Protecting, Respecting, and Cherishing the Union of the Marital Act

Today’s readings (Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38) of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord prophesy and highlight Mary of Nazareth’s virginal self-giving love in her fiat or “yes” to God. Would Mary consent to be the Mother of the Son of God Incarnate? She responds to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” (The first part of this response is almost identical to Jesus’ fiat in His agony in the garden, as well as the centerpiece of the Our Father, “Your will be done.”) The Virgin Mary’s unconditional and profoundly obedient love of God informs her fiat. Mary’s sexuality, and therefore her motherhood, embrace her affirmation to love God in return.

In today’s world, social decline in faith, virtue, and family stability, among other reasons, have weakened the concept and exercise of “commitment,” so clearly embodied by the Virgin Mary. To “commit” to something, for many, seems too difficult, almost archaic, especially in reference to something other-centered. This is true, for example, concerning marriage. Do most couples, when exchanging marriage vows at their wedding, seriously intend faithful commitment for better or worse until death? Do they understand the meaning of a vow, and are they dedicated to spousal love “no matter what?” Total, self-giving commitment to another in marriage is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming culturally anomalous, if not anachronistic. This is not surprising since commitment to God—the foundation of all other just and loving commitments—is a notion slowly receding into oblivion in our collective, cultural mindset. Without commitment to God, universal truths, and absolute moral norms, relativism spawns, multiplies, and destroys soul and society. In Scripture, God warns us about this contagion, such as corrupting the absolute character of the Decalogue, the Commandments of love (e.g., Isiah 5:20-24; Torah in v.24 is an Isaian reference to the Decalogue).

By disuse and even wholesale rejection of virtue—the greatest of which is love of God—our culture has atrophied in wisdom and moral character and no longer recognizes the purpose of sexuality. We, the people, by and large, view sexual activity as a multi-method approach of obtaining orgasmic pleasure. This is no overstatement—our pervasive and long-standing contraceptive mentality and practice, cohabitation, seduction into the multi-billion dollar pornography enterprise, and political and legislative eradication of the meaning of marriage (in favor of formalized consensual license to engage in sexual activity), reflect our true colors.

In the order of nature, sexual activity—elicited by sexual desire—is oriented toward union of bodily persons. Self-giving, marital love is God’s signature design of this union. To effect it, four conditions must be met.  First, the union must be willed. Second, it must be complementary of one man to one woman to create the union. Third, it must be faithful because of its profound intimacy. Fourth, it must be respectful of the life-giving act of lovemaking, and therefore be open to life, i.e., must not sterilize lovemaking because of its reproductive character. This procreative dimension—the reproductive character—is an intrinsic aspect of conjugal union. A denial of the procreative, fruitful dimension of the conjugal act is a denial of its union. A partial, but not total self-gift in lovemaking contradicts the complete gift of self expressed in the body language of love, so well-illustrated by St. Pope John Paul the Great’s theology of the body.

Among proponents of the oxymoron, “gay marriage,” some argue that the Catholic Church’s teaching of procreation as a fundamental good of marriage is erroneous because elderly married couples would cease to be married, or elderly couples could not marry because of their inability to procreate. However—as (most) everyone knows—a married couple does not conceive a child each time they make love! Marital union does embody a reproductive character: to denigrate this character denigrates the sacred union.

The Virgin Mary’s courageous, unwavering fiat must be ours, as well. Our undying commitment and loyalty to God embraces all of His will, including those facets most countercultural, such as respect for the marital act. Let us imitate Mary, and serve God faithfully, bravely, chastely. By doing so, we will live with integrity. In addition—God willing—we will serve as an example for others to follow, stimulate personal and social growth in virtue, and thereby reclaim and even advance the grace and teaching of Christ. “Though grass withers…the Word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Reality of Being Known

Everyone wants to be known. We long to be acknowledged, understood and ultimately, loved. We look for affirmation of who we are and praise for what we do. We want to be desired, sought after and needed. As if we couldn’t find evidence of these desires in our own experience, Exhibit A can certainly be found in Reality TV. What began with talk shows that gave ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame has morphed into a “true confessions-meets men and women behaving badly” phenomenon, churning out people famous for being…famous. Reality TV doesn’t just open a window into its inhabitants lives; it throws open the doors and pulls down the walls so that everyone inside is utterly exposed. On our television sets we see them: the good – but mostly the bad and the ugly. It’s those last two that grab the highest ratings and biggest headlines. Who would open themselves to such exposure, laying bare even the most intimate aspects of life – and why? Why reveal so much of oneself, resorting to the kind of over-the-top behavior that would otherwise be unthinkable – except for when the cameras are rolling? Perhaps an equally important question is: Why do so many of us watch?

