, and even other near relations. Extended family networks were both insisted upon and essential for survival. It was every Jewish person’s duty to maintain and depend upon these ties.

Marriage – Marriage, of course, is the heart of family. The very first direction that God gave to Adam and Eve was that a man should leave his father and mother cling to his wife, that the two should become one, and that they should increase and multiply. Ancient rabbis said that a man wasn’t really a man at all until he did so. However, especially by the time of Christ, there were some men and women who lived celibate lives so as to be free to serve God; by studying the Torah, teaching, or engaging in some great work for God’s people. Jesus and Paul seem to have been in this category. Jesus praised those who did so in Matthew 19, as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

In the earliest years of Israel, there seems to have been some tolerance for polygamy, despite the fact that it was a departure from what God had set forth. Many overlooked it, given the urgent need to grow the family of God, the chosen people. Men were often lost in war, which led to more women than men looking for a spouse. Generally, only wealthier men could afford to have more than one wife. Although the Bible does not explicitly condemn polygamy, it does demonstrate that polygamy often led to intractable troubles, sometimes between the women involved, but other times between their sons (particularly when it came to inheritance rights). By the time of Jesus, polygamy seems to have disappeared among the Jews. There is simply no mention of the practice in the New Testament. Jesus summoned the men of his day to love their wives and specifically prohibited other Mosaic leniencies in marriage. He re-proposed God’s original plan of one man for one woman till death do them part.

Call to marriage and engagement – Marriage took place at a young age for the ancient Jews. Most rabbis proposed 18 as the most appropriate age for men to be married, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to be younger, especially in times of peace. Young women were married almost as soon as they were physically ready, approximately age 13.

In most cases, marriages were arranged by the respective parents. However, arranged marriages were seldom forced on young people who had absolutely no attraction to or interest in each other. Nevertheless, the view in the ancient world—and even in many places today—was that marriage was not so much about love and romance as it was about survival. Further, it was not merely the individuals who were married; the two families came together in mutual support. Beauty and romance, while considered pleasant things, were noted to be passing. Life and survival had to be based on sturdier foundations.

When a future bride had been chosen for a young man, either by his parents or more rarely by himself, there followed a period of one year called “betrothal.” During this time the couple still lived apart while delicate, often-protracted negotiations occurred between the families regarding dowries, etc. The groom or his family paid the dowry to the father of the bride as compensation for the loss of a working member of his household. It was also understood that some money should be set aside for the woman to protect her in the event of her husband’s premature death.

Marriage ceremonies – At the conclusion of the betrothal period, when all the agreements were signed, the wedding could occur. Weddings of that time typically extended over five to seven days. Autumn was the best time for marriages because the harvest was in, the vintage was over, minds were free, and hearts were at rest. It was a season when the evenings were cool, making it pleasant to sit up late at night. In small villages, the entire community would usually gather to celebrate.

On the evening before the first day of the wedding feast, the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, went to fetch his betrothed from her father’s house. He would wear particularly splendid clothes and sometimes even a crown. A procession was formed under the direction of one of the bridegroom’s friends, who acted as master of ceremonies and remained by his side throughout the rejoicing.

Having been fetched, the beautifully dressed bride joined in the procession, carried in a litter. Along the way people sang wedding songs drawn from the Song of Songs in the Bible: Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? (Song of Songs 3:6) When the procession reached the bridegroom’s house, his parents uttered a traditional blessing, drawn from Scripture and other sources. The remainder of the evening was passed in games and dancing, with the bridegroom taking part. The bride, however, withdrew with her friends and bridesmaids to another room.

The next day the great wedding feast came. Once again there was general rejoicing and a sort of holiday in the village. Toward the end of the day there was a meal; men and women were served apart. This was a time for the giving of presents, etc. The bridesmaids stood around the bride, who was all dressed in white; there were usually ten of them. The bride sat under a canopy while traditional songs were sung and blessings recited. In the evening the groom arrived, and while the exact ritual words are not certain, there seems to have been a dialogue between bride and groom, which is recorded in the Song of Songs: The bride said, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song of Songs 1:2-4). The groom responded, Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me. My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Song of Songs 2:13-14).

Now that the couple was together, all the men and women in attendance were together as well. Religious leaders imparted blessings on the couple, who were now together under the canopy. The words of these blessings are not known and seem to have varied. After these blessings came the evening feast.

Later on that first evening, the couple retired and the marriage was consummated. The celebration often continued for several more days; the couple did not go on a “honeymoon” but remained for the duration, sharing in the merriment.

The family – The concept of the strictly nuclear family living completely independently was largely unknown in the ancient world. That said, among the Jewish people each family was considered an independent unit. The father was considered the head of his household. Families did not exist in clans, in which all the families (including the fathers) were under the authority of a clan leader or patriarch. Such a system was more common among the Arabs.

Among the Jewish people, the father had absolute authority over the household. So absolute were his rights that he could even order members of his family put to death or sell his children into slavery. However, by Jesus’ time, selling children into slavery was unheard of and the death penalty was extremely rare—only inflicted with the agreement of other members of the village. Roman government actually forbade Jewish authorities from exacting the death penalty, reserving all such cases to itself.

Along with the many rights enjoyed by men and fathers in Jewish family life, there were also great responsibilities. A man was expected to provide his wife and children with all of their basic needs. Wives often referred to their husbands as lord (Baal) or master (Adon).

Wives and mothers had very few legal rights but a lot of practical authority in the home. One recourse she did have was to her father, who might rebuke her husband if he did not properly care for her. However, most men ensured that their wives were provided with the basics of life; in addition, they enjoyed seeing them well-adorned.

Wives did an enormous amount of work and their husbands depended on them. They prepared the meals, fetched the water, baked the bread, squeezed the oil, made the butter, tended the animals, and of course cared for the children. Most men knew that they utterly depended on their wives, and wives knew that they knew this.

Wives often generated extra income for the household by sewing and selling surplus oil and other food products. While some marriages were strained, most couples developed a loyalty based on mutual need.

Children – Jewish law and custom commanded from children absolute respect, honor, and reverence for both their father and their mother. They were also expected to care for their parents in their old age.

Children were greatly desired; large families were very common. Barrenness was considered a great curse and many Scriptures speak to the blessing of children. Clearly children were helpful with the household and field tasks, and later on they provided “social security” for their aging parents. Several generations of families usually lived in the same town, providing a good support system. The Jewish family was strong and was admired by the pagans, whose families by this time were in the kind of disarray we see today in the post-Christian West.