This Sunday is World Marriage Day, sponsored by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter. My parish is marking the event with a mass that will feature speakers on Marriage Encounter and, at the end of mass, a renewal of vows. I’ve been invited to preach. Below is my homily for this occasion.

Not long ago, I heard the story of a priest in the Midwest who was given a startling insight from a woman in his parish. This woman was older, a daily communicant. She’d been struggling through a difficult marriage for many years, and after mass one day she happened to get into a discussion with this priest about marriage.

As she put it: “Father, when you’re walking down that aisle on your wedding day, you don’t notice the stations of the cross.”

That may be the most succinct, and brilliant, description of marriage I’ve ever heard.

It’s also a timely observation. We are in the first days of Lent. Every Friday here we gather to pray the Stations of the Cross, and relive that journey to Calvary.

The great power of the Stations of the Cross is how they speak to each of us, in our different circumstances of life. But – in ways large and small — all of us have also lived them in marriage, with those we love.

The times we have taken up the cross of commitment, for better…for worse. The times we have fallen, into laziness or indifference. The times we have died – to one another, for one another. And, of course, the joyous times we have experienced resurrection – greeting a new dawn and beginning again.

Marriage is all those things and more.

And we take that journey, like Jesus did, out of love.

Twenty-two years ago, before Siobhain and I were married, we did a one-day pre-Cana retreat down in Maryland. I honestly don’t remember very much about it. Like a lot of people getting married, I just wanted to get it over with.

At one point during the day, we were asked to write our goals for the marriage. What we wanted to achieve.

Well, I spent 15 minutes writing out heady ideas that had words like “eternal” and “forever” and “commitment.” I filled most of a page. At the end of the time, Siobhain and I had to exchange our thoughts, so I gave her my page, and she gave me hers.

I thought she must be kidding. Hers was almost empty. It had just one sentence at the top, her goal for our marriage:

“To be your friend.”

She wasn’t kidding. She was writing from her heart. I was all up here, in my head. I honestly can’t remember much of what I had to say. But I’ll never forget every word that Siobhain wrote. It cut straight to a central truth.

Because the most enduring marriages, the ones that experience grace most profoundly, are the ones that begin with friendship.

The great lie is that love is something you fall into.

You don’t fall into it. Not if you want it to last. You grow into it. And you only do that with work, and with honesty, and with trust. And then, with more work.

In today’s reading from Genesis, the wisest moment comes near the end, after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit.

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”

At last, the first man and first woman see each other for what they are – love handles and all.

All I can say is: thank God for fig leaves.

When Adam and Eve finally understand who they are, and what they are, when their eyes are open, then they are able to begin the real work of being fully human.

As so many of us know…marriage is like that.

When our pastor preaches about marriage, he likes to talk about the seasons of life – the springs, summers, falls and winters of marriage.

It’s a beautiful idea. And I’d like to suggest, as well, that marriage can also be measured by liturgical seasons.

There is the Advent of expectation – for a wedding, or a baby, or a new home. There is the Christmas of celebration, the happy events, birthdays and anniversaries. There is what we experience most of the time, which is Ordinary Time. The every day ups and downs that mark most of our lives.

And then there is Lent. The season of sacrifice, of “rending your heart,” as the prophet Joel puts it.

So I would like to challenge those who are married to ask yourselves, during this penitential season: what is the Lent in your marriage? How do you “rend your heart” for one another? What do you give up, out of love, for love?

And I would ask those who aren’t married: above and beyond these 40 days that have just begun, what is the Lent in your life? In your relationships? In your friendships? Your work?

And, more importantly, what is the Easter? Where in your life do you find resurrection? Joy? Renewal?

Because, for each of us, it is the Easters of life that make all the Lents worthwhile.

It’s true: when you are walking down the aisle, you don’t notice the Stations of the Cross.

But we should never forget this: the aisle always leads to the altar, and the tabernacle, and Christ.

No matter what your station in life — married or single – that is really our final station, where all our journeying leads.

That is our great destination.

And our great hope.

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