According to St. Sophronius’ account of her life (as told to the priest Zosimus), Mary was a prostitute, and a woman who found great satisfaction in her work. One day Mary saw a group of people boarding a ship to Jerusalem and, intrigued by what might draw so many on this voyage, she decided to follow them. Mary paid her way doing what she knew best, Koshute 1and after the ship docked, she eventually made her way to the passengers’ destination: a church where a relic of the True Cross was housed. A large crowd pushed their way into the church to celebrate the great Feast of the Exaltation and Mary fell in line. Hard as she tried, Mary was unable to get inside. Convinced the crowd was just too heavy Mary hung back and tried again, and again, and again. Each time she attempted to cross the church’s threshold Mary was repelled, as if some hidden force were protecting the sacred place from her presence. Frustrated and confused, Mary was gripped by a longing to be in God’s presence. From her place outside the church she saw an icon of the Mother of God and begged her to petition the Lord to grant her entrance. The Holy Mother heard her cry and suddenly the barrier was removed and Mary entered and gave praise and thanks to God. Promising to dedicate her life to prayer and penance, Mary made for the Jordan River and the Church of St. John the Baptist. There she was baptized and finally experienced the authentic love and true gift of self she could not have known until she received her Lord in Holy Communion. Leaving the church nourished and reborn, Mary went into the desert. There she lived, praying, making penance – still battling her demons – yet resting in the presence and safety of her True Love.

Mary of Egypt’s life might have made for salacious reality TV. Her insatiable carnal desire, fierce independence and disregard for the potential dangers inherent in her lifestyle would have provided hours of voyeuristic delight. Mary lived over a thousand years ago, yet the longing in her heart is ours, too. Mary wanted to be known and loved; she craved attention, even of the “wrong kind,” because any notice of her was at least an acknowledgment of her existence. Like each one of us, Mary grew restless and dissatisfied and looked for satisfaction everywhere except in the one place where it lay: with the One who knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves. We may not resort to the kind of lifestyle, or even the same nature of sin as Mary. But each one of us takes “refuge” in sin due to human weakness, rebellion, the need to “fit in,” and the simple longing for something to fulfill us, even temporarily.

The season of The Great Fast is our opportunity to be “laid bare” in front of God; to be exposed not for titillation or exploitation, but to be truly known by the One who sees us in Koshute 2truth. God knows our weakness and our flaws, and He is well aware of our sins, even before we openly confess them. His desire for us is not that we remain trapped in the cycle of sin, or that we seek attention in ways that violate our personal dignity. Yet when He beholds us He does so with eyes of love and with the knowledge of who we are as He created us. This is why He so desires us to let go of our sins and embrace Him. When Mary approached the church doors and was denied entrance it was not because God wished to refuse her. Rather, He awakened Mary’s true longing, giving her the space to realize her past mistakes. God presented Himself to her respecting her freedom, exposing His desire for her and allowing her to “fall in love.” Mary encountered True Love on that day, and even as she continued to battle temptation and sinfulness, she finally let Him fight for her.

Our True Love waits patiently for us, making Himself known in ways subtle and unexpected. We need not (over) expose ourselves for others in order to be known and appreciated. The God who loves us, who became a man in order to die for us, knows the desires of our hearts and Himself longs for us to know Him.

O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues. Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is time for work. But do not close your compassionate heart to me, O Master. Rouse me, shake off my heavy sleep. Lead me with the wise virgins into the Bridal Chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry unceasingly: O Lord, Glory to You!

Bridegroom Matins, Great and Holy Week

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.