Marriage is good, St. Paul says in the second reading, but being unmarried is better. Today it seems like more and more people agree in practice with Paul’s conclusion, even if their reasons don’t exactly line up with his.
People think of marriage as a good thing, but for many there’s a growing preference for the freedom of being unmarried. Not freedom to devote themselves to pleasing the Lord, like Paul talks about. Freedom to devote themselves to … playing computer games; to their careers or travel; to their social lives, real or virtual; to binge-watching on Netflix and Amazon or whatever it is.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But at some point we all have to ask ourselves, “What is my life really about? What am I here for?”
We’re not here just to play games and have fun. Nothing wrong with that, but at some point most of us realize it’s not enough. And we’re not here just to have a career or a social life. Those are good things, but also not enough.
We aren’t even here just to try to be a good person, in the sense of not hurting anyone, being unselfish, thinking the right things, having the right political and social views, whatever those may be, maybe being spiritual and praying, or being religious and going to church and hoping to be rewarded in heaven. None of those, by themselves, is enough.
Loving = giving
What is enough? Why are we here? Look at Jesus. Why was he here? What was his life about? Why was he on that cross? Why will he be on the altar later in the Mass?
John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. There are two verbs in that sentence: “loved” and “gave.” If you think about it, those words are inseparable: to love and to give.
Not that giving is always loving, but loving is always giving. To love is to give; in fact, to love is to be a gift, to make a gift of yourself to the other. That’s what love is: gift of self. God is love, St. John says; in other words, God is gift of self. Christ on the cross, Christ on the altar, gives himself to us and for us and to the Father on our behalf.
Our Lord sums up the whole law in two commandments: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. Love is gift of self. We must be gift of self to God and to our neighbor.
What that looks like in our lives is going to be one thing if we’re married and something very different if we’re unmarried — or if we’re divorced or separated. If we have children or not. If we’re old or young, employed or unemployed, disabled in some way or not disabled. It’s going to look like one thing for young people living at home with parents and something else for a retired widow or widower living alone.
But whatever our circumstances, whatever limitations we have or whatever mistakes we’ve made, all of us are called, today, to make a gift of ourselves to God and to others. Paul prefers being unmarried to being married because the unmarried person has greater freedom to be gift of self to God and to others any time, anywhere.
Selfish singles, selfish couples
I mentioned before that what more and more people seem to prefer about singleness is the greater freedom to enjoy themselves, but that’s not entirely fair. For one thing, many young people would like to get married but either they haven’t found the right person or they feel like they aren’t in a financial position to get married, which is understandable.
For another thing, are married people necessarily any better? When we talk about people choosing not to marry, we’re talking largely about millennials, who are either getting married later or even not marrying at all in record numbers. Millennials get picked on a lot, but suppose they turned around and asked married Gen-Xers or Boomers if our generations did any better with marriage?
Those who are married are anxious about how to please their spouse, how to be gift of self to the other. You know, unless they’re not. Unless they’re thinking more about their own pleasure and satisfaction. When over half of married men, and a third of married women, admit to watching pornography, whose pleasure and satisfaction are they thinking about?
Or when you see a marriage where one spouse calls all the shots, and everything has to be their way, and all the adjustments and compromises fall on the other spouse, is that St. Paul’s picture of marriage? When one spouse does all the caring and serving and other just takes it for granted without appreciation, without gratitude, just expecting the other person to be at their beck and call — is that is that St. Paul’s picture of marriage?
You see, when Paul says “It’s better not to marry, because those who are married have to think about pleasing their spouses,” he’s describing the ideal — the ideal marriage and also the ideal single life.
It’s better not to marry if you use your freedom the right way, to serve the Lord in ways that a married person couldn’t do, because those who marry have worldly concerns if they’re doing marriage the right way and thinking about pleasing their spouse instead of themselves. Being a gift of self, whether you’re married or unmarried. That’s the ideal.
Being single, saving the world
Take being single first. The unmarried have a greater freedom to be gift of self to God and to others any time, anywhere. That’s the idea behind celibacy for priests and religious: A priest or a sister or a brother, being celibate, being unmarried, can be at the service of the Church in ways that a married man like me could never do. My service to the Church is a much smaller part of my life because my first calling is that of a husband and a father.
But Paul isn’t just talking to priests and religious here. He’s talking to all unmarried believers. Use your freedom to be gift of self to God and to others any time, anywhere. We all have troubles and distractions, but whatever your life situation, there are opportunities around you to be gift of self to others. Maybe you won’t save the world, although who knows? Maybe you will save at world for someone, at least.
Some of you are probably already aware of some of these opportunities in your life: the neighbors or relatives who need your help, your prayers, your phone call, your attention, your openness. Or some of you may be in a position to volunteer with Catholic Charities, Good Counsel Homes, the Missionaries of Charity, or some other group — perhaps mentoring children, teaching English to immigrants, some other ministry.
Young people living at home have opportunities to use their freedom to for the good of the household, for their parents. This is where my kids are like, “Oh, I wonder why he’s preaching about that.” So let me conclude by preaching to myself, and to those of us who are married.
Marriage and saving the world
We married men and women don’t have the freedom to serve willy-nilly wherever we want. We’re called to serve and to give above all to our spouses and children, if we have children. I love my diaconal ministry but my calling is to put my family first. That’s the main setting where God calls me to be gift of self to him and to others.
But there are also implications for the larger world. For instance, did you know that divorce is contagious — and so is marital stability? In a community or a circle of friends, if one couple gets divorced, it increases the chances that others will divorce; but strong marriages help other people have strong marriages.
When you who are married make your marriage work, you help others around you to make their marriages work. You married couples can help to save the world by the way you love each other, by the way you apologize and forgive and sacrifice and appreciate, if you let your light shine.
Your home is meant to be a domestic church; the love between a husband and wife is meant to be an icon of God’s love and a sign of hope to your family and your neighbors. Make it a mission church. Love each other not just to make yourselves happy but to glorify God and to bless your world. Make a gift of yourselves, together, to God, but also to others. Pray together. Practice hospitality, especially if you know people around you who need it.
The more we do these kinds things, whether we’re married or single — the more we make a gift of ourselves to God and to others — the more fully we will be to receive within ourselves the Gift, the self-gift of God in which is all our hope for happiness that endures in this life and in the next. God gives himself to us — on the cross, on the altar — to enable each of us, in the particular circumstances of our lives, to be the gift that he created each of us to be, and so more fully receive the gift that is himself.