As a parochial school teacher, I found great joy in planting seeds that I prayed would one day take root. From my perspective, every single, little piece of information that we covered was interesting and worth unraveling. This was especially true with the sacraments. I easily discovered that working some of the secular angles to my advantage seemed to bolster my lessons and Valentine's Day was no exception. Not only were we able to cover the history of St. Valentine, and have some fun, but I found that the entire celebratory nature of the day lent itself well to introducing the sacrament of marriage.
It always began on one of the very first days of February with a wall upon which I declared in huge, bold, red, individually cut-out letters, "Give Your Heart to Someone Special." That day would be the first of a few days over the next couple of weeks in which we would fill in cut-out hearts that had been imprinted with the words, "Someone special…" and the students were to fill in the remaining sentence based upon my example which read, "Someone special loves me for who I am." A simple statement, but a truth that our children need to believe.
Since seventh graders aren't always as "worldy-wise" as they try to make people think, the students would then take turns laughing as they attached their paper hearts, each now a completed sentence, to the huge bulletin board and then take a handful of heart shaped candies and head back to their desks. The conversations that ensued were always intriguing as we discussed the different things written on each of the hearts. This was one of those times where I would specifically ask the students not to put their names on their work but just be willing to complete the sentence honestly.
Remember, we're talking seventh grade so there would always be at least two kids who would write, "Someone special drives a Corvette," or "Someone special is a million-dollar lottery winner." But, for the most part, the kids cooperated in a tangible way. Once the conversations were in progress, an unintentional effect was that the kids who were "smart-alecky" in their answers soon regretted their decisions. It quickly became apparent to everyone in class that these were the kinds of discussions each student enjoyed.
Nonetheless, we did this two or three more times leading up to Valentine's Day while we continued on with our other daily lessons. By the time Valentine's Day rolled around, our board was jam packed and we'd easily had three excellent class discussions about that "someone special." When Valentine's Day arrived, the kids walked into a room where a second bold sentence now followed the first. In its entirety, the board now read, "Give Your Heart to Someone Special. Give Your Heart to God."
I would then challenge the kids to find one statement written that didn't apply to God. Did He respect you? Yes. Did He honor you? Yes. Did He help you during difficult times? Yes. Does He have a great sense of humor? I believe He does! And wouldn't we all laugh when we got to heaven and saw Him in a Corvette just to greet us and show us His great sense of humor…?
Introducing the sacrament of marriage the next day was always a piece of cake. The lesson easily lent itself to understanding our immense worth as children of God and that a marriage made in the eyes of God would include all these traits: we would be honored, respected, encouraged; we would find support during difficult times and have someone with whom to laugh and so on. And in marriage we would give these things as well. We would be making a commitment in front of God and receiving His Spirit upon a union that was meant to last a lifetime. To the degree possible with seventh grade, we plumbed the depths of what such a lifelong commitment would entail and why it is a sacrament of the Church.
Let me add that, although introducing the sacrament of marriage was a piece of cake, working in, around, and through the topic was by no means a cake walk. As a child of divorce, I was always able to empathize with the kids in the classroom who have experienced, first hand, a divorce. Unfortunately, there is no real way to truly talk about the sacrament of marriage without recognizing the reality of divorce. But are we to not uphold the sacredness of one of the seven sacraments of the Church because so many people, who are themselves divorced, or affected by it, will be offended or hurt or saddened? Is this part of the problem of increasing divorce rates, even among Catholics who consider marriage a holy sacrament? Is it taboo to discuss commitment in a marriage? I hope not.
For Catholics, a sacrament is a visible sign of God's presence through the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptismal waters are efficacious in washing away sin as they are instruments of God's presence. When we receive the Eucharist, we are experiencing a sacrament in which the real presence of God is ours. Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament bringing the healing touch of God, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, upon someone. God's grace abounds in the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Marriage, as one of these sacraments, is the public statement that God is joining two people so that they may love one another just as Christ loves His Church. And just how much does Christ love His Church? Enough to die for it. There is no simpler way to express Jesus' great love, both in feeling and in commitment, than to say He died for each and every one of us.
So we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. What does this exemplify for us as we enter into such a holy sacrament? What does this say of the sacrament itself? It is only in knowing the truths of these answers that we are able to live out our vows and, subsequently, it becomes incumbent upon us to teach these same truths to our children.
Marriage is a sacrament, an expression of love between two people and in the presence of God, because it is foundational in nature. As a society, we prosper when the family is intact. As individuals, we thrive when we are in Christ-like union with another human being. This, of course, precludes those who are called to priestly vocations but nonetheless, even the sacrament of holy orders is one of lifelong commitment made before God. Neither is meant to be taken lightly and both require, at times, the sort of commitment that Christ has toward us, the one in which He gave His life. We know that, even then, Christ asked if the cup could pass, but it could not and He accepted what He had to do for us, the Church, His beloved bride. And we must look at this example to understand what our commitment must be in our own marriages. Surely we have all had times where we would like the cup to pass, but in a commitment made before God, we, too, will be required to drink from the cup.
For many years my husband and I lived what I call the "divide and conquer" strategy. It was, actually, a very full and fun time in our life that went something like this: our oldest child had a basketball game at 1 p.m. on Saturday, while the middle son had to be at a birthday party across town at 1:30 p.m. and, since it made no sense to drive and come back and drive out again, someone (mom or dad) had to stay for the duration of the party. Meanwhile, the youngest son had a project that needed some finishing touches. And, of course, I had seventy-five English essays to grade. So, the divide and conquer strategy determined that I would take the middle son to the party and grade papers in a corner booth of the pizza/arcade place while my husband would take the oldest to his game (the coach required arrival one hour before game-time), come back and work on the youngest's project and then they would both go to the game, probably only missing the first quarter. We'd all meet back home late afternoon and grill a few steaks and throw together a salad and call it a blessed day.
Sadly, those years quickly slipped away; but I hold the memories of "divide and conquer" quite dear to my heart as I embrace the next phase of our married life together and put my trust in the Holy Spirit's presence, ours as a result of the marriage sacrament. Now, twenty-two years into our marriage, our weekends are rarely spent apart. Acknowledging that our children are truly only "ours" for what is tantamount to a few fleeting years, but that our marriage is for a lifetime, we've renewed our vows in the confines of our hearts and, for the most part, let things go that we can't accomplish as one. Together, we make a daily, conscious commitment to our marital vows. With God's hand, we continue to trust that our marriage can survive the turbulence and temptations of life, as together we keep our eyes on Christ and continually raise the union to Him Who sanctified it.
I invite you to share with me, and with one another, the ways in which you honor the holy sacrament of your marriage.