Feria Quarta infra Hebdomadam XV post Octavam Pentecostes I. Septembris
What is love? So often we hear Christians suggesting that “love conquers all” in terms of understanding human relationships – the love of neighbour, the love of a partner – and that “love” outweighs all other considerations when it comes to understanding, interpreting or living God’s law. Thus some, with regard to Tradition, often suggest that “love” is a justifiable and reasonable excuse to put aside or ignore or change those doctrines that appear irreconcilable with the contemporary mindset or appreciation of “love”. In a recent article in The Daily Telegraph the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby is presented as implying that his or indeed “the Church’s” position on marriage ought to consider the changing attitudes of society towards this ancient institution and perhaps alter its position accordingly.
The truth however is that the Gospel is about living God’s law of love, not our own – there is more to Christianity than just “niceness” – and here we have to understand the limitations of language to realise there is a difference between “love” as most people refer to and understand it, and God’s “love” which is properly called “charity”. Sadly, so many people miss the link between “charity” which they understand as “doing good” and “charity” as the expression of the highest form of love; selfless, sacrificial love.
There are of course, many words for “love” that English does not translate and there are many forms of “love” the classical definitions being; Eros (ἔρως) refers to “intimate love” or romantic love; Storge (στοργή) to familial love; Philia (φιλία) to friendship as a kind of love; and Agape (ἀγάπη) refers to “selfless love”, or “charity” as it is translated in the Scriptures (from the Latin caritas, dearness). Sadly the common arrogance that passes for ignorance these days about such things, means that even among the presumed “well educated” there exists a dearth of knowledge and thus appreciation about the true nature and characteristics of “love”.
True charity is loving unselfishly, sacrificially – not just appreciating what makes us happy or contented or the reflected self-satisfaction of providing the same for another; true love gives without counting nor desiring a return. True charity must of itself produce true love, i.e. a love that is given away, without desire nor need of return. There are many ways to live “in love” but few to live in true charity. There are many ways to live out a loving relationship, but few that are truly sacrificial and not self-seeking. God doesn’t need our love in the sense that He requires it, but He desires us to live in true love with Him, not out of His own selfish satisfaction but in order that we might love truly as He loves us.
What examples are there of such true charity? The love of a parent for their child, such that they react instinctively to protect, comfort or nurture [Matthew 7:9; Ephesians 6:1-4]. One who lays down his life for his friends [John 15:13]. The love of one who forsakes the pleasures of this world for the next [Luke 9:23-25]. One who unstintingly gives of what he has in time, talents and possessions for others [Matthew 6:19-21; Acts 20:35; Hebrews 13:16]. God who created us to share in His love… the sacrifice of His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ [John 3:16]!
What is not true charity i.e. love, though it may be considered loving? A romantic, sensual or dependent relationship where one relies, needs or wants another. These are the most common forms and concepts of “love” and “loving” that most people have. It is the way most people “search for love”, rate their relationships and qualify and quantify their existence; their sense of worth and happiness is dependent upon the satisfaction of themselves and/or their partners. Here we see that this is not “true love” i.e. true charity, a sacrificial unselfish love, no, rather it is ultimately self-serving; it is love for its own sake.
God the Holy Trinity created us as an expression of and to share in His love. In order for us to live true love we needs must follow His law of charity, i.e. to live as He loves us. In order to live as He loves us, we need to follow His commandments sacrificially both to return His love and to share His love. We need to shed the negative connotations in our minds about the word “commandment” and see them as “directions” or “guidelines” in order to quell our rebellious nature and appreciate them for what they truly are. Christ’s earthly life is our example of how to live in love with God and with each other. The Cross is Christ’s ultimate expression of such love; His life is given freely and sacrificially for the benefit of others. Such love has to be shared, true charity i.e. love, does not and cannot exist for its own sake.
The sanctification of holy Matrimony then is meant, not primarily for the purpose of self-love i.e. to bless a couple’s love one for another, but as the vehicle by which true charity may be expressed ultimately in imitation of the Holy Trinity through the creation of life. Which mirrors the Blessed Trinity? Love in and of itself, or love that produces love and life? Only a procreative relationship can produce love and life i.e. something more than itself to share with itself, like God. Holy Matrimony ought to be considered a “high calling” of Christian vocation because of this potentiality to produce life out of love after the nature of the Godhead. It is certainly for this reason that Jesus taught that marriage was between “a male and a female” (Matt 19:5).
No amount of anthropological deconstruction of marriage through the centuries by proponents of alternative forms can change the simple appreciation of Christ’s own words; no amount of Biblical exegesis either, can alter the plain understanding of His words. As the Incarnate Word made Flesh, Christ’s words are not open to the same type of cultural interpretation as one might apply to those of say Paul or one of the other epistle writers; contrary to what some would suggest, these are not the opinion of “a man” but of God incarnate Himself! It frankly matters not what civilisations through the centuries have thought of “as marriage” or indeed, what governments do now; the holy estate of Matrimony to which Christ refers is uniquely different from any human construct of relationships. It’s important to realise that marriage was made a Sacrament, not to bless what people do but to enable them to be blessed; i.e. to become God-like, meaning to love as He loves.
There are of course, those who would say that such an understanding of love and marriage is too idealistic! But to them I would say, it is no more idealistic than a vocation to celibacy or the religious life of chastity, poverty and obedience. Those who have so committed themselves spend considerable time in discernment – on average for most religious orders at least four or five years before final vows/solemn profession. I have never known a couple preparing for marriage to have spent anything like a similar amount of time in prayer, reflection and discernment before getting married! But Christian marriage is indeed a vocation, a “calling”, and the Church would do better to treat it as such and regard marriage preparation as a form of vocational discernment. “Natural attraction” or “instinct” may indeed provide the initial impetus for a relationship, but seeking God’s will for each individual member of a potential partnership in holy Matrimony should be taken as seriously as a vocation to the Sacred Ministry.
