marriage and the possibilities of human love

This week, while sitting in a bakery, I picked up the June 30 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune and read this sobering headline:

Weddings a less religious affair: Church weddings are now a minority, as Minnesota couples choose convenience over tradition

The cultural shift described by the article is very dramatic:

Religious institutions hosted only 22% of weddings in 2017, according to a survey by the Knot, a leading wedding news website. That’s a swift decline from the 41% in 2009.

Barns, ranches and banquet halls are among the top beneficiaries of the shift.

Catholic churches have been particularly hard hit. The number of weddings nationwide plunged from 326,000 in 1990 to 143,000 in 2018 — despite an increase in the Catholic population. In Minnesota, there are half as many Catholic church weddings today, with 3,100 last year, as in 1990.

In just ten years, the number of marriages performed by religious institutions has dropped by 50%.

And then this story of how it is playing out:

Even some couples whose first choice is a church ceremony often change their minds because of requirements. Raised Catholic, Emily and Joe Beckers expected to be married in a Catholic church. But the Maplewood couple was put off by the marriage preparation classes, which seemed too “faith based,” and the required weekend retreat with other couples. They also wanted a personalized wedding ceremony and worried that couldn’t happen.

There was even a bigger hurdle. Joe Beckers was divorced, and for the marriage to be recognized in the church, he would need to get an annulment of his first marriage.

The wedding plans shifted gears, and they ended up at Embassy Suites in St. Paul.

Said Emily Beckers: “We were able to tailor every detail to our relationship.”

God, the sacraments, and the church are fading in the minds of young couples. No longer are these things considered important to the success or vitality of their relationship. What matters more is the ability to make the ceremony a triumph of self-expression. Is it any wonder that marriages fail so often? They are little more than houses built on sand.

Pope Saint John Paul II was prophetic in his sense about the direction that marriage was headed with young people. He describes the dynamic delicately and profoundly in his play about the sacrament of marriage. One of the characters in the drama is an old jeweler, a man who prepares the rings for young couples. He represents the priest, the witness of the sacrament and the one who, in the person of Christ, offers the blessing on behalf of the Church.

CHRISTOPHER
When we took the rings I felt your hand trembling….
We forgot to pay attention to the face of that old man,
whom Mother told me about: his eyes are said to be very expressive.
It is not our fault that we read nothing
in his eyes; and he said little — things we knew anyway.
So do not be surprised, Mother, that his words left no trace
(things we knew anyway — we did not sense greatness),
and Monica’s trembling hands told me much more.
I was engrossed in her being moved, and in my own
experience of her being moved, which I shared fully
— and I saw us two deep down in our experience:
I think I love her very much.

MONICA
We were taken up with each other — how could we tear ourselves away…
He did nothing to fascinate us…
he simply measured, first, the circumference of our fingers, then of the rings,
as an ordinary craftsman would. There was no artistry in it even.
He did not bring us closer to anything. All the beauty remained
in our own feeling. He did not widen or narrow anything
…I was absorbed by my love — and by nothing else, it seems.

TERESA
This frightened me, however… Does the old jeweler not act anymore with the force of his eyes and his word? Or is it that those two are unable to feel that force, hidden in his look and his speech. Is it that they are different?…
What are you building, children? What cohesion
are these feelings of yours going to have beyond the old jeweler’s message
of which the vertical axis cuts across
every marriage in this world?

The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla

Clearly the Church has its work cut out for it if it hopes to be given the opportunity to assist young couples in preparing well for marriage in any kind of meaningful way… leading them beyond the fantasy and the sentimentality, toward the bedrock of a love that pours itself out selflessly on behalf of the beloved.

For more about the play The Jeweler’s Shop, click here.

Sister Miriam of the Lamb (Rosalind Moss) on the Eucharist and the Mass

On Saturday, January 12, 2008, Rosalind Moss (now Mother Miriam, OSB), spoke to the participants of the RCIA Hollywood program. She shared about her journey as a Jewish woman into the Catholic faith, and, in particular, about her discovery about the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist.

Teaser:

“I’m Jewish. And I’m Catholic, because I believe that Jesus Christ… is the Jewish Messiah; in fact, he’s God. And He came to earth, and He died for our sins, and He rose to give us life, and He established a church, and it’s the Catholic Church, so I’m in it. And so the most Jewish thing a person can do is to be Catholic.”

Mary, the Bread of Life, and the mystery of Holy Saturday

Today, on Holy Saturday, Lent is over. We spend three days enveloped in the liturgy of the Triduum, and we’re right in the middle of it. It is, as T.S. Eliot once said, “the still point in the turning world” (“Burnt Norton,” II, Four Quartets). At the eye of the hurricane, there is a great silence.

There is a beautiful ancient homily on Holy Saturday — we don’t even know who wrote it but it’s beautiful — in the Office of Readings today. Here is a short excerpt:

Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives of Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve… The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory….

