February 14, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Marriage involves self-sacrificing love

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

The Church’s liturgical calendar specifies today, Feb. 14, as an optional memorial for SS. Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who in the ninth century were largely responsible for evangelizing the Slavic peoples by inventing what is now known as the Cyrillic alphabet, and then translating the Scriptures into Old Slavonic and teaching the Christian faith in the people’s native language. In recognition of their importance, Pope St. John Paul II declared SS. Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe along with St. Benedict of Nursia.

Our secular culture identifies Feb. 14 with St. Valentine, whose historical origins are obscure but whose popular legends remain powerful. One story attributed to this third-century figure says that he defied the Roman emperor by secretly marrying couples. This resulted in exempting the husbands from military service.

Another legend says that in order to remind these men of their vows and God’s love, St. Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment, giving them to soldiers and persecuted Christians, a possible origin of the widespread use of hearts on St. Valentine’s Day.

Another legend suggests that in the year a.d. 269, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation because of his stand for Christian marriage. While in prison, he healed his jailor’s daughter and, this legend continues, the last words he wrote were in a note to this young woman, which he signed, “from your Valentine.”

What these legends have in common is that they combine the romantic love of young men and women with the self-sacrificing love of martyrs like St. Valentine, who faced imprisonment and death rather than deny the truth about Christian marriage.

The truth is that Christian marriage requires sacrifice. It is not simply an emotional, erotic or pragmatic connection between two people officially sanctioned by society. It is a communion, a coming together as one, of a man and a woman who each give up something of their individual autonomy in order to become “one flesh.” All genuine love requires self-giving, but the Christian understanding of marriage takes this mutual self-giving of a husband and wife and raises it to the level of a sacramentum, a moment of encounter with God which we call a “sacrament.”

The English apologist C.S. Lewis has described for us the various nuances expressed by what we call “love.” Using four different, but related, Greek terms—storge (affection), phileo (friendship), eros (romance) and agape (divine love)—Lewis helps us see that there is much more to love than our culture leads us to believe.

Affection stirs us to care for things outside ourselves. Friendship allows us to join hands with others and journey together on the road of life. Romance helps us to channel our sexuality in the service of both communion and procreation. Divine love makes charity—the greatest of all the virtues—possible because by the power of God’s grace it allows us to overcome selfishness and sin in loving service to others.

Christian marriage can be seen as the integration of all four of these “loves” because it brings together all of these elements and adds a vitally important additional element—the openness to new life by which married couples encounter God’s love and collaborate in the work of creation.

The sacrament of marriage assists a man and a woman in forming a loving union that combines affection, friendship, romance and the self-sacrificing love of God. No couple achieves this integration perfectly, of course, but with the help of God’s grace many women and men do succeed in living this unique sacrament of love for their entire lifetimes.

We Christians are people who celebrate God’s presence in every significant moment of our lives from our conception to our natural death. We are people who believe that God has given himself to us sacrificially to free us from slavery to sin, and to empower us to participate with him in the great work of the Holy Trinity: creation, redemption and sanctification.

This is the encounter with God that St. Valentine and many other martyrs bore witness to in opposition to a pagan culture that had a radically different view of the meaning of marriage. This is also the Gospel message that SS. Cyril and Methodius preached to the Slavic peoples.

Let’s use this feast day to remember all the holy men and women who have shown us by their example and their teaching what it means to love in ways that are unselfish, sacrificial and holy.

Let’s also thank God for the gift of love freely shared with us from the beginning of time and renewed each time a woman and a man become one flesh in the sacrament of marriage. †

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