The Importance of a Vow
November 7, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14)
Reading II (2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5)
Gospel (St. Luke 20:27-38)
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord tells us about the reality of the resurrection. And with regard to the resurrection, He is using the analogy of marriage because that is what He is being challenged on: “If this woman has been married to seven brothers, to whom will she be married in the resurrection?” It is a question being asked by those who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. In Judaism, at the time of Our Lord and for several hundred years prior to that, there were some who did believe in the resurrection of the dead and some who did not. As we see in the first reading today, the seven brothers who were put to death because they would not eat pork in violation of the law of God believed firmly in the resurrection. But there were these different factions among the Jewish people who believed in different things. And so Our Lord made very clear that there is going to be a resurrection.
Of course, we know that; it is the most important celebration of the feasts of the year when we celebrate Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. As Saint Paul reminds us, if there is no resurrection from the dead then Jesus Himself must not have resurrected from the dead, and if Jesus is not risen from the dead then your faith is useless because that is what our faith is about; it is in Jesus, Who is crucified and risen from the dead so that death has been destroyed. Death is destroyed even in us. In Baptism, we are baptized into the death and the resurrection of Christ. We have to still share physically in the death and resurrection of Christ, which each and every one of us will, but the fact is that death has been overcome. And so it is something for a Christian person to be able to look at death and not be afraid. It is to realize that death is the passageway through which we must go if we want to enter into heaven.
Now it is with that in mind that we need to look at what we hear in the readings today, first of all, the point regarding marriage. It would almost appear that there is a put-down for those who are married. If people are not going to be married in heaven, it would almost seem that they ought not to be even in this life. But that is not the case at all. What Our Lord is telling us is that in heaven people are neither married nor given in marriage because the reality of what happens in marriage in this world symbolizes what is going to happen in the next. That is, when God unites two souls together in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the two become one with one another; but that is also a union in God because, as we all know, no matter how hard you try you cannot put your own souls together. Only God, Who created your souls to be separate and unique, can re-create them to become one. When God does this, He creates an intimacy between two persons that is deeper and more profound than even what our minds are able to grasp. What we see happening in marriage are two people who have made a vow to love one another. Therefore, if they are living their vow, we have two people who are sacrificing themselves for the good of the other, two people who are giving themselves entirely to one another, two people who are helping one another to become saints, two people who are seeking to build one another up, two people who have learned to be selfless, to overcome the selfishness of sin by learning how to love – and love by its nature is not selfish. When we see that kind of activity going on within a marriage, we wonder, “How can something be even more intimate, how can something be even more profound than what we celebrate in marriage?”
We have to look even further and remember that for those who are married, it is not only in your physical intimacy that you express the union of marriage. That is the very sign of marriage, which is why the Church is so very clear in teaching that this must be kept holy. This is not about having fun and games; this is about prayer. When was the last time most married couples thought that way, that when you engage in marital relations it is a prayer? It is something which is profoundly holy; it is the very sign of your sacrament. If you think about this in another context, the greatest sign of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is to say Mass. What would you think about a priest who came out to say Mass and was goofing around, being selfish and arrogant about the way he was saying Mass, who was not being reverent, who was not praying, going through the motions but in an entirely irreverent manner? It is exactly the same thing that I as a celibate would say to married couples who are approaching one another in a manner which is less than dignified. Any kind of violation, any act of using the other person, of course any act of contraception or sterilization, completely degrades and violates not only the other person but the vows of marriage and the very purpose of human sexuality.
We need to think about the holiness of that and ponder the fact that, beyond just that, every time you receive Holy Communion you are also symbolizing the union that is yours in marriage. For each and every one of us, whether married or unmarried, when we receive Holy Communion we celebrate the union of our soul with Jesus. But for a married couple, think about the fact that the way you approach Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is exactly the way you should approach one another. When you receive the Body of Jesus in the Eucharist, it should be in the same way that you receive the body of your spouse, with the same kind of respect, the same reverence, the same dignity, the same holiness, because what it symbolizes is the same thing. It celebrates the union. But it shows to us, as we receive Holy Communion, that each and every one of us receiving Jesus points to the fact that our union with Christ is not just “my own” union with Christ, as it would be in marriage. In marriage, there are the two who are united to be one. In the Eucharist, through Baptism, being celebrated and symbolized in our reception of the Eucharist, all of us are one with Christ. And if we are united with Christ, then we are united also with one another.