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

(Office of Readings, Holy Saturday)

The mystery of Holy Saturday is a mystery of communion, of restored union: what was separated has now been reunited.

How does this happen? What is this mystery of communion which we are anticipating and which we celebrate tonight?

It is, primarily, the mystery of the Eucharist, the sacrament of communion. It is the most exalted mystery of God’s own heart, and of His love.

We’re on pilgrimage today into the very heart of God. Who does the Church give us to accompany us in this time? Who can really show us the way?

It’s Mary. She alone did not flee… did not panic… and did not despair. She is our guide through Holy Saturday, because she is the steward of the great mystery of the Eucharist.

I want to make a brief examination of her life, as it relates to her Son, who is the Bread of Life (John 6:35).

First we go back to the Annunciation. In this moment when the angel Gabriel appears to her, Mary becomes, in a very real way, Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem literally means “the house of bread”.

She is Bethlehem more truly than the town she visits nine months later: she received the Bread that the “house of bread” would not (Luke 2:7). She becomes the dwelling place of the Bread of Life, and she tends to this Bread for thirty years in a mystery of silence we know  little about.

Like the centurion, she calls out to God at the Annunciation: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word…” (Luke 7:6-7). She gives her assent: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Now did she know what she was saying yes to? In the details? No.

But she was docile. She was receptive to the One who has come to her. You see, she said yes to a Someone, not a something. It wasn’t a yes to a plan, or a schedule, or a series of foreseen events.

The somethings of her yes were constantly being challenged and purified. Think of the Presentation in the Temple, when she was told that her heart too would be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35). Think also of her discovery of Jesus in the Temple after a long search. Her Son asked her: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The beauty of Mary is that, when confronted with the unknown and the unexpected, she does not flinch, cower or rant, but she receives it all, and ponders the word in her heart (Luke 2:51). Whatever word is spoken to her — whatever word — she receives confidently as a word of love coming from the very heart of God.

This strong, serene faith is seen at the wedding feast at Cana, when, in response to the news that they have no more wine, she responds by calling her Son into action. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Notice that she doesn’t spell out the plan of action herself, but simply refers them to her Son, trusting in His loving wisdom and power.

Fast forward now three years… to the very end of the life of her Son. As she receives the body of her Son when it is taken, lifeless, from the cross, she receives it lovingly. She kisses Him and gazes out at us as she holds Him. Her eyes are filled with grief, but no bitterness. “This is for you,” her eyes say to us. She is the gracious hostess of the divine meal, expressing a hospitality that has cost her everything.

The Son in her arms is no longer the thriving infant He once was, but a lifeless corpse. This is the annihilation of everything a mother’s heart could want for her child. And yet she is not raging. She’s not bitter. She’s not angry. She’s not clinging desperately to the body of her Son. Instead, she is holding Him with great tenderness and affection.

Why? Because she understands what it takes to make bread… in this case, the Bread of Life.

You see, all along the way of the Cross, her Son, the Bread of Life, was kneaded, pushed, contorted and bruised by the crowds. And now the bread will be covered with a shroud, and placed in the darkness, so that, three days later, it can rise.

So Saturday is a day of waiting. It’s a day of waiting for the Bread to rise, to be baked and to be ready for us. Saturday is Mary’s day, a day to wait with her, in stillness and in hope. And it’s a time to consider her service to the Eucharist, the Bread of Life.

What can this mean for us?

This evening, as you attend the Easter Vigil, as you go to receive the Eucharist after this long fast, think of giving delight to the hostess of this divine meal.

Give joy to her heart by letting her know that her stewardship of this Bread has been accomplished. Give her joy by letting her overhear you say to the Father, as you approach the Bread of Life, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Let her hear you expressing the words of the True Bethlehem: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).

Let the voice of the True Bethlehem rise up across the face of the whole Church today, as all of us, Mary’s spiritual children, raise our voices in a single cry of hope and of love: “Give us this bread always” (John 6:34).

XI: Jesus is nailed to the Cross

John the Beloved watches as the body of Christ is elevated on the Cross. He remembers the words of the Master as He elevated the unleavened bread: “This is my body… do this in memory of me.” The Supreme Teacher does not want us to forget that love is self-offering, and so the meal He asks us to share, again and again until the end of time, takes the very shape of His sacrifice.

Christ’s blood reveals to man that his greatness, and therefore his vocation, consists in the sincere gift of self. Precisely because it is poured out as the gift of life, the blood of Christ is no longer a sign of death, of definitive separation from the brethren, but the instrument of a communion which is richness of life for all. Whoever in the Sacrament of the Eucharist drinks this blood and abides in Jesus is drawn into the dynamism of his love and gift of life, in order to bring to its fullness the original vocation to love which belongs to everyone…. It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life. It is precisely this blood that is the most powerful source of hope, indeed it is the foundation of the absolute certitude that in God’s plan life will be victorious.

Saint Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life