Bishop James P. Powers processes up the aisle with incense as couples celebrating milestone anniversaries raise their hands for their wedding rings to be blessed. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
Jenny Snarski Catholic Herald Staff
There were no flowers in hand, no white dresses or tuxedos, no bridesmaids or groomsmen. There were however, couples – many with family members gathered – in a church with an altar and a priest. There was beautiful music, reading of Scripture and an inspiring homily.
As my husband and I gathered at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, with more than 80 other couples for the Diocese of Superior’s annual Wedding Anniversary Jubilee Mass, I had no doubt that the celebration looked different than our individual wedding days.
Facing each other, with the same hands that held each other on our wedding days, my husband, Denny, and I and every couple looked at each other with the same eyes and used the same voices as we all renewed our vows.
Our rings were probably a little tarnished and our stories a little messy, but I imagine most of us would admit our love was deeper and more mature than on our wedding days. Most importantly, we were all renewing our commitment to include God in our marriages, to thank him for the blessings and ask for his grace and strength in the years to come.
That very day, July 16, and the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Denny and I were married 12 years ago. We were the youngest couple celebrating the occasion.
As Bishop James P. Powers began his homily, he thanked us for the witness of our marriages. Referencing words of Pope Francis, he said that marriage is the greatest thing God created.
He spoke about the difference between civil marriage as a legal contract and the sacrament of marriage as a covenant. A supernatural reality through which the couple – one man and one woman made in God’s image – invite God – the image of their union – to bless and be a part of.
Bishop Powers preached on the Gospel of the wedding at Cana. How, although Jesus might not have been at our wedding receptions changing water to wine, we had all invited him to our weddings to be a partner in our marriages.
“On the day of your wedding, as you held each other’s hands,” the bishop reflected, “our Lord wrapped his hands around yours … as that sign, that strength, that promise.
“As you spoke your wedding vows to each other, God promised to give you that grace and strength that you needed to be true to all that you vowed to each other that day – and to be that sacramental sign for all the world to see, of that love the Lord has for his church and for each of us.”
He acknowledged God did not promise marriage would be sunshine and roses, but that he did promise his grace and presence to face the challenges.
While Bishop referenced the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I was observing the couples around us. I wondered what ways their love had been one that “bear all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.”
“You’ve held on to each other,” Bishop Powers affirmed, saying we had refused to take the easy way out, refused to quit trying.
“Today we rejoice and celebrate the witness you are,” he continued, “first to your families, to us and to all the world.”
A witness, he added, that is needed by the church, the nation and world now more than ever before. He encouraged continuing to allow the Eucharist and sacraments to nourish and sustain us through the blessings and crosses. “Thank you,” Bishop Powers concluded, “for who you are and for allowing God into your lives making you that witness of his love and presence.”
After we were called forward in recognition of our anniversary, couples came forward celebrating 25, 30 and 40 years. By far the greatest number were celebrating their 50th anniversary, followed by another handful of 60, 65 and 70 years. The last couple honored, longest married, had been together for 75 years.
The words that stuck in my head were Bishop Powers’ entreaty to be the witnesses the world needs. I knew then that would be the headline for this article. It also brought to mind something Denny had shared around Valentine’s Day from a marriage and family podcast he’d discovered and we have since both listened to frequently.
The Messy Family Project, a ministry founded by Mike and Alicia Hernon, seeks to strengthen marriages and empower parents. We immediately found them relatable in their realness about family life while also holding up the ideals of our call to holiness.
The phrase from their Feb. 10 podcast Denny had shared was, “It’s not love that sustains marriage, but marriage that sustains love.”
I have noodled on that for months – the depth and truth of it, its counter-culturalness – as a sort of rallying cry to not let my own relationships stagnate.
In light of Bishop Power’s message, I have listened to it twice to help write this article, and I have read through the entire passage the Hernons quoted it from.
It came from a sermon written by German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his niece and her fiancé while he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“In your love, you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations … In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind.
“Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office … As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.
“As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
I invite you to reread that quote a few times, let it sink in a bit. Let it cause you to reflect and even make you a little uncomfortable. Let it kindle a flame, however waning or strong, of a sense of mission in your own marriage or in support of marriages around you.
Anyone who has been married for any amount of time can relate to the craziness of it all in the eyes of a secular society focused on personal fulfillment and instant gratification. It’s good to allow even our broken relationships to be witnesses to the heroic trust spouses place in each other, setting out on a path in pursuit of a shared life. Simply put, without the sacrament of marriage or at least an invitation of God to a constant part of the relationship, I don’t know how anyone can make it even to five or 10 years.
Married life reveals and uncovers our healthy and our wounded parts. It brings tension and friction between different backgrounds and mindsets, it hones virtues and challenges values.
What was so striking about the Hernons’ reflections is how much the world and secular society tell us marriage is about romance and love as a feeling, whose purpose seems to be mutual satisfaction. Not much more than a piece of paper for many and just as easily torn up when the feelings change or differences seem irreconcilable.
Their message was how marriage is something bigger than the husband and wife and their love. How it is the foundation of a stable society because it truly is a testament to love becoming real only as it is tried and tested. “Only when love between human beings is put to the test,” they quoted from St. Pope John Paul II, “can its true value be seen. If life was always easy, we would not really find out how real our love is.”
This sacramental understanding of marriage – as a visible sign of an invisible reality – seems to be exactly the invitation to witness that Bishop Powers spoke of.
Each of us couples present at that anniversary Mass had our own story, our own call to witness. Each of us probably had moments where, without grace and faith, our marriages would not have persevered. And that is where the call to be a witness to the world as a married couple becomes clearer to me as a call to be a witness that life lived without God, and even religion, is a crapshoot at best.
The social questions surrounding sexuality and gender, marriage, family and parenting show the rapid crumbling of the Christian values upon which Western civilization was built, Christian values whose basic human principles have been shared by cultures throughout history with an understanding that they were not gods and survival depended on sources outside of themselves.
Bishop’s call to us at the anniversary Mass goes beyond even all married couples. The witness of marriage as a sustainer and safeguard of true and lasting human love is a call that belongs to all of us who believe in God as creator of an ordered world and believe that we are destined for life beyond this world.
Family life – and we are all part of families – has the role of helping each of us be secure in our inherent value and discover our unique identity and gifts as well as challenges. Relationships – mutual giving and receiving – is the foundation of what makes us human and the seed of a safe and sustaining society.
Sacramental marriage is the image and symbol of God’s covenant with his people, and we are all his people. It has not been a covenant of sunshine and roses, but God has never strayed from his vow even when we have run the other direction.
I am grateful for my own marriage and the witness of so many others who have lived with God in the center and relied on a community of faith to raise their families. I am grateful for the willingness to be vulnerable in sharing our struggles and bolster each other with support and hope.
May we all respond “I do” to a renewal in our own marital and family lives, a firm and convicted “I do” to give brave witness of faith-filled commitment and truly unconditional love.
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