That is the union that marriage symbolizes in this world. It is the union we are called to in heaven, which is why in heaven there will not be marriage. Not because marriage is not good, but because what God is calling all of us to – whether married or unmarried in this life – is something which is even more intimate than what a married couple has in this world. In heaven (assuming that both members of a married couple get to heaven), not only will you be united intimately with one another but you will be united with every single person who is a member of the Mystical Body, and that union will be in Jesus Christ. It will be even more intimate than the intimacy that you share now, not only with Our Lord and with your spouse, but with every single person who is a member of the Mystical Body. I am not talking about the physical part of the intimacy; I am talking about the union of souls, the union of two persons who are in marriage.
Now if we have this kind of union and we look at what a couple vows in marriage, then we ask ourselves, “If we have made a vow to love another person, is there anything that is going to be withheld?” The answer is obviously “no”. You have given yourself away as a gift, completely and totally, holding nothing back for yourself. And you have received as a gift the other person, completely and totally, rejecting nothing of who that person is and what that person is about. Therefore, you have taken on the identity of the other, and the other has taken on your identity. The two truly are one. Therefore, to violate what you have vowed in marriage is once again the violation of the gift: the gift that you have given and the gift that you have received. And therefore, to do anything that is going to violate that gift and that vow is going to violate everything that you are about as a human person, everything that marriage is about, and everything that God is about, because He is the One Who instituted marriage from the very beginning of creation and He is the One Who has put your souls together.
It is with that in mind, then, that we look at what happened in the first reading. We see these seven brothers and their heroic mother as the seven brothers go one at a time to death because they would not violate what they had promised to God. They would not do something that would violate their relationship with God, the vows they had made to God, and the union that was theirs with the Lord. Now we can look at it and say, “All they had to do was eat a piece of pork! What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that it violated the law. It violated what they had vowed to God. Now if we look at it for ourselves, if it is in the context of marriage we could say, “All you have to do is just be a little bit selfish! Isn’t that okay?” NO. “Isn’t it okay just to break the laws a little bit?” NO. You have vowed to love. That means you have vowed never to be selfish, never to do anything that would use the other person, abuse the other person, or violate the other person in any way, shape, or form. Therefore, nothing selfish and nothing that would violate the moral law is acceptable – precisely because it is a violation of love.
Well, we have each vowed to love God. Therefore, we want in this life to live according to what we have vowed. It is that love which we celebrate every time we receive Holy Communion. We see Our Lord’s love: complete, total, self-sacrificing. He holds nothing back for Himself; He gives Himself entirely to us, and He is not going to hold back because of His promise. He is faithful, as Saint Paul tells us. He has made His vow and He will not violate it. Well, we have made vows to Him and we cannot violate them. So when we look at our situation, we can ask ourselves, “What if somebody were to ask you to deny some point of the Faith, to do something that would be immoral (whatever it might be), or die – just as we see in the first reading?” What are we going to do? These heroic young men refused to violate love. They refused to violate what they had promised to God, and they were willing to die rather than to violate love. Every married couple should have that attitude. Every parent, of course, should have that attitude.
Every Christian person should have that attitude because each one of us is a spouse of Jesus Christ, our souls united to Him in love. He has given Himself to us and He continues to in the Eucharist, and we are to give ourselves to Him. Just as we receive Him, so we give ourselves to Him. It is a union of love. It is a union which symbolizes what we are called to in heaven. Once again, what can be more intimate than to receive God in Holy Communion, to have our souls united to Him, to have Him dwelling inside of us? That is even more intimate than a married couple! And yet this is merely a foreshadowing, just as the union of marriage is a foreshadowing of what we are called to in heaven.
It is beyond our wildest imagination what God has prepared for us, but what we know is that God has given Himself in love and He desires to give Himself to us in love completely. But that requires that we will do the same for Him. Saint Paul, in the second reading, told the Thessalonians that he was sure in the grace of God that he and they would be delivered from anything evil. That same guarantee is there for us. Whether it is the way you live your marriage, whether it is the way you live your day-to-day life out in the world, whether it is the way you live your life of prayer in union with Jesus, all the grace necessary to reject evil is there. All of the grace necessary to live what we have vowed is there. Everything that we need to truly love is there if we will avail ourselves of it.
Each one of us really needs to stop and take this question to prayer: What does it mean to love? It is not about gushy feelings; it is about a virtue. It is about a self-sacrificing, service-oriented, selfless virtue of giving oneself to another and living only for that other. First and foremost, the other is Jesus Christ. For those who are married, following from that it is your spouse and your children. It is to live this love as perfectly as you can here to prepare yourself for what is to come. And what is to come is symbolized in the intimacy and the union of Holy Matrimony and Holy Communion. We are called to an intimacy which is far, far greater, an intimacy which we cannot even begin to comprehend, an intimacy with Jesus Christ – indeed with the Holy Trinity itself – and with each and every member of the Mystical Body, where we will be united in perfect love and build one another up for the greater glory of Almighty God.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.