A common retort by some even Christians is, that the Church allows the marriage of women past child-bearing age or who are indeed “barren” meaning that they can’t physically give birth due to some biological defect. This would seem to suggest that such a marriage is not open to procreation – to a reflection of true charity and the issue thereof discussed above. However, key to the Church’s understanding is the possibility of issue. There are numerous examples in Scripture of “barren” women in marriages that were yet fruitful e.g. Elizabeth and Zechariah [Luke 1:13, 14], the parents of John the Baptist, afterall, “all things are possible with God” [Matthew 19:26]. Arguably, a couple committed to each other as the realisation of God’s will for their lives, may yet have issue if it be indeed God’s will for them and if it isn’t, then surely He has another purpose for their union and/or their lives which will be made plain if they remain committed and steadfast in their love of Him and each other. The point is that the elements necessary for the creation of life out of love are there – male and female. A couple being prepared for marriage, even supposedly past child-bearing age, ought to be instructed as to the proper purpose of holy Matrimony and themselves be open to the possibility, not by earnestly seeking such, but by simply applying themselves to the living out of true charity as God desires for them. What no couple considering holy Matrimony should think, is that their union is a blessing by God for them to enjoy each other carnally with or without issue!
There is obviously then quite a difference between “marriage” as a secular or societal institution and the Christian Sacrament of holy Matrimony; the two may often be synonymous, but they are not the same. Whilst historically there may have existed a symbiotic relationship, perfectly exampled by the “Church and State” scenarios of many Western countries, particularly here in England, nonetheless this was by accident of history rather than by deliberate Divine will. Before the conversion of Constantine, Christians were confecting the Sacrament of holy Matrimony without recourse to the State except as a societal approbation, a legal recognition of the marriage contracted. In many countries on the Continent this is still the case, a civil wedding usually precedes a religious ceremony where there is no “State religion”. This could well become the situation in England should the law be pressed further to prevent the legalisation of marriages in church in order to conform to the new State definition of marriage, despite promises from the Government to the contrary e.g. if the Church of England fails to alter its current position on who can marry. There are in fact, only a few denominations whose ministers can act as “registrars” anyway, a great many churches already use a Continental system.
Of course, other forms of relationship aside from holy Matrimony may express true charity (as exampled above), any relationship that expresses sacrificial or unselfish love whether between family, friends or “neighbour”. But “love making” the common euphemism for sexual intimacy should properly be confined within holy Matrimony for it is, put simply, the means of procreation of realising the potential to give life. There are some who suggest that eroticism is excusable because it is “natural” or because it is a “gift” from God that our bodies are made in such a way to enjoy such sensual pleasure. This is simply an excuse however, “just because” is never an argument – we are able to do all sorts of things with our bodies, including murder, that doesn’t mean we should! Scripture is very clear about Christians living lives of purity and chastity. “It is from within, from men’s hearts that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice… All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean” (Mark 7:21-23; cf Matthew 15:19,20). Fornication is sexual intimacy outside of holy Matrimony and according to Christ – the Incarnate Word – is sinful.
To our sex obsessed world this may seem outrageous but Christ’s moral teachings have always been a stumbling block to those possessed by their sensuality and given over to their selfishness. St. Paul adds, “…you can be quite certain that no one who actually indulges in fornication or impurity or promiscuity… can inherit the kingdom of God” (Ephesians 5:3-7; also Galatians 5:19-21). “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” [Romans 8:6]. Contemporary Christians who advocate the relaxation or ignorance of these teachings i.e. who suggest that extra-marital sex is “ok” risk the following, for “Whoever then shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 5:19].
Returning to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the same article he is reported as decrying homophobia. This is admirable. Nothing of what I have written above condones “homophobia”, we are expressly forbidden “to judge” others [Matthew 7:1] unless we are able to cast stones [John 8:7] and one of the central truths of our faith is that we are ALL sinners [Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8]! Let me be clear, to be homosexual is NOT a sin. Homosexuality like any sexuality is a natural inclination, it is not itself sinful; what is sinful and the same is true for any sexuality, is extra-marital sex i.e. to fornicate. Whilst many Christians may be guilty of and prone to committing this sin, no matter their sexuality, they should never forget the possibility of redemption, the opportunity to confess and be forgiven! It’s important to remember that fornication is a grave offense, peccata mortalia, a mortal sin that puts one in danger of spiritual death [1 John 5:16-17] and must be repented. However, as easy as it is to sin, so it is to be forgiven! That is the beauty of our faith, a humble and contrite heart God will not despise [Psalm 51:17], “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved” [John 3:17].
The sad truth is that our contemporary age, perhaps as bad, if not more so than any other age of humanity, is more given to promiscuity and fornication than ever before, no longer is such behaviour considered “immoral” by society itself, but even perversely commended and even celebrated or simply “accepted”. Perhaps rather ironically, there are amazing similarities between now and the Roman Imperial culture during which the first century epistle writers lived; those same who so many contemporary theologians accuse of being “out-dated” despite the fact that they addressed much the same issues prevalent today. It is tough for the contemporary Christian to live in such an environment of explicit and overt sexuality and sensualism. But this must never give rise to judgmentalism nor hatred through envy, jealousy, regret nor especially “self-righteousness”. Neither must it give rise to false notions of charity and in so doing compromise the true teaching of the Gospel. It is one thing to campaign against the mistreatment of others, quite another to confuse sympathy with empathy and forget what “true love” i.e. true charity really is…
Sancta Trinitas unus Deus, miserere nobis.
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