Keeping the Marriage Bed Undefiled
Friday February 4, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Hebrews 13:1-8) Gospel (St. Mark 6:14-29)
In the first reading today, Saint Paul speaks to us about charity. He tells us first that we are not to neglect hospitality. In so doing, that means the whole disposition and attitude we have to have toward the way that we deal with other people; it needs to be kind, it needs to be humble, and it needs to be charitable. He goes on and tells us that in the normal course of things, for the vast majority of people, where we are going to see charity in its fullness being expressed is right within their marriage. And he tells us we have to make sure that marriage is honored by all.
This is something that 21st century Americans need to learn because marriage is being denigrated left and right. People do not recognize the dignity of marriage. There are some who scoff at it. There are others who violate it. We need to make sure that as Christian people we hold marriage in the highest esteem. Marriage is a vocation, it is a call from God, and it is something which is holy. This has all been forgotten.
The vast majority of people who think about getting married do not talk about it with God. They just assume that this is what they are supposed to do and then they are on a mission to find somebody who is willing to marry them. It is the wrong attitude. We first and foremost have to make sure it is the vocation that God is calling a person to. If God is calling a person to that vocation, then God Himself will provide the person to marry. We need to teach this to our young people because they have this unfortunate attitude that no one would ever want to marry them; consequently, they will settle for anybody who is willing. Or because they have feelings of being in love, which is usually infatuation, they think this must be it and they have never prayed about it.
But we see that even from the very beginning there is a selfish attitude. It is all about “me.” That is not what marriage is about; marriage is about the other. It is two people seeking the good of one another. It is not two people seeking themselves. It is not about being selfish. So when Saint Paul tells us that we are to keep the marriage bed undefiled, that does not merely mean you have to be faithful to your spouse, but it means even the manner in which you would approach your spouse must be undefiled. It must not be selfish because even the marital act, which is a physical re-pronunciation of your marriage vows, cannot be selfish. It is not about “How much pleasure am I going to get?” Rather, it is about two people seeking to give pleasure to one another. To take from the other is a violation of that person and it defiles the marriage bed. It violates what you have vowed in your marriage. On the other hand, to give yourself and to receive the gift of the other is in complete keeping with the dignity of the person, of the marriage, and of human sexuality. That is to be the way that it works in marriage. It is two people selflessly seeking one another’s good, not one’s own pleasure, or what one considers one’s own good, because it does not work.
We see precisely in the Gospel reading what happens if we are going to sin against marriage. That is, we look at Herod, who, because of lust, has already divorced and married someone else – his own brother’s wife – but then when her daughter comes in and performs a dance, Herod, once again looking at himself and filled once again with lust, is willing to make all kinds of foolish promises. Then when the girl says that she wants the head of John the Baptist, he is unable even to recognize that this is an unjust request. And for fear of himself and what he is going to look like in front of all his guests, he acquiesces to the girl’s request.
It comes back to Father Hardon’s statement, which we need to hear and get deeply into our minds, when he said, “It is impossible for anyone in the state of mortal sin to think clearly.” Hear that: It is impossible for anyone in the state of mortal sin to think clearly. We have a clear example right in front of us with Herod. All we need to do is look back in our own lives and ask ourselves, “If I’ve fallen into mortal sin, what happens?” We start thinking in bizarre ways. We start figuring out how to justify ourselves. Things become chaotic in our minds. It does not mean we cannot think clearly about anything, but it means in that area of sin, and in areas that are associated with it, we are not able to think clearly, we are not able to act properly.
And so we look around in our society and it is exactly what we see. How many people practicing contraception, a mortal sin, cannot think clearly? How many people looking at pornography – violating, once again, their marriage bed – can no longer think clearly? They look at their wife as an object rather than as a person. They treat her with lust instead of with love. Contraception cannot be an act of love; it is two people using one another, not two people loving one another. It is a complete defilement of the marriage bed, of the marriage vows, and of the person whom you have married.
You see, every single mortal sin strikes at the very essence of who we are. And if we are going to allow mortal sin into marriage, the marriage cannot stand. Even if out of sheer will the couple decides to stick it out, they are not going to be fulfilled, they are not going to be happy, because they are sinning against one another rather than loving one another. Therefore, they are tearing one another down rather than building one another up and they are violating what they have vowed.
This is what we all need to understand, to recognize the dignity of marriage, and that marriage, first of all, is between one male and one female. Regardless of what our sick society is trying to tell us, two men cannot be married and two women cannot be married. Then even within that context of one man and one woman, it must be kept pure and proper. The two are called to love, to truly love, to seek the good of one another, to serve one another. That is what you have vowed. It is not about being selfish. It is not about “me and what I am getting out of this.” It is about “the other and what I am giving.” It is about service. It is about selflessness. That is the Christian life in general, and within marriage it is what the Christian life is in particular. It is the vocation to which God has called the majority.
If we look at that and say, “What are we made for?” For love. That is the purpose of our existence. And how is that going to be learned by most people? Within the context of marriage. So that is the vocation, that is the fulfillment of your very existence. If we violate that, we will never be able to go to heaven – because heaven is about love and selfish people cannot be there. In marriage, God is giving a glorious opportunity to learn how to love, to learn to be selfless, and to prepare yourselves to be saints.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.