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And He Loved Them To the End (John 13:1)

Charity Hill

If you are married like I am, most of us will be celebrating an anniversary between now and October.[1] This year, my husband and I will have been married for 15 years. We both happen to have an advanced degree in theology of marriage and family, and so, I’ve been wondering for all these 15 years about what makes “the best” kind of marriage, comparing the theology I studied to my lived experience and the marriages I’ve observed. I have always wanted—and I still want—to have the best kind of marriage, the kind of marriage that is an image of Christ’s love for the Church.

Throughout graduate school the phrase “marriage is a sacrament of Christ’s love for the Church” was repeated and invoked constantly. But what does it really mean? 

Let’s remember that sacraments bring about what they signify. So, marriage is making present Christ’s love for the Church? Maybe you’re thinking, This is happening in other marriages, pretty marriages—not painful marriages like mine. I promise that if the sacrament brings about what it signifies, we are going to see His love for the Church especially in the most difficult marriages, because Jesus “loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). We’re going to see heroic love—for Jesus loved those who were “his own” not just to the end of his life but unto their fulfillment.

Beginning with Baptism, the Christian’s whole being is immersed in Jesus. Because my being is “in Him,” my loving always draws from this source. I cannot have a genuine love for my spouse apart from Christ. And, when we marry, something yet more novel happens to us. God gives the married person a unique grace—a unique sharing in Christ’s own life and in His own intimate and spousal love. Marriage is an “efficacious sign” of “the covenant of Christ and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1617). “Efficacious” means “it’s effective; it’s really happening.” So, the grace of marriage brings about the intended result of Christ’s spousal union, His particular, intimate, and redeeming love. Marriage communicates this specific grace to the couple and gives them the power to enact this spousal love of Christ for his Church, each to each. 

It is not merely human affection that enables spouses to love one another with self-donating, life-creating love. For Christian spouses, “Christ is the source of this grace” (CCC 1642). So, if the affection I have for my beloved is true, it already is sourced from the one love of Christ for my husband. When we marry, we are infused with the power to love each other “with the love with which Christ has loved his Church” (CCC 1661). Christ in me loves the Church in my husband. When we beg the Lord to help us love our spouse, we beg, “Give me Your very own love for this man, my husband; fill me with Your love, that I may love him with that.”

So, for the last 15 years I’ve been looking for Christ. I’ve been looking for Him in the marriages I have known, seeking the face of the Lord who loves His bride the Church. And for us women, I think we need to see that grace is real. Christ has promised that marriage brings about what it signifies. Will we see Christ loving His spouse? Surely, where we see this, won’t we see the best marriages?

Joanna, a nurse, was living with her family in a remote location when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful with a younger, local woman. They separated. While he acted like he was single, she faithfully cared for their children. Then her husband had a near fatal work accident and hovered at death’s door. Joanna returned and cared for him, helping him to make a complete recovery.

Is her heroic fidelity Christ’s love for the Church?

My friend Elizabeth works so hard on her marriage. For a year, she prayed a special prayer just regarding her marriage. She’s sought out personal therapy in order to do her part for healthy relating. Recently, she and her husband went on a couples’ retreat that made a big impact and renewed their unity and joy. “But,” she says with a slow head-shake and a wry smile, “I think our marriage may always be like a bad back. It’s just the way it is; it’s not really anyone’s fault. It needs tenderness; it needs tending. Other people have other worries—health or money or children. We have our back problems.”

Is her loving tenacity Christ’s love for the Church?

My friend Hannah and her husband are givers, united in their approach to faith and family and united in enabling their large family and parish community to flourish. When she told me about the unity in her marriage, I thought, Oh, I guess I can see that. Hannah and her husband are not ostentatious people; they simply do the good thing, over and over. Sometimes, people take this quiet couple for granted, especially their own families. 

Does their humility make present Christ’s love for the Church?

I used to think that the best marriages would have the least conflict, the most transparent communication, with mutual respect and affectionate reciprocity. But, the Lord intends heroic virtue to be a feature of every marriage. Thus, perhaps the “best marriages” are not the easy ones. Perhaps the best marriages are the ones which can only be explained by Christ’s love, enacted for His beloved. 

In my 15-year marriage, my husband is just so good to me. The man brings me coffee every morning—a persistently tender habit left over from when I was breastfeeding throughout the night. What can I do in the face of such persistent love? I can be persistently grateful and receive it. And when he discloses to me that on the day we start our family vacation, he’s actually going to be returning from a business trip, and he wonders if it “would it be too much trouble if you load up the kids and start the 1,000 mile drive to Colorado by yourself, and…hey, could you pick me up in Dallas?” I can drop the resentful response and smile with something like the love that Christ has for the Church.

Every marriage is called to heroic virtue. The opportunities are here. The grace is here—though living the grace of your marriage is going to look as different as your face is different from mine.

[1] https://priceonomics.com/whats-the-most-popular-time-of-year-to-get-married/ accessed June 10, 2022.

About the author:
Charity Hill lives in the Austin area with her husband and four children, but she really dwells with them at the intersections of theology, literature, and culture. She holds a master of arts from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, writes on children’s literature for Well-Read Mom, and coordinates a WWP parish program. Charity exercises “planned neglect” of the laundry to produce her children’s literature podcast Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. If you’re looking for her, check the van or behind the microphone.

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