Monday, December 30, 2013

Homily - "Mary and Joseph: open to life"

(Given at St Catherine Laboure Church in Maryland).

I'm the chaplain at the Newman Center at George Washington University in DC. On breaks, I help out at parish Masses like this morning. At a parish Mass one Sunday a few years ago, the second reading was the same as ours today which includes the famous line, “wives be subordinate to your husbands”. After Mass, an older couple told me a funny story of what happened with this line.  As the reading was being proclaimed, the husband nudged his wife on the arm, as if to gloat that she was subordinate to him.  She didn’t take kindly to this.  Then, I preached the homily and explained the line.  I said that being subordinate (or submissive) means to be “under the mission of”.  Wives are to be under the mission of their husbands.  What is the mission of husbands?  St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5, a husband is to love his wife “as Christ loves the Church”.  A husband is to love and serve his wife as Christ loves and serves the Church.  So, I explained, wives are to let their husbands serve them.  When I said this, the wife landed a huge elbow into her husband’s arm as if to say, “you serve me, buddy”!

It is a tall task, indeed, for husbands and wives to love each other as Christ and the Church love each other.  Christ gives his love to his bride, the Church.  She receives his love…just as a woman receives her husband’s love in the physical act.  She receives his love and returns it to him.  Think of what happens in the vows at a wedding: the man gives his life to his bride (as Christ gives his life to the Church), she receives his promises, and then gives hers to him.  They both act in persona Christi (“in the person of the Christ”); they act as Christ to the other.  By the way, it’s the only sacrament that the priest (or bishop) is not the celebrant.  Their task is to live out what they promised: to act as Christ to the other “until death does us part”.

Is this possible?  Some of my students at GW struggle to believe this because they never saw this model in their parents growing up.  Of course, the pool of faithful husbands and wives has shrunk in the current generation.  But, I can (and do) point them to examples like Sts. Joseph and Mary. In fact, they are the example for college students and adults everywhere.  How did they stay so committed and faithful to each other?  How did they live out the readings today, and remain as the Holy Family? A big clue comes in the Gospel that some of us heard on Christmas Eve.  It said that Joseph “did as the Lord commanded him” through the message of an angel.  He did as the Lord commanded him…even though it would change his life forever to stay with Mary who was pregnant with child even though they hadn’t had relations.  He didn’t question it.  He didn’t complain.  He just did it.  Mary, too, did as the Lord commanded her through the message of an angel.  What a huge message it was!  And, she was between 14-16 years old.  To hear that kind of message at 14 – that you would give birth to the Son of the Most High – and respond with “yes” is beyond remarkable.  And, yet, they both did as the Lord commanded.

They didn’t do as society commanded… or as the culture commanded….or friends…or family…or doctors.  I see the commands of a secular society up close and personal every day on campus.  And, they are often the opposite of what God commands. Young people are under so much pressure to sleep together, cohabitate, and use contraception.  Many of our young women were put on the pill by their doctors or even parents at a very young age.  Knowing the danger it does to their bodies and relationships, some are choosing to get off of it.  Probably half of my couples that I prepare for marriage are living together...then I read them the findings of a government study that found that 78% of couples who live together before getting married get divorced.  Cohabitation and contraception are preparation for divorce; chastity and Natural Family Planning (NFP) are preparation for marriage.  The divorce rate among couples that use contraception is about 50%; it’s less than 5% for couples that use NFP. Jesus says, "by their fruits you will know them".

The big point is for couples – and really all of us – to be open to God’s Plan.  The big problem about contraception is that it closes a couple off to God’s Will. It prevents procreation (open to life) as well as union between the spouses.  It’s like a barrier between them.  Using NFP doesn’t mean that a couple will have 20 kids.  It means that a couple is communicating with each other and with the Lord about how many kids He wills them to have.  It means greater communication, greater intimacy, and sacrifice which are all cornerstones of a healthy and lifelong marriage.  It gives a couple a better chance at imitating Mary and Joseph in being able to hear God and doing what He commands.  

Finally, Mary and Joseph couldn’t do it on their own, and neither can couples today.  They were both filled with the Holy Spirit.  At every wedding Mass, I say to the couple that the Eucharist is to be the center of their marriage.  Jesus promises tremendous fruit for any of us who eat his flesh and drink his blood.  It is the way for all of us to live as Christ on earth….this is what he mainly promises about the Eucharist.  Of course, the fruits of marriage are children. Every child is the fruit of his or his parents' love.  Jesus is the fruit of Mary and Joseph's love - how they bring him into the world, nurture, form, and shape him to be our Savior. Through their openness to God and to life, our salvation is born...our hope is born...our life is born. Through them, we have Jesus.

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