“For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:31)
A few weekends ago, I had the honor of attending my cousin Jack’s wedding at our family’s Parish of the Blessed Sacrament in West, Lafayette, IN. His beautiful new wife, Erin, made a stunning bride and the Church was filled with the many smiling faces of family and friends. However, everyone particularly watched Jack’s face as his lovely bride walked down the aisle towards the altar. He was literally beaming. I could not help but think of St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Everyone seemed to hold their breath as they listened intently to the vows exchanged between Jack and Erin. Our hearts warmed as Father posed the great and oh-so-familiar question which asks the couple to declare their solemn covenant before God and man, “Jack, do you take Erin for your lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
Unfortunately, this phrase pricked my conscience. About a year ago, Jack asked me to write a letter to his fiancé, explaining to her the Catholic doctrine about the after-life. I am ashamed to say that at the time, I whole-heartedly promised to do so, and then, I whole-heartedly forgot! These words, “…until death do you part” brought back the memory of our conversation which occurred nearly a year ago. Jack had confided in me that Erin had lost her dear grandmother some years earlier. While grief is difficult for anyone who loses a loved one, Erin’s grief was compounded because of poor-catechesis. Some well-meaning teacher had assured her that when we “get to heaven” we will not know our spouses, family members or friends who will be there as well. However, her teacher asserted, it won’t matter because we’ll be perfectly happy. We won’t need our family and friends once we are there. We will only need God.
This is not the first time I have heard of such unorthodox instruction. Earlier this year I had a student in my class who was angry with the Church and her teaching, because he had been taught this same “doctrine” by a former religion teacher. He was told not to look forward to meeting his deceased loved ones in heaven. Rather, he was told only to look forward to worshipping God for all eternity. That would be his new “job.” “Frankly,” he admitted in an irate tone, “that sounds boring!”
I marvel how ignorance of true Church teaching, once it is taught, can often lead to a type of spiritual abuse. Our Savior came to console us and ease the sting of death for all of us. How can this teaching be correct, when it adds more pain and despair to those who grieve? Where did this idea originate in the first place?
I believe this teaching has evolved over time from a misunderstanding of our Lord’s words in Scripture: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30) One can see that without a proper understanding of heaven, the life of angels and the resurrection, it would be easy to interpret this saying in a negative light.
Catholic couples are taught, or should be taught, that the Sacrament of marriage has two sacred purposes: the bonding of the couple in love and the procreation of new human life. Through these two ends, both husband and wife work to sanctify one another in order that they may one day reach heaven.
One of my Franciscan Sisters recently attended the funeral of a man who had suddenly lost his wife. As the casket was carried down the aisle, he raised his fist in a sign of victory. He rejoiced in the midst of his profound grief, knowing he had done his job well helping to lead her soul to heaven. She had arrived safe and sound! This man understood his true mission as her husband. He truly had loved his bride as Christ loved his Church. I have no doubt this man believed he would one day be reunited with his dear wife for all eternity.
As I gazed upon Jack and Erin’s radiant faces while they exchanged their vows that happy day, I wondered if Erin still believed this sad teaching. How tragic to believe that a love nurtured, blessed, and Sacramentalized on earth would not find its completion and fulfillment in the afterlife one day. Why work to help get each other to heaven, if there is no hope for knowing each other in the after life? Does such a holy covenant end completely upon death? Is that IT?
When our Lord taught that we are not given in marriage in heaven, he did not teach that we will not know our spouses in heaven. The “institution” of marriage serves no purpose in heaven. Procreation is for earthly life. No one really argues this point. However, what about the “bonding” of the two? Should the love between husband and wife only be for this earthly life? The answer is simple. Matrimony as a Sacrament is a living sign of the ultimate marriage of Christ and His bride, the Church. In heaven, marriage is fulfilled. In heaven, we are all “married” in a sense. I once had a confessor that assured me, whenever I confessed that I just couldn’t stand someone and was having a hard time being nice to this person, “Sister, just think – in heaven you will be madly in love with that person. So, you might as well start loving them now!” UGH!
Yet, the union of each saintly soul with God and with one another is beyond our understanding. Scripture tells us, “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and nor has it entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9) While the institution of marriage no longer serves its earthly purpose in the afterlife, the love of marriage which bonds husband and wife is now raised up and perfected in the heavenly marriage banquet. There is no longer need for exclusivity, for we are all drawn to Him and made one with Him in an eternal embrace. Will we know our spouse? Yes, like we have never known him or her before. In Christ we shall know and love one another perfectly in the next life. This is why, once a widow or widower has lost a spouse, it is permissible and even a good for some to marry again, if they so desire. Our Creator declared, “It is not good for man to be alone!” (Gn. 2:18) We are social beings always called into communion with one another in Christ.
“I do.” These words resounded through the Church as Jack held the hands of his new bride within his own. I smiled at myself as I saw through my own teary eyes other family members blotting tears with their hankies and tissues. The incredible beauty of the moment was not lost on any of us. Each of us yearns for that eternal marriage banquet in the depth of our souls, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is no mistake that the first miracle of Jesus upon earth was the miracle of the wedding at Cana. We see the promise of our future marriage with the Lamb reflected in the Sacrament of Matrimony. How could we not weep for joy?
Upon hearing Jack’s voice resonate through the Church, promising his entire life to his new bride, I was reminded of the Voice of the Bridegroom in Scripture. At the Last Supper, as the wedding banquet began, He promised us that He would have and hold us when He proclaimed: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Lk. 22:19) He promised us that He would be with us always, in wealth and poverty, sickness and health when he said: “Behold, I am with you always until the end of time.” (Mt. 28:20) And finally, He promised us that He would love us until death and into new life when he consoled us saying: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” (Jn. 14:18)
It is in these promises of Christ that Erin’s devastating grief can be consoled and my student’s perception of Church teaching can be corrected. And so, with these words of our Lord in mind, I begin a long-overdue letter to Erin…
To be continued next Thursday…
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