Four Lessons in Marriage from the Exaltation of the Cross
Today makes four years since my husband and I professed our wedding vows before God, the Church, family, and friends in the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a day of great joy, a culmination of so many hopes and dreams and prayers. Yet we chose this feast day, the Exaltation of the Cross, with explicit purpose. We knew that marriage would be a great good, much better than the years of dating and preparation for entering into our vocation, yet we also knew that when we looked to the Cross, we looked upon the reality of what our marriage would be. Though we entered into marriage without any particularly great suffering like a terminal illness or recent grief as some do, we knew that our marriage, and any marriage really, includes great suffering. This is due, in part, because suffering has been a part of the human condition since the Fall. We were two fallen people, living in a fallen world, who were coming together to make an effort to run the race towards heaven together. We chose to embrace the Cross from the beginning rather than reject it. We wanted to embrace the entire Paschal Mystery in our marriage - the suffering and self-abnegation of the Cross leads to the life-giving joy of the Resurrection. The Paschal Mystery is truly at the heart of any Christian marriage. What follows in this post are four things we have meditated on in the first four years of our marriage, things that I am sure we will learn and re-learn time and again until we make it to our eternal rewards.
From Suffering, Joy
There’s a tendency for us all to shy away from suffering. This is natural. We desire peace, comfort, and ease. But married life, a life shared with another person, includes sharing life with them even when it isn’t sweet and lovely. In the first few years of our marriage we have shared the burdens of various illnesses, financial stress, dealing with damage to our home, family strains, work issues, and the pregnancies, births, and upbringing of two children. Each of these things has led to opportunities for stress, fear, anxiety, impatience, and anger. There have been times when we have each given in to those impulses. But we bear the stresses of life better when we submit our suffering to the Lord.
When we are intentional about putting our burdens at the foot of the Cross, we see much fruit, though sometimes it may come little by little. When we wallow in our sufferings it more often than not leads to resentment, bitterness, and outbursts of impatience and anger. We do our best to submit our sufferings to Christ by offering them up to Him through prayer whether this be an ejaculatory prayer in the midst of a trial like, “Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (I say this a lot when I am in the midst of dealing with a tantruming toddler), consistently praying the Rosary and asking Our Lady for her help, or in the prayers of the Divine Office, which provide prayers for all seasons of sorrow and joy. When we are less consistent in our prayer lives, separately and together, the momentum for offering our sufferings up slows down and the tendency to complain and wallow rears its ugly head. Christ has never abandoned us to our sufferings, big or small. He has led us through them so that we can find the relief of joy in realizing that our sufferings lead us closer to Him. We help each other through the suffering and our willingness to serve the other helps build the bonds of love. Our sufferings help me to become a better woman, wife, and mother. Our sufferings help my husband to become a better man, husband, and father. There is consolation and joy to to be found in this realization. Sorrow well suffered helps cultivate virtue, and helps us to become more like Christ.
Self-Sacrificial Love Looks Different for Husband and Wife
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes about the different roles of husband and wife. There are different ways that the spouses are called to offer themselves self-sacrificially in imitation of the Cross. He writes about the Christian household in Chapter 5, which begins this way,
Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (5:1-2).
We took this verse to be our family motto because we saw in it the distillation of the Christian life: be an imitator of Christ. To be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” We knew that to be an imitator of Christ, walking in sacrificial love, was to be the calling of our family. St. Paul continues on this theme for husbands and wives further on in the same chapter,
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so the husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church (5:21-30).
The husband and wife are both called to self-sacrificial love, but this is manifested in different ways according to the unique vocations of man and woman. St. Paul insists that women be submissive to their husbands in all things. From the Garden of Eden, woman’s fault of pride and selfishness has been to usurp the authority of man. The trope of the domineering wife has become ubiquitous today. It seems like every sitcom features a strong, independent wife doing what she likes with a goofy, amenable idiot husband whose mistakes need direction and correction from the wife who knows all. This is completely backwards. It is an act of self-sacrificial love for the wife to be submissive to her husband. It requires humility and strength of character to accept the husband’s role as head of household and fo trust that he desires and intends the well-being of his family. This is, of course, not an excuse for the wife to be steamrolled in every important family decision. Submission literally means to be “under the mission of” and husband’s mission is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. Men practice self-sacrificial love by laying down their lives for their wives as Christ did so for His Bride, the Church. Man’s temptation since the Garden of Eden has been to slack off from his duties and perhaps to take the path of least resistance (where was Adam when Eve spoke with the serpent? Why was there a serpent in the Garden when Adam was charged with “keeping” aka protecting the Garden?). The idiot husband of the domineering wife goes along to get along. He doesn’t interject his opinion and does what she says without a second thought. Yet the man’s true calling is the antithesis to this. He is not a mat to be walked all over, nor should he reject the hard work of leading and guiding the family and leave it to his wife. He is called to lay his life down in generous self-abandon, to work and to labor for the sake of providing for his family. This not only applies to the job he has to bring in an income, but also in leading the family spiritually and in decision making for the things that are for the family’s good. Our most recent opportunity to practice self-sacrificial love for one another has been over our baby’s illness. I wanted to be the sole caregiver of the congested baby in the night so my husband could be well rested for work. He wanted me rested for the work of mothering. So instead of caring for the baby all night long by myself, we took shifts putting her back to sleep. I submitted to his idea for the well-being of our family and though he did not have to help me get our daughter back to sleep, he did so for the well-being of our family so I could get some rest to care for our children the following day. These acts of self-sacrifice are not all monumental, but it is in these small acts of love that a beautiful dynamic flourishes between husband and wife.
Marriage is Good, But We Still Live in a Vale of Tears
Marriage is a great good. It is one of the best goods given to us by God. However, it is not the job of your spouse to make you happy. It is the job of your spouse to get you to heaven, where our ultimate happiness lies. But a husband or wife, no matter how good or virtuous, is still subject to the Fall. There will be heartache in marriage. There will be disappointments. They may be small. They may be huge. But nevertheless, they are to be expected. In the best of marriages you are still married to someone who is concupiscent but hopefully striving for holiness. You cannot go into marriage expecting your spouse to fulfill all your desires. God alone can satisfy our yearnings. God alone is enough. Your spouse will never be enough because they are limited and finite and our hearts hunger for infinite, perfect love. This we find in seeking after God in a relationship with Christ and His Church, through the life of grace fulfilled in the participation of the sacraments.
The Wedding Feast of the Lamb
Christ on the Cross is the perfect image of the Bridegroom. When we look upon Him whom they have pierced we come face to face with the self-sacrificial love required to redeem us. On the cross Christ proclaimed, “It is finished,” or in the Latin, “Consummatum Est.” We say that a marriage is consummated when man and wife come together in the marital embrace. Though this might not be the image that most people want to contemplate in approaching sexual relations, Christ’s perfect offering at the crucifixion is the consummation of his marriage to the Church. We participate in the wedding feast of the Lamb each time we approach the altar for Holy Communion. This is the closest union we can experience with Christ this side of heaven. Even this is just an image for the eternal Wedding Feast yet to come. There is a parallel to be found in frequently receiving holy communion (the participation of the consummation of Christ’s marriage to the Church) and in frequently engaging in the marital embrace (the consummation of an earthly marriage of man and wife). The more frequently we worthily receive holy communion, the more united we are to Jesus and the more graces will abound in our lives. Similarly, the more often spouses worthily engage in the marital union, the more graces will abound in their marriage and family life. Marriage, as a sacrament, is an overflowing source of grace for those who fully live out their vows. It is a source of grace ordered towards bringing the husband and the wife closer to heaven each and every day, through every act of love and sacrifice, through every hardship and joy. Thanks be to God for that!
Happy feast of the Exaltation of the Cross!