The Dignity of Marriage

(Homily for Holy Family Sunday)

Bottom line: Holy Family Sunday is a good opportunity to reflect on the dignity of marriage and family.

Today's Feast of the Holy Family focuses our attention on the fundamental unit of our civil society -and our Church. Throughout the centuries people have taken for granted that the union of husband and wife (together with their children) constitutes a family. For that reason, we refer to Joseph, Mary and Jesus as the Holy Family. With the breakdown of Western civilization, however, some people want to revise that definition of marriage and family. With so much confusion (and outright distortion) on the meaning of marriage, this is a good moment to review the basics.

Let's start at the beginning. In the first book of the Bible, we read how God creates the universe, then the plants and animals. Finally, he creates man in his own image and likeness. He gives our first parents the command to "be fruitful and multiply." When God creates the woman from man's side, the man exclaims, "This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." Then the Bible says, "For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh."

Now, in the Old Testament we read about many deviations from this ideal, including polygamy and divorce. But when they asked Jesus if a man can divorce his wife, he says, "Moses allowed divorce because of your hardness of heart, but in the beginning God made them male and female - and for that reason a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and the two become one flesh." Then Jesus adds, "Let no man separate what God has joined."

In many other ways Jesus showed the sanctity of marriage. For example, he cared so much for young married couples that he did his first miracle to rescue a wedding reception. And when he met a woman who had been involved in a series of marriages, he told her that the one she has now is not her own. (The woman, God love her, did not take offense; she said, "This man must be a prophet.") Jesus used nuptial imagery to explain his mission. He prohibited his disciples from fasting because, "the wedding guests do not fast when the bridegroom is with them." In referring to himself as bridegroom, Jesus was hearkening to a long Old Testament tradition. The prophets (Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and Isaiah) spoke of God as the groom and Israel as his bride.

Jesus’ closest followers showed reverence for marriage. Even though Paul (like Jesus) was celibate, he taught an exalted doctrine of marriage: the union of husband and wife is a sacrament (mysterion) of the union of Jesus and the Church. St. Peter devotes a good part of his first letter to instructing husbands and wives. And the Bible concludes with St. John's magnificent vision of the wedding of the Lamb (Jesus) with his bride the Church.

The Church has consistently taught the beauty and sanctity of marriage. For example, St. John Chrysostom suggested that young husbands should say this to their wives: "I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us...I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you." (Quoted in the Catechism 2365)

One other testimony to this constant teaching is the way Christian writers used the Song of Songs. If it were a movie, that book of the Bible would be rated PG-13. It is a love poem that frankly describes the feelings of a young man and woman in love. Many of the Church Fathers (Origen, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa et al) have lengthy commentaries on it - and mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross used it as the basis of their mystical theology. This shows that although the Church has often warned about distortions of human sexuality, we have constantly presented the love of man and woman that leads to marriage as something beautiful - and sacred. Holy Family Sunday is a good opportunity to reflect on the dignity of marriage and family - as foundational both to human society and to the Church – and to pray for all our married couples.


General Intercessions for Holy Family Sunday (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From the archives (Holy Family Sunday homily):

2014 (Year B): Will Animals Go to Heaven?
2013 (Year A): Overcoming Bitterness
2012 (Year C): Obedience and Freedom
2010 (Year A): The Flight from Bethlehem
2009 (Year C): With Great Anxiety
2008 (Year B): The Dignity of Marriage
2007 (Year A): Honor Your Father and Mother
2004 (Year A): The Most Diverse Family
2003 (Year C): The Key to Family
2002 (Year B): Saintly Seniors
2001 (Year A): The Holy Family in Egypt
2000 (Year C): More Important Than Family
1998 (Year A): How to Avoid Bitterness
1996 (Year B): You Are My Father

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