The Gift of Love
Standing before the altar, the man and woman gazed into each other’s eyes as each of them made this solemn promise and vow: “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” Shortly before, their respective parents had said to them with tears in their eyes, “I love you,” just as this couple would one day say those three little words to their own children.
Love – this little word is the subject of countless popular songs, sonnets and stories. In our own lives, each of us in our own way knows that we need love, and without it, our lives wither (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 10). Furthermore, every participant in the Synod on the Family agrees that love is the answer to the challenges confronting marriage and family.
Love and the idea of love fill our daily existence. But what is “love” exactly? How does love happen? As Pope Benedict XVI observed in his beautiful reflection on God who is Love, “Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings” (Deus Caritas Est, 2).
One thing is clear. The Catholic vision of love – a vision that has proven successful over thousands of years – is radically different from that of our culture. Unfortunately, the vision of love prevalent in our culture today not only changes from year to year, but has wreaked havoc on family life and society.
Human love is expressed in various ways, yet as people of faith, we look to marriage as a visible sign that illustrates God’s plan for all of humanity. Reflecting on the love that leads to marriage, we see that the culture often associates passion with love, especially at the beginning of a relationship. But we should be careful not to equate feelings, however intense, with love, because these are very different things. Romance might be a stage in the way of love, but it is not the entirety of the way. Moreover, feelings rise and fall, and they can even be misdirected and lead away from love toward exploitation.
“Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity,” teaches Pope Francis, but it does so “in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved” (Lumen Fidei, 27).
Love is relationship, love is directed toward union, toward communion. People sometimes speak of “falling in love” when they really mean attraction. Also, love does not “just happen.” Loving, and staying in love, requires a conscious decision to subordinate oneself and will the good and welfare of the other (Deus Caritas Est, 6; CCC 1766), including the gift of self. In marriage, this entails making a promise to love for the rest of one’s life. While this idea of giving yourself, of subordinating yourself, might be intimidating, it is one of the wonderful mysteries of life that the more you give of yourself, the more you actually receive.
To understand love, we need only reflect on the Lord. Jesus gave his life, he held nothing back. His whole life is a gift of love. That should be our common standard for love. After all, God created us to be like him in precisely that way.
God made human beings in his image and likeness, that is, in the image and likeness of the Trinity, an eternal communion of abundant and fruitful love that flows from heaven to fill the earth. We are made from such lavish love and reflect it in our entire being. As Saint Augustine said, “If you see love, you see the Trinity.”
In a particular way, marriage is an icon of the Trinity and of God’s love for us. Thus, it is no accident that we celebrate the Marriage Jubilarian Mass on Trinity Sunday.
Like God, human beings have the capacity to love, to enter into relationship with one another. Yet, this love is a decision that must be made repeatedly. Successful husbands and wives are those who learn to live with one another’s imperfections. Admittedly, it is not always an easy choice, but God offers us his help, his grace, particularly in the sacrament of marriage.
“Only love is capable of resolving difficulty,” said Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families. If we make this choice to love, even in our incomplete and imperfect way, if we ask God for help to do the rest, marriage and family and all society will benefit. A loving family is “workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection,” our Holy Father explained. “Love is a celebration, love is joy.” It could hardly be otherwise – in the fullness of love, is God.
This blog post is adapted in part from my book, “The Marriage God Wants for You” (2015).