Fr. Leonard Klein On What Marriage Is

I had to ask my Pastor, Father Leonard Klein, if I could post his Sunday sermon again. As usual, it was thought-provoking, illuminating and timely! I hope you will read it.

13 May 2012
There are few things more basic to humanity than the desire to love and to be loved, and there are few things about which there is more confusion.

Love in our era has been defined almost exclusively in terms of emotion – something we feel, something we “fall into,” almost as if it were an accident.  Thus follows the confusion about marriage into which our society has fallen.

“What is marriage?” is the question that is not being asked by those who want to change the definition.  Is it merely a way of signaling our social approval of committed love between any ordering of two (or more) people?  Or does it have a deep meaning related to the simple fact that there is only one basic biological function that requires two people?  And that they have to be of opposite sexes?  Marriage exists in human culture to bind men and women together to rear the children produced by their sexual interaction.
The Church understands, along with most cultures until very recent times, that it is not just loving feelings that constitute marriage.  

Marriage is a covenant, ordained by God, necessary for the continuation of the human project.  If marriage is based only on affection, it ends when the feelings change.  But that is not what Catholics believe.  Nor is it what most human societies have believed throughout history.  Marriage was, after all, not invented; it is a reality of the natural law that humanity has with much difficulty and meandering discovered.  It was not created by the state and cannot be changed by the state.

For us, marriage is not just a contract, or a right or a certification of how we feel: it is a Sacrament, a state of life to which the promise of God’s grace is attached.  To get a sense of how radical a claim this is, remember that monastic vows and the religious life are not named a sacrament.

When a priest or deacon conducts the pre-marital inquiry to see whether a couple is free to marry, he does not inquire into their feelings.  We may well talk about feelings and their love and their relationship.  Pre-Cana instruction will address such matters.  And I assume that they have come to inquire about marriage because they love each other in the romantic and emotional sense.  But in the formal inquiry, I will ask them whether they accept the values of permanence, fidelity, total commitment, and openness to children.  Their marriage is constituted by their free acceptance of those values.

I am not trying to measure the degree of their affection or see into their hearts – I cannot – but to ascertain their understanding, their commitment and their freedom.  Their love, you see, is real insofar as they affirm and understand the meaning and values of authentic marriage: permanence, fidelity, total commitment, and openness to children.  These truths are against no one and permit hostility to no one.  The truth about marriage is not a declaration of war; it is a declaration of what is.  [And for further reflection on these questions I commend to you Bishop Malooly’s column in the new Dialog.]

Now, I have pointed out these basic teachings about marriage, not merely because of certain rumblings in the news over this past week, but because of the second reading and the Gospel, and because it’s Mother’s Day and because May is specially dedicated to devotion to the Blessed Virgin.  On all these counts this a good day to think about what love is really is.
Listen to what Jesus says:
“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and remain in his love."

"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
There’s not a lot about feelings in this, is there?  It’s not that feelings and romance, emotion and sensitivity, are not important, especially in marriage.  They surely are.  But love cannot be reduced to feelings, as our culture does because it has no other avenues to understanding what is real and good and true.  People have lost confidence in the notion of truth, and in the relativism that follows only feelings seem real.
But love is not just feelings.  It has shape and content, just as marriage has a shape, a content and a purpose that transcends the couple.

Love involves keeping Christ’s commandments.  And did not your mother’s love involve some commandments?  When I went off to college, my mother, sturdy farm woman that she was, told me not to let myself go soft.  Almost fifty years later, I’m still trying to obey her.

And did not your mother’s love have form and content?  It is important that you knew that she had loving feelings toward you.  But if those feelings had not been accompanied by hard work, care, sacrifice, discipline and all sorts of activity, you might remember her with sentimental affection but shake your head over her incompetence, loving her in spite of it. [My eldest son smiled at me at this point]

Christ likewise expects us to show our love by keeping his commandments, and they are numerous.  “God is love” says First John in one of the best known lines of Scripture, but the Father’s love and the Son’s love are manifested very much in commandments and instruction.  We are to obey the Ten Commandments, even when it’s hard.  We are to go further and follow the example of Christ in active works of love for others.  We are commanded to pray, to celebrate the sacraments.  We are commanded to believe, to rejoice and to love.

Ultimately, the love Christ commands is sacrificial.  It is defined by his own sacrifice on the cross.

Again the example of our mothers can be helpful.  They did sacrifice a lot for us.  And in that their joy was made full, as Christ promises.  We do not regret the love and labor we pour into our children.

And the example of the Blessed Mother applies all the more – her heart was pierced by the sacrifice of her Son.  Not only was she bereft, as far too many mothers are who have seen their children die.  She bore him to this purpose and suffered with him, as he suffered for us.  And yet she too shared the joy of the resurrection, and we find her with the disciples in Jerusalem in the opening chapter of Acts.  She finished her life in the home of the apostle John as Christ asked on the cross and as is depicted in the last window on my left, faithful to the end.

Love is shaped by obedience and by service.  It is a Christ-like outpouring for the other in which we discover, often to our great surprise, our true joy.

That obedience is not always easy.  Defending the simple truth about marriage is not easy and evokes misunderstanding and even hatred.  But more generally, the power of sin holds us back from living for the other, from living for the truth, from taking risks demanded by our faith.

Our mothers at their best gave us a model of what it means to live lives of sacrificial love.  And the Blessed Mother surely did.  And Christ did preeminently.
And if we too accept the notion that love is far more than feelings but a matter of obedience, sacrifice and truth our joy will be real and full.  We will find our lives in losing them, as Christ promised.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one's life for one's friends.
In such love we find our life, our hope and our eternal destiny.


Christine said...

"do not become soft"..Best advice every.

This was a great post. I love it.

If he ever has some more inspiring words please share.

God Bless Father Leonard Klein.

Nadja said...

This is wonderful. My sister and I were discussing how marital love is the same as love of God; one cannot trust the emotions, which are one day like this and the next like that, but it is in fact an act of the will, a choice, a decision to commit oneself to the relationship.

You can see how in an irreligious society marriage falls apart.

Jennifer Merkel said...

This is wonderful!
I have the greatest respect for Fr Klein. I would like to repost this to my blog, if that's OK.
What a Blessing to have priests that are open in their support of Marriage!

Allison said...

Christine, I love sharing my Pastor's words. He is such a bright man and we are lucky to have him.

He's a former Lutheran Minister who became a Catholic Priest! Last year he taught HIMSELF how to say the Latin Mass! His Latin is incredible!!

He has been on EWTN, too.

Hi Nadja! Nodding to your thoughtful words..."an act of the will, a choice, a decision to commit oneself " so true!

Jennifer, welcome! Glad that you found my blog and as my Pastor gave me his permission to post this, I don't think he'd mind you you linking to my post and reposting. The last time I posted one of his sermons (linked in this post) it was picked up by First Things!

Tina Marie said...

This sermon says it all. Thank you so much for sharing. This post and other like it are why I love your blog so much. Nothing is sugar coated, but rather written out of love of neighbor. That is why I have nominated you the Versatile Blogger Award. Just follow the link and the directions listed there and keep posting you wonderful posts. God Bless, Allison